One of the challenges inherent in teaching courses on corruption and anti-corruption is defining precisely what the term means. And, this week saw me set out on my annual struggle to do exactly that. It’s one of the more tricky sessions on my final year undergraduate option on ‘political corruption’. In many ways, it’s easiest to follow the same logic as that of American Supreme Court Judge, Justice Potter Stewart; in 1964, when presiding over the case of Jacobellis v Ohio, he once noted about pornography that he couldn’t come up with a watertight definition of it, but he certainly knew what it was when he saw it.
That’s a fair starting point for analysing corruption, too; for the most part bribes, nepotism, fraud and such like are recognisable when you see them. But, as you dig deeper it soon becomes clear that conducting any sort of research on a phenomenon you’re defining in “I know it when I see it” terms is very difficult indeed. Corruption analysts have subsequently spent a fair amount of time thinking about what precisely it is that they are unpacking (see here and here for a couple of attempts to do that).