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Since 2003, when the OECD promoted a stricter definition of corruption, bribes, kickbacks and embezzlement are supplemented by practices such as illicit gifts, favours, nepotism, and informal promises (OECD, 2003a; 2003b; Lennerfors, 2008; Brown and Cloke, 2011; Breit, 2011).As the OECD puts it: ‘although, at a conceptual level, corruption is easy to define […] corruption is a multi-layered phenomenon that may not always lend itself to neat definitions’ (2003a: 117).
While we will not attempt to summarize these discussions here, in economic terms, for instance, corruption is usually depicted as opportunistic behaviour based on rational choice and agency theory, and thus on the individual’s motivations for engaging in corrupt behaviour (Rose-Ackerman and Søreide, 2011).
In political science, by comparison, corruption has often been regarded as the result of dysfunctional overlaps between the private and public sector; the task is to decipher the organizational and institutional structures that give rise to corrupt behaviour (Heidenheimer et al., 1989; Johnston, 2005; Lambsdorff, 2007).
Overall, the literature on corruption highlights the various ways in which the abuse of power is performed: for instance, the government official accepting a bribe or a kickback for his services (Rodriguez et al., 2005), or less overt exchanges such as gifts, favours, promises, symbolically sealed by surreptitious handshakes, and often embedded in, or consolidating, social networks (Bourdieu, 1977; Noonan, 1984; Granovetter, 2007).
Stretching the notion of abuse of power even further, corruption may also involve practices such as violence, intimidation, harassment or bullying (Hearn and Parkin, 2001), thus highlighting the ‘dark side’ of organizational behaviour more broadly (Griffin and O’Leary, 2004).
This logic is rooted in a belief that critique should engage in dialogue and debate with the dominant theories of corruption, creating alternatives to them, rather than simply dismissing them out of hand.
This, we hope, will lead to more multifaceted and nuanced discussions and understandings – both for research and practice.Admittedly, the central theme of this special issue – ‘a turn to theory’ – might seem naïve: What is critique, or research for that matter, without theory? First, corruption is an emotionally and ideologically vested concept, and corruption research is often characterized and/or motivated by normative descriptions and analyses of corruption.Such research tends to empirically single out corrupt practices as opposed to legitimate or non-corrupt but still illegal practices.By theory-based critique, we mean efforts to go beyond particular normative standpoints regarding acceptable behaviour, as well as arguments rooted in a legal-positivist stance which restricts corruption to what can be defined in the courtrooms.Rather, we are searching for novel or forgotten theories, or combinations of these, that can further understanding of corruption.This research, which often stems from or is inspired by anthropological methods, has contributed with ‘thick descriptions’ of, for instance, how societies are prismatic (Riggs, 1964), how the public-private dimension does not make sense in all societies (Gupta, 1995), how the evil of corruption is problematized (Ledeneva, 1998), and how the anti-corruption industry is becoming an autopoietic system (Sampson, 2010).We want to explore the possibility for moving such corruption critique forward by focusing explicitly on the role of theory.The increased attention to corruption and anti-corruption has also led to a ‘corruption boom’ (Torsello, 2013: 313) in which corruption has been approached and theorized in various ways.Corruption is discussed in fields as diverse as economics, political science, anthropology, sociology, history, organization studies, international business, business ethics, psychology, and philosophy.a gradual institutionalization of misbehaviour which contributes to legitimizing behaviour and socializing others into it in such a way that it gradually becomes normalized, what may be called a ‘culture of corruption’ (Ashforth and Anand, 2003).Such a process perspective has been invoked to explain why persons not considered to be corrupt or criminal might decide to engage in corrupt activities or networks (Fleming and Zyglidopolous, 2009; Martin et al., 2009) and to understand the kinds of ethical reflections (or lack of these) that lie behind corrupt activities (Trevino et al., 2006).