Political sciences

The frontiers of crime

Nobody believes in “zero corruption”. But is corruption perceived everywhere in the same way? Can it be prevented and combated in all fields using the same methods? The social science researchers from seven countries working on the Crime and Culture (1) project are trying to shed light on the defining characteristics of this pernicious phenomenon. Their aim is to propose preventive policies designed for the specific socio-cultural context in which the corruption occurs.


Everything has its price. In some cases corruption feeds off anything and anybody in its path: all levels of the political hierarchy, the cogwheels of the administration, the economic and social actors, small groups and individuals. The injustice, inequality, waste and frustration it engenders can act as a genuine brake on the development of society and its democratic management.

Nobody would deny the difficulties the two new EU Member States (Bulgaria and Romania) face in this respect, even if the other Member States are all affected by corruption to some degree. The collapse of the particularly despotic communist regimes in these countries triggered a sudden switch to a market economy coupled with the total reconstruction of the political system and state apparatus. This upheaval left the field wide open for corruption to enter on all fronts – in the public arena as well as in individual lives. Bulgaria and Romania are among the seven countries – alongside Germany, the United Kingdom, Greece, Croatia and Turkey – that are the subject of a comparative study by the partners in the Crime and Culture project, launched in January 2006.

"When we ask the persons interviewed why they think corruption is so widespread in our country, most of them point first and foremost to the various economic causes, in particular the speed with which the powerful accumulated wealth in comparison to the low wages of civil servants,” explain the Bulgarian researchers. “Other factors that facilitate corruption are loopholes in the legislation, an ineffective judicial system, lack of administrative control and, finally, the moral crisis which is distinctive of the transitional period.”

Ill-equipped experts

Such abuses that are contrary to the fundamental democratic principles of the European Union are a real obstacle to the successful integration of the Accession or Candidate countries. This is why, beginning in the late 1990s, the Union mobilised support for the drawing up of institutional, administrative, judicial and police reforms aimed at all areas of the public sector, the banking system and the business world. “In general, the efforts to prevent corruption deployed at EU level and for the Member States concerned consist of administrative and institutional measures designed by experts from the top down,” points out sociologist Dirk Tänzler of Constance University (DE), coordinator of Crime and Culture. But neither the assumptions behind their recommendations nor the way they are implemented take into account the socio-cultural contexts in which everyday practices of corruption are rooted. “It is precisely in that respect that we see the structural cause of the very mixed results of these policies,” continues Dirk Tänzler. “They do not strike at the foundations in which corrupt behaviour flourishes and the social legitimacy it can enjoy, one based on an essentially cultural perception and reasoning.”

The morality of “solidarity”

The experts who propose preventive and coercive methods to combat this white-collar crime base their thinking on the criteria of a Eurocentrist ethic constructed in the historical and cultural context of the West. However, this “rationalist business morality” is not universal and many societies respect other logics than that of the market economy in which corruption is (in principle) incompatible with the “rules of play”. In many civilisations, bribes, preferential treatment, favouritism, and nepotism – and even the violent practices of mafia racketeers or of the vendetta – respect the underground roots of reciprocities that translate values of solidarity, protection, hierarchical legitimacy and symbols of success.

The teams working on the Crime and Culture project are analysing, each in their respective country, the underlying realities of this form of socio-economic deviance. “Our research is not aimed at collecting data on a defined phenomenon but rather at giving definitions of the phenomenon we are studying,” explains the project coordinator. “The everyday theories of corruption are rooted in social schemas of perception that the players apply unconsciously.” On the basis of administrative and official documents supplemented with interviews, the researchers studied this perception with reference to six target groups: the political world, the judicial sphere, the police, the media (“recognised as a powerful instrument in combating corruption”), civil society and economic forces. On each occasion, their approach is supported by two “national” case studies in which politicians were involved or suspected of being involved.

A certain culture

So how are we to understand the notion of Culture as included in the project’s title? “Culture is not a substance or a specific aspect, but rather the form of a social reality,” writes Dirk Tänzler in his presentation. Culture must be understood in terms of what is broadly accepted by society and is thus defined as “the world in which the actors live” and “the stock of knowledge that people use to build their reality.” It is thus not only the facts that interest the teams in the accounts submitted but also the way in which the players relate them, in other words the form of their accounts and their arguments.

As could have been expected, attitudes to corruption vary widely. But this variation is more pronounced between different countries than between the social groups studied. In the two rule-of-law states, Germany and the United Kingdom, for example, one finds a general rejection of corruption but with significant nuances. The Germans regard their country as “clean” and “everyday” corruption as negligible. They believe their public administrations and institutions work honestly. They nevertheless feel concerned that political corruption may occur whereas the “aberrations” of the economic world are not seen as a destabilising factor. The Germans in fact believe that the benefits and wealth that may be generated by certain “sharp practices” could be potential driving forces of economic life. The British, on the other hand, take a very negative view of any links between the world of politics and economic life. They have great confidence in the media – important players able to mobilise public opinion – in combating any misconduct, as well as in NGOs by virtue of their ability to increase public awareness, and also in their Members of Parliament. The active movements to combat corruption that have developed in the UK over the past decade are often regarded as effective, even if the most sceptical believe any changes to be superficial and that the reality remains largely “business as usual”.

The upheavals of the transition

In the new EU Member States, the situation remains very different. Echoing the Bulgarian researchers, the Romanian teams link corruption to the process of transition. “A market economy that for many years was not fully functional, having a dual structure, half state-owned and half private, created the conditions for corrupt behaviour. The excessive involvement of the state, whether in managing finances and granting advantages for state companies, or the discriminatory and bureaucratic manner of allocating subsidies in agriculture, went hand in hand with an economic environment characterised by no real competition or transparency. The negative effects of this transformation were amplified by the growing importance of the underground economy and informal work, a dual phenomenon providing fertile ground for illegal practices.” Romanian corruption is also due to the slow and insufficiently transparent process of privatisation. The sale of state assets created ready opportunities for corruption. The bankruptcy of certain major public companies as well as the creation of new companies (in the banking sector in particular) were a “source of major profits realised by high level political or private sector leaders”.

The Romanians are, furthermore, perfectly aware of the way in which corruption undermines democracy, places their country outside the global economy and affects business prospects, aggravates poverty and damages its image internationally. Corruption in Romania is seen by all the groups analysed as a generalised phenomenon that runs through all areas of society, increasing by virtue of a snowball effect, from the highest level of state to small individual transactions and to an underground economy that is often vital to survival. “The fight against corruption seems to be desired by everyone – without anyone seeing any solution to the problem in the short term.”

Christine Rugemer

  1. Crime and Culture (Crime as a Cultural Problem. The Relevance of Perceptions of Corruption to Crime Prevention).

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Corruption 2007

The state of corruption around the world (32 countries) has just been the subject of the latest Global Corruption Report published by Transparency International. Its title may cause some confusion as the analysis is essentially concerned with corruption in judicial systems that deny some citizens access to justice or to a fair trial – or indeed to any trial at all. The tools of corruption used are principally political interference in the judicial system or the practice of bribes. In regard to interference, there is the erosion of international legal standards, the transfer of judges or demands for their resignation. Paying for access to justice is “current” practice: one in 10 households had to pay legal bills in some 25 countries and more than three in 10 in 20 others. Akere Muna, Vice-President of TI and President of the Pan-African Lawyers Union, sums up the situation very clearly: “If justice is based on money and power, the poor do not get a look in.

The report ends with a series of recommendations to reinforce the independence of the justice system (appointments, working conditions, transparency, etc.). Transparency International is also active in the field, monitoring trials and offering free legal advice to the victims of corruption.


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