As regular readers of this blog are probably aware, I try to avoid extended discussions about the definition of corruption (see here, here, and here). Of course it’s important to have a sense of what one is talking about, if only to avoid misunderstandings, but I tend to find extended definitional debates arid and unproductive. (As I’ve remarked before, when academics run out of ideas, they start arguing about definitions.) In my view, there isn’t a single “true” or “correct” definition of corruption—only definitions that are more or less useful, depending on the context. I’m generally perfectly happy with the fairly standard “abuse of entrusted power for private gain” definition. There’s some inherent vagueness (and perhaps some normative/legal judgment) built into concepts like “abuse” and “private gain,” but so what? There are lots of other open-textured concepts that researchers are able to study even though their boundaries are not completely sharp and clear (and where we must sometimes make do with arbitrary cut-off points).
Still, I do think one of the hazards of a term like “corruption” is the occasional tendency to define it so capaciously that it loses any specific meaning. There is an associated tendency to confuse or conflate the somewhat distinct meanings that “corruption” can have in different contexts (for example, legal versus non-legal contexts). So I think, despite my usual aversion to definitional squabbling, it’s occasionally useful to push back against the attempt to define corruption so broadly as to swallow up every way that an institution or organization can go wrong.
I came across an illustration of this in an opinion piece in last week’s Boston Globe (based on an associated post on the MIT Sloan Management Review blog) by George Mason Professor Gregory Unruh. Professor Unruh frames his piece using the recent arrests of various FIFA officials, but suggests that the focus on the personal moral failures of these individuals “muddles executives’ understanding of what corruption is and how it can be managed.” Rather than defining corruption in terms of the “dishonest abuse of power or moral depravity,” Professor Unruh advocates what he calls “the engineer’s definition”:
Any organized, interdependent system in which part of the system is not performing duties as originally intended to, or performing them in an improper way, to the detriment of the system’s original purpose.
This definition, Professor Unruh claims, makes “[i]dentifying corruption in … social systems [like businesses] straightforward.” I don’t think it does. Or if it does, it does so only by defining corruption so expansively as to make the concept essentially useless. Continue reading