A Sociological Approach to Understanding Corruption
Corruption is a burning issue in Russia that won’t go away. What is the general attitude to corruption in Russia and other countries, and why does it draw so much public attention? How should we study this phenomenon? Lili Di Puppo, Associate Professor at the HSE Faculty of Sociology, author of the course ‘The Sociology of Corruption’ talked to the HSE news service, to help shed some light on the matter.
― Tell us about your course ‘Sociology of Corruption’. What is your intention in teaching it?
― The course aims to introduce students to key concepts and approaches to study the phenomenon of corruption. The course isn’t meant to provide students with a ‘fixed’ understanding of corruption. On the contrary, they are encouraged to reflect on the ambiguities involved in attempts to define the phenomenon as well as problems related to the application of the label ‘corruption’, for example manifestations of Orientalism and Euro-centrism in the study of corruption. Students are also encouraged to reflect critically on the growing field of anti-corruption and to study how certain scholarly approaches can be linked to this emerging policy field.
― Is it important to study corruption in a particular context? Why is it sometimes difficult to distinguish the difference between a gift and a bribe?
― Certain approaches to corruption which you might find more in the economic literature have sought to develop a universal definition of the phenomenon that would allow us to study and measure it outside a particular cultural or social context. But another strand in the literature on corruption which is more often associated with an anthropological approach has shown that we cannot disregard a specific cultural context and value system when studying corruption and that we should see corruption not as an isolated act, but within a web of social relations. The difficulty to distinguish between gift and bribe in certain societies, for example the transition societies of Russia or China where practices such as ‘blat’ and ‘guanxi’ display a certain ambiguity, illustrates how a particular social and cultural context does shape our understanding of corruption. It is also important to note in relation to informal practices that a legalistic understanding of corruption presents certain limits as what is illegal’ can be understood as ‘moral behaviour’ in a particular context.
― Is there anything specific about Russian corruption? Why does this problem draw so much attention in our country?
― Corruption in Russia can be regarded from two different perspectives. Corruption is at the same time increasingly a transnational phenomenon that defies boundaries as noted, for example, by the American scholar Janine Wedel in her study of transnational networks of influence or ‘shadow elites’. Under this perspective, corruption in Russia shares certain common traits with manifestations of corruption in Western societies such as the United States. However, transition societies such as Russia also present certain conditions that can lead to particular manifestations of corruption. For example, the legal framework can present certain ambiguities that leave room for interpretation and corrupt acts. Furthermore, Russia in the 1990s experienced a rapid accumulation of wealth in the hands of a small group of people which took place amid a weak regulatory framework. As a result, corruption narratives have taken on a particular importance in the population as a means to express frustration with rapidly rising inequalities. However, the conjunction between elite corruption and social frustration is certainly not specific to the Russian context as witnessed in revolutions in the Middle East and Ukraine and also the Occupy movement in the United States.
― How do you gather information for your research? Do you analyze law suits, carry out polls or something else?
― My research, in particular the field research that I have conducted in Georgia for my PhD thesis, is rather focused on anti-corruption activities than on corruption as such. My interest is more to study narratives on corruption, through an ethnographic approach based on interviews and the analysis of documents and material on the internet, than in trying to gather ‘facts’ on corruption. For example, I am interested in the way narratives on corruption are used strategically and how they can be seen as participating in the constitution of the state as studied by the anthropologist Akhil Gupta.
― What are your impressions from working at the HSE? How did it start?
― I became interested in HSE through contact with a colleague at the Faculty of Sociology who is working on a project on police corruption, Prof. Leonid Kosals. I spent a year as a postdoc and have decided to apply for a position as assistant professor as I am convinced that the HSE would provide an ideal environment for me to pursue my diverse research interests and further my academic career. In particular, I was motivated by what I see as a very good fit between HSE's long-term objectives and my own personal research plans which involve locating the study of Russia within a broader Eurasian space and connecting it to general trends that can be observed in other parts of the world. My next ethnographic field research on religion in Russia, in particular Islam, and my ongoing research on corruption and informality aim to do exactly that. In addition, I very much appreciate the collegial atmosphere at the Faculty of Sociology where I can develop joint projects with colleagues as well as benefit from our mutual reviews and discussions on our respective works. Lastly, I have the opportunity to deepen my knowledge of corruption and ethnography in my teaching work and through interaction with students.
Solovova Ekaterina, specially for the HSE news service