Defining what you are analysing is key to conducting rigorous social science.

Yet defining corruption can often be much more complicated than it may at first appear.

On the one hand, much of the popular discourse in this area assumes everyone simply knows what corruption is. In other words, sets of behaviours are assumed to be so obviously corrupt that unpacking why that is hardly seems necessary. Some people define more or less everything their political opponents do as corrupt. They illustrate that (at times) corruption is simply a rhetorical tool to try and beat your enemies with.

On the other hand, even the most cursory of glances at the rhetoric around what constitutes corruption will show that there are grey areas. Where politicians (and others) stand often seems to affect what they understand corruption to be. Furthermore, in the world of academia, there’s a veritable cottage industry where people try to define corruption’s key constituent parts as well as where exactly corruption begins and ends.

This module begins by introducing the most prominent definitions in contemporary use.

We illustrate that different academic disciplines start their search for definitions in different places. For some, it’s about processes, for others, it’s about context and culture. For another group, it’s much more about outcomes. You’ll explore all these positions.

Once we’ve outlined the main approaches, we’ll use a wide array of case studies to make sense of what that means in the real world. Cases come from all round the world and lots of different contexts; we look at political cases, business cases, as well as examples from throughout history.

You’ll end the module with an appreciation of the academic debates on what corruption is, as well as knowledge on how that can and does influence real-world understandings of potentially corrupt practice.

Module Lead: Professor Dan Hough

What you’ll learn

  • You’ll learn about the major approaches to understanding corruption. You’ll critically evaluate each of the main definitions, exploring and unpacking the practical implications for adopting each definition in real-world contexts.
  • You’ll learn about a range of real-world cases that highlight some of the challenges inherent in defining corrupt practice.
  • You’ll learn how different disciplines approach the issue of understanding corruption and why. Why do economics and anthropologists, for example, begin (and often end) in such very different places? You’ll develop a much deeper understanding of the definitional disputes across disciplines.

By the end of the module, you’ll be able to:

  • demonstrate an understanding of the core assumptions inherent in debates centring on what corruption is
  • apply this knowledge to real-world cases of corrupt practice, illustrating where corruption begins, ends and may be understood as contested
  • understand why different disciplines define corruption in (at times) very different ways.

Types of assessment may include:

  • a written review (30%) – you’ll review key academic articles on the definition of corruption
  • a one-page poster (20%) – you’ll outline how international organisations understand corruption
  • a 10-minute video presentation (50%) – you’ll choose a corruption case study and provide an evaluation of arguments for and against the case being understood as corrupt.