Conceptualizing Bank Robbery: A Pedantic Parable for Corruption Scholars

Some years ago, an ambitious and idealistic young social scientist decided that she would put her newly-acquired research skills to good use by trying to better understand and combat some important social problem. She settled on bank robbery. Why? Well, partly her personal interest, partly her background, and partly coincidence: She had a friend whose hometown had been hit by a rash of bank robberies, and she had been reading newspaper articles about a high-profile bank robbery, and it just seemed like a good thing to work on.

She went to see a senior scholar in the field, a former editor of the Journal of Bank Robbery and chair of the International Association of Bank Robbery Studies. They had the following exchange:

  • Young Scholar: So I’m interested in studying bank robbery, and I’m anxious to get going on my research. I’m just a social scientist, not a police officer or security systems engineer or anything like that, but I thought that maybe I could put my skills to good use in helping to understand the factors that increase the risk of bank robberies, and what measures are most effective in preventing them.
  • Senior Scholar: Wait, wait, hold on a moment. How are you conceptualizing “bank robbery”?
  • Excuse me?
  • Before you can study a problem, you have to define it properly, precisely, and thoroughly.
  • Oh, uh, sorry… I don’t know, I guess I had in mind, you know, like when people use force, violence, or the threat of violence to steal money from a bank?
  • OK, that’s a good start, but that way of conceptualizing bank robbery has a lot of problems.
  • Such as?
  • Well, for starters, even by using the word “robbery” you’re making an implicit moral assumption that the transaction in question is wrongful. But in many societies threatening violence in order to extract money from a financial institution is a culturally acceptable form of wealth distribution.
  • Really? Where? According to whom?
  • Mostly according to suspected bank robbers. Also, my intuition. But that’s not really the main point. The main point is that you need to conceptualize bank robbery as something that sometimes is functional for the parties engaging in it, and also that it emerges from a particular social context and network of power relations.
  • Um, OK… I think I understand, and actually I was planning to include in my research agenda questions about the motives and effects of bank robbery, as well as the context in which it emerges. But I’m not sure I understand why that’s part of the preliminary definition of the scope of the topic.
  • It’s not, really, but I like to make those points whenever I can. Anyway, where were we? Ah, yes, conceptualization. Before you can proceed, you need to make your concept of bank robbery more nuanced. After all, coming to me and saying you want to study “bank robbery,” as if it were a single phenomenon, betrays a certain naïveté, because after all there are many different kinds of bank robbery. There are big banks and small banks, for-profit banks and credit unions, robbery with a gun, robbery with a knife, robbery with the cooperation of an inside man, and so forth. Before you do anything else, you need to make a comprehensive list of all the different types of bank robbery.
  • For what purpose?
  • For the purpose of not falling into the trap of homogenizing a variegated concept like bank robbery.
  • OK, I think I get it. I need to focus my research by first figuring out what kind of bank robbery I want to study?
  • Yes, but you can’t do that until you’ve fully worked out all the various types of bank robbery and appropriately classified them. But that’s not really enough, because I actually think that you’re making a mistake in conceptualizing your topic as “bank robbery.” After all, we can’t understand “bank robbery” without understanding its opposite – the condition of the absence of bank robbery, which we can call “bank security.”
  • But isn’t that just flipping the labels around without changing what it is I want to study?
  • Not really, because “bank security” is actually a much broader concept than merely the absence of bank robbery. Bank robbery is just one manifestation of the absence of bank security.
  • Well, wait a second: I get that we can think about bank robbery as a failure of bank security, but why do I need to shift my topic to bank security generally? I just wanted to focus on bank robbery, which of course is one possible failure of bank security. But I’m not defining bank robbery solely as a failure of bank security, am I? If I shift to focus on bank security (or its absence), rather than bank robbery, wouldn’t that substantially expand the focus of my study?
  • Yes it would, but that’s a good thing. In fact, your initial definition of bank robbery was far too narrow, in that you only considered theft of money through force or threat of violence. What about bank employees who embezzle money from the bank? We should also think of them as engaging in bank robbery. Same with customers who defraud the bank.
  • Really? I’d thought that embezzlement and fraud, though of course really bad, were distinct crimes. Isn’t that the case?
  • You only think that because you’re using a narrow legalistic definition of “robbery.” But we should focus on the nature of the harm to the bank and to society, and these harms are just as great if not greater in cases of fraud and embezzlement. Also, your narrow definition of “bank robbery” is biased against certain demographic groups. In focusing only on robberies that use force or violence, you are suggesting that bank robbery is disproportionately committed by people from lower-income, less privileged backgrounds. But if you use a broader definition of bank robbery that includes fraud and embezzlement, we will see that people from privileged classes also engage in widespread bank robbery.
  • Well, I won’t dispute the point that fraud and embezzlement may be even bigger social problems than what we might call “conventional” bank robbery. But they still feel like they’re really different phenomena with different causes and effects. I’m not sure it really helps to lump them all together into the category of “bank robbery.”
  • You’re right about that – but remember what I just told you about how you need to simultaneously define “bank robbery” broadly as “absence of bank security,” but then disaggregate it into its component parts so that you thoroughly understand the concept.
  • OK, so, if I want to study bank robbery, the first thing I need to do is to see bank robbery as a manifestation of a larger concept, and then chop it up into smaller concepts? For example, I need to think of a range of different crimes – robbery (according to the law), fraud, and embezzlement – all as different forms of “robbery” (or “absence of bank security”) in a more general sense?
  • Yes, that’s a start. But you also may be making a mistake by focusing only on illegal bank robbery. What about legal bank robbery?
  • Legal bank robbery?
  • Certainly. There are all sorts of ways that bank employees and bank customers can make decisions that are currently legal, and in some cases not even seen as unethical, but that can adversely affect the financial health of the bank, and of society, in ways that are maybe even worse, or at least more pervasive in our society, than the crimes we were just discussing. It’s important to recognize and talk about this sort of legal bank robbery, not just illegal bank robbery.
  • Well, hold on. Now anything that adversely affects the bank’s financial position counts as bank robbery?
  • No, no, not anything. The conduct has to be improper.
  • Improper according to whom? And I thought I wasn’t supposed to be moralistic? Isn’t that what you told me a moment ago?
  • You misunderstood. You can define legal bank robbery as something that’s improper, but still recognize that it can be highly functional within a given cultural context.
  • Um, OK. I’m trying to follow you, but I feel like I’m losing my sense of how I’m supposed to proceed with my research. I was hoping to study bank robbery, which seemed like a big and important problem, and I thought I understood what it was. But now I feel like I don’t really understand at all. So I’m feeling a bit paralyzed.
  • Why so?
  • Well, you told me that I can’t really start doing serious research on the causes and consequences of bank robbery until I’ve properly conceptualized it.
  • That’s correct. Indeed, one of the reasons we’ve made so little progress in the fight against bank robbery is that we haven’t conceptualized it in the right way, rigorously defined it, and categorized all its different forms.
  • But that conceptual and definitional task seems so daunting, I’m worried that there’s no way I’ll be able to get past that stage and proceed to doing the research I’d meant to do. So, just thinking about my own career, how will I be able to produce enough publications for tenure?
  • No problem. You can publish your papers on the conceptualization and definition of bank robbery, and your papers laying out proposed typologies of bank robbery, and critiquing other definitions and typologies as failing to capture the essence and nuance of the phenomenon of bank robbery.
  • Really? I would have assumed that at this point, with so many people thinking about the conceptualization issues, there would be nothing original left to say. I would have guessed that new papers on conceptualization and definition would just be going around and around on the same issues and questions. Is it really possible to publish new articles that are just about debating the appropriate definition of bank robbery and/or developing new typologies of different forms of bank robbery? Can one make a career doing that?
  • Oh yes. Trust me.


2 thoughts on “Conceptualizing Bank Robbery: A Pedantic Parable for Corruption Scholars

  1. Congratulations for writing is superb anecdotal easy to read material. One just need to substitute “corruption” in the place of “bank robbery” to get a clear picture. By the way, I am not happy with the ending part. Do we really need to bog down into conceptual/academic details before fighting corruption? Somebody said somewhere forget defining corruption; it just smells. As one can easily discriminate between a nude art and pornography simply by looking at the picture, same goes with corruption. One can smell corruption simply looking at or reading the transaction.

  2. Excellent parody of scholarly conversations that still go on in the field of corruption. For me one of the most exacerbating ideas is that “common definitions of corruption do not take into account the nature of, and values associated with, corrupt behavior in non-western societies”. I’m yet to come across an example of corruption (taken as bribery or some other form) being somewhere considered appropriate behavior (although it might be tolerated to different degrees). Certainly, not all forms of corruption are illegal everywhere, but every single form can easily be spotted for its bridge of ethical expectations by regular members of society. I think there is a pervasive myth about some exotic people somewhere embracing corrupt behavior in their moral views. Beyond extreme borderline forms of corruption, most everyone in the world is clear in what is and what isn’t corruption when they see it.

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