The Level-of-Aggregation Question in Corruption Measurement

Recently I learned that CDA Collaborative (a nonprofit organization that works on a variety of development and conflict-resolution projects) has launched a new blog on corruption. Though it’s a new platform, they already have a few of interesting posts up, and it’s worth a look.

While I’m always happy to advertise new platforms in the anticorruption blogosphere, in this post I mostly want to focus on the first entry in the CDA’s new blog, a post by Professor Michael Johnston entitled “Breaking Out of the Methodological Cage.” It’s basically a critique of the anticorruption research literature’s alleged (over-)reliance on quantitative methods, in particular cross-national regression analyses using country-level corruption indices (such at the Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI) or Worldwide Governance Indicators (WGI) graft index). There are some things in Professor Johnston’s post that I agree with, and much that I disagree with. I want to focus on one issue in particular: the question of the right unit of analysis, or level of aggregation, to use when attempting to measure corruption.

Professor Johnston has two related complaints (or maybe two variants on the same underlying complaint) regarding these national-level perceived corruption measures. First, he complains these “[o]ne dimensional indices tell us … that corruption is the same thing everywhere, varying only in amount[.]”  In other words, corruption indices lump a whole bunch of disparate phenomena together under the same umbrella term “corruption,” ignoring the internal diversity of that category. Second, he contends that “relying … on country-level data is to assume that corruption is a national attribute, like GDP per capita” when in fact “corruption arises in highly specific processes, structural niches, and relationships.” Corruption, he explains, is not an attribute of countries, but of more specific contexts, involving “real people … in complex situations[.]”

Respectfully, I think that these points are either wrong or irrelevant, depending on how they are framed. Continue reading