Culture and Corruption

10 reasons why it is the wrong topic and one idea how it could be made exciting

There is a rather size-able cloud of beliefs — in the public debate, in the media, in academic and policy discourse — that posits that corruption is so deeply ingrained in and/or accepted by society as a way of life that it is essentially impossible to tackle in a meaningful way. Perhaps the most widespread variant in the corruption literature is the claim that corruption as reciprocity, gift-giving or advancing one’s own peoples is part of the culture of many societies, particularly the ones that espouse a high degree of collectivist-orientation and respect for authority. Such a setting is believed to offer individuals a cultural template to talk down their own moral agency and self-servingly justify an act of corrupt behavior in specific situations. [1] And at the macro level it conveys a sense of inescapable customary practice, along the often heard lines that ”this is simply how things are done here”.

The political and practical fall-out from this rather deterministic line of reasoning is equally damaging. As a seemingly factual conjecture it conveys a paralyzing sense of nothing can be really done about the scourge of corruption, since — to borrow from Peter Drucker’s epic bon-mot — culture will eat anti-corruption for breakfast. And as a rhetorical weapon it conjures up relativistic notion of anti-corruption that helps multinationals justify corrupt behavior abroad as a necessary evil of cultural conformance or that is eagerly embraced by local power-brokers to brandish accountability and good governance as cultural imperialism.[2]

However, there are many empirical and logical reasons to doubt that this tenet of culturally determined or anchored “corruption” actually commands significant explanatory power. At closer inspection the relationship between culture and corruption seems to be less tight and less clear than often assumed. Here are ten reasons why this is so:

1. The big stew that almost always delivers to your taste

First, it is important to keep in mind that culture is not some definitive given, but a frequently constructed and heavily contested concept that was made out to be a major driver of or obstacle to many societal phenomena, often even both at the same time. Culture, for example was advanced as a main explanatory factor for the Asian growth miracle in the early 1990s only to be identified as one of the main culprits of the economic meltdown as experienced by the very same set of countries towards the end of that decade. As Fareed Zakaria noted rather presciently as early as 1994 in a commentary on Asian development: “Cultures being complex, one finds in them what one wants[3]. And even before the latest resurgence of interest in the concept a 1952 scan of the scientific literature found more than 160 different definitions of culture in use.[4] As a broad and rather open-ended repertoire of assumed beliefs, values and practices and with even its most foundational traits and dynamics still subject of unsettled academic disputes[5], the hull of culture lends itself not only to analytical selectivity but also as already mentioned to glib political instrumentalization. There will almost always be some stereotyped cultural traits that one can conveniently single out and superficially align with ones preconceived conjectures, irrespective of how unambiguous and widespread such traits actually are and irrespective of many other countervailing traits that a broader historical and cultural search in the same context might produce.

2. Even the bird’s eye view is not all too convincing

Against this backdrop of rich pickings for the independent variables and a likely confirmation bias one would expect that a close link between descriptors of some cultural traits and corruption should be quite easy to establish. Yet, even from this big picture vantage point of cross country macro-comparisons the regression efforts that do find a significant link often end up explaining only a small fraction of the dependent variable corruption.[6]

3. Distinguish the “is” from the “ought” and change becomes possible

When unpacking the concept of norms and culture from a social-psychological perspective the actual fragility of what appear to be deeply entrenched hard to change practices comes into focus. Studies of social movement mobilizations or regime transformations often identify stark discrepancies between descriptive (what is common practice) and injunctive (what is viewed as desirable). Such discrepancies can lead to situations of pluralistic ignorance where widespread, seemingly commonly approved practices are actually widely rejected and prone to sudden change once a disruptive dynamic upsets might be prone to sudden change by even very small events or disruptive forces that push what is actually a very fragile equilibrium beyond the tipping point. And it is plausible that this could also be the case for certain, seemingly deeply ingrained practices of corruption.[7]

4. A universal scourge…

Survey evidence points to a rather universalistic take on everyday corruption. Queried about the moral approval of some standard corruption situations, survey respondents in different countries did not offer markedly different views. These results also dovetail well with recent studies by social psychologists that find remarkable similarities in values and value orientation across different religions and cultures. What’s more, comparisons of expert vs. household surveys indicate a very significant correspondence between the views of international experts on corruption levels in different countries and the views of in-country residents.[8]

5. … and shared priority, rather than culturally relative construct

Survey evidence from a large set of countries around the world also confirms that people across different cultures and socioeconomic settings view corruption as one of the most pressing problems they face, often on par or ahead of issues such as insecurity, unemployment or global warming.[9] The recent wave of popular uprisings in the MENA region and some other countries echoes these sentiments. Disgruntlement with corruption and what is viewed as a deeply corrupt political and economic ruling elite was and continues to be one of the key drivers from Arab Spring to Indignados to Occupy Wall Street.[10]

6. Similar culture, different co-existing levels of corruption

Current counter-factuals cast some serious doubt on the notion of corruption as an integral and steadfast part of cultural practice. Hong Kong, for example is a city considered as relatively clean, when it comes to common forms of street-level corruption, in stark contrast to mainland China where corruption at this level is rife, although both share a very similar cultural background.

7. Persistent culture — non-persistent corruption

A culturally-determined persistence of corruption is further called into question by longitudinal historical analysis that charts the relatively swift development from pervasively corrupt to very clean for a country such as Sweden that today often viewed as a poster-child of both cultural rootedness and exemplary governance, or for the city state of Singapore that has undergone a deep transformation from corrupt port to financial center with low levels of street-level corruption.[11]

8. Different culture, similar corruption

Comparative historical accounts suggest that some core elements of our contemporary notion of corruption have already been present in pre-modern and early modern periods thus exhibiting a remarkable persistence across very different cultural settings and deep cultural and political transformations.[12]

9. Education eats culture?

Empirical evidence also suggests that other factors such as education may overshadow any possible effect of culture anyway. Research in Nepal, for example, finds a common rejection of grand corruption but some significant sub-national variations in how acceptable some other corrupt practices are across districts. This variation corresponds with levels of education. [13]

10. The line itself is universal, just that it is sometimes drawn differently

Finally, in-depth ethnographic research finds that many of the practices that on the surface may look like corruption and are accepted in some cultures, such as giving gifts to school teachers or village judges, follow carefully crafted social rules that make a clear distinction between legitimate and expected expressions of gratitude or responsibility on the one hand, and illegitimate excessive donations that seek to exert undue influence.[14]


All this amounts to a clear message: corruption is by no means inextricably and inevitably linked to and conditioned by culture. The empirical picture is pretty convincing, and even anecdotes that seem to describe a very culturally specific act of corruption often fall apart at closer inspection. So there is for example the practice of hiding cash bribes for doctors under the chocolates in a box of pralines that very much looks like a culturally-specific practice of corruption and is invoked by anthropologists as an example for the role of culture in corruption in the health sector in a Eastern European country.[15] But then it turns out that there is a near identical twin of this practice in a country and culture far away: ambitious parents in New York for example are believed to slip cash for the teacher into boxes of pralines, to help their offspring get favorable treatment.[16]

It is of course possible that some cultural traits such as collectivist-orientation or respect for authority might make it in some situations easier for individuals to overrule their moral inhibitions and self-servingly justify behaving corruptly in a particular transaction. Neither is it surprising when intricate social exchanges such as corrupt transactions that due to their illegal nature cannot be underpinned by formal frameworks for risk, trust and enforcement thus end up leaning on cultural resources and templates to help catalyze such efforts. And finally, it is also fairly straightforward that strategies against corruption need to be tailored to specific contexts and can also enlist cultural resources for tactical efficacy.

But these observations do not allow to jump to what are rather lazy conclusions of a causal or deterministic relationship. The evidence from very different fields and perspectives suggests very clearly: Corruption easily transcends cultural context. It is overwhelmingly recognized and ostracized across different countries and cultures. It is far from a culturally shaped or culturally given.

A more promising way to talk culture and corruption

What seems to be a much more interesting and fruitful treatment of the culture and corruption relationship, both from a research and policy perspective however, is a shift in attention from the big C of broad national, societal culture to the small-C issue of particular organisational cultures that characterize specific companies, or institutions or professional communities. Such a narrowing of focus is very much in line with the recent prominent proposal by an eminent sociologist to center cultural research around the concept of “cultural configurations” on the premise that such a construct is more desirable than working on large culture formations and that “it gets us away from the totalizing view of different groups of people, each having a single, all-embracing culture or subculture.”[17]

Cultures of excessive risk-taking, of greed, of special entitlements or of a condescending attitude towards official rules to name just a few may take hold and come to influence behaviors in organisations, professional communities or firms within particular sectors. Such a focus on small-c cultures is much less ambitious. But it is much more measurable and actionable and thus vastly more interesting in terms of practical relevance.

There is a growing body of empirical work that seeks to unearth and assess such shared beliefs, values and practices in particular organisational settings and to understand the drivers and incentive systems that underpin them. Refining and adapting this growing instrumentarium to identify and track how such organisational cultures relate to particular types of corrupt behaviors is essential and there is a vast and growing literature in organisational studies, social psychology and sociology to draw on.[18] Stepping up our analysis of how such organisational norms of corruption spread and how they can be re-designed or contained is urgent and gathering momentum.

With regard to banking cultures, for example, the incipient conversation on these issues has already begun to yield some very interesting and innovative proposals. Discussing related issues, William Dudley, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, for example has proposed a mechanism of deferred compensation that essentially creates a performance bond that serves as a first point of call for fine and settlement payments and thus could incentives senior managers to take a much more long-term perspective beyond their specific spell of employment with a specific institution.[19] And many other exploratory routes to rework organisational cultures are being actively pursued already, from the role of the recruitment processes to contribute to more organisational integrity, [20] to measuring and optimizing the impact of ethics training on organisational integrity[21], or to advancing the ethical norms and cultures of specific professional communities[22] to name just a few.

Such explorations into the small “c cultures of integrity or corruption seem to be much more worthwhile endeavors than a continuing unproductive focus on the sweeping big-C-culture and corruption relationship.


[1] For an overview of related studies see N. Mazar and P. Aggarwal (2011): “Running Head: Collectivism and Bribery”, in: Psychological Science, vol. 22. No. 7.

[2] For the long history on the former see P. Ala’ (2000): “The Legacy of Geographical Morality and Colonialism: A Historical Assessment of the Current Crusade Against Corruption”, in: Vanderbilt Journal of Transnational Law, vol. 33, no. 4.

[3] F. Zakaria (1994): “Culture is Destiny. A Conversation with Lee Kuan Yew”, in: Foreign Affairs, vol. 73, no. 6.

[4] A. Kroeber, C. Kluckhohn et al. (1952): Culture. A Critical Review of Concepts and Definitions, New York: Vintage Books.

[5] For a fascinating account of the contested and slippery nature of the concept in the field of sociology alone see O. Patterson (2014): “Making Sense of Culture”, in: Annual Review of Sociology, vol. 40.

[6] For a discussion of the related econometric evidence see J. Lambsdorff (2006):”Causes and Consequences of Corruption. What Do We Know from a Cross-Section of Countries?”, in S. Rose-Ackerman (ed.): International Handbook on the Economics of Corruption”, Northampton MA: Edward Elgar.

[7] D. Prentice and D. Miller (1996): “Pluralistic ignorance and the perpetuation of social norms by unwitting actors”, in: Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, vol. 28.

[8] For survey analysis and related vignettes see B. Rothstein and D. Torsello (2013): “Is Corruption Understood Differently in Different Cultures?”, Working Paper No. 2013:5, Quality of Government Institute, University of Gothenburg; for related insights from social psychology see N. Epley (2016): “Four Myths of Morality”, presentation at workshop Ethics by Design, New York University, June 3, 2016 (avialable at

[9] See for example Globescan poll for BBC in 23 countries reported in BBC News: “Unemployment is World’s Fastest-Rising Fear — Survey” 12.12.11. Even in a country like Afghanistan with serious security and stability issues concern about corruption tops poverty and violence issues in public opinion. See UNODC (2010): “Corruption in Afghanistan: Bribery as Reported by Victims”, Vienna: UNODC.

[10] S. Levey (2011): “Fighting Corruption After the Arab Spring”, in: Foreign Affairs, June 16, 2011.

[11] B. Rothstein, (2009): “Anti-Corruption: A Big Bang Theory’, Quality of Government“, Working Paper No. 2007:3.

[12] For an overview of related resoning see M. Farrales (2005): “What is Corruption?: A History of Corruption Studies and the Great Definitions Debate”; available at SSRN:;

[13] See R. Truex (2011): “Corruption, Attitudes, and Education: Survey Evidence from Nepal”, in: World Development, vol. 39, no. 7.

[14] See B. Rothstein and D. Torsello (2013): “Is Corruption Understood Differently in Different Cultures?”, Working Paper No. 2013:5, Quality of Government Institute, University of Gothenburg; and for a particularly interesting case study around corruption and salespeople M. Granovetter (2007): “The Social Construction of Corruption”, in: V. Nee and R. Swedberg (eds.): On Capitalism, Palo Alto: Stanford University Press.

[15] D. Torsello: “Blog: The Premium Chocolate Box, Or Why Culture Matters for Understanding Corruption”, post for Anti-Corruption Research Network, November 18, 2014.

[16] New York Times: “The Season of the ‘Wealfie’”, December 26, 2014.

[17] O. Patterson (2014): “Making Sense of Culture”, in: Annual Review of Sociology, vol. 40. From an economist’s perspective a similar argument to focus on organisational cultures as a more rewarding space of inquiry about culture and a learning lab to test and understand aspects of larger cultural phenomena see Guiso et al. (2015): Corporate Culture, Societal Culture and Institutions”. In: American Economic Review, vol. 105, no. 5, pp. 336–339.

[18] See for example A. Ashforth and B. Joshi (2004): “Business as usual: The acceptance and perpetuation of corruption in organizations” in: The Academy of Management Executive, vol. 18, no. 2; C. Moore (2009): “Psychological Processes in Organizational Corruption”, in: D. DeCremer (ed.): Psychological Perspectives on Ethical Behavior and Decision Making, Charlotte NC: Information Age Publishing.

[19] “Enhancing Financial Stability by Improving Culture in the Financial Services Industry,” Remarks at the Workshop on Reforming Culture and Behavior in the Financial Services Industry, Federal Reserve Bank of New York, New York City, October 20, 2014.

[20] D. Zinnbauer: Blog: “Are We Missing Something Important: The Role of Human Resource Management in Building the Integrity of Businesses and Organisations”, blog post for Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics, Harvard Law School, June 3, 2014.

[21] W. Laufer, D. Warren et al. (2014): “Is Formal Ethics Training Merely Cosmetic? A Study of Ethics Training and Ethical Organizational Culture”, in: Business Ethics Quarterly, vol. 24, no. 1.

[22] A. Alexandra and S. Miller (2010): Integrity Systems for Occupations, Farnham: Ashgate.