Explaining Corruption in the Developed World: The Potential of Sociological Approaches


CSI is pleased to announce the publication of a new academic article in the Annual Review of Sociology: Explaining Corruption in the Developed World: The Potential of Sociological Approaches published online 23rd May 2016.

Corruption is often thought to be confined to the developing world, particularly in its ‘street-level’ form, where money passes from the hands of a member of the public to a public official. When we look at rates of bribery across the developed world, however, we see a great deal of variation – all of the countries shown in Figure 1 are “Highly Developed” according to the Human Development Index, yet the rates of experienced bribery range from 1% in Sweden to over 30% in Lithuania.

Figure 1: Experience of bribery across developed nations; countries presented are available in Global Corruption Barometer and are ranked as having the "Highest" level of development on the 2014 HDI. The results presented rely on data from the TI Global Corruption Barometer (pooled 2006 - 2013) provided by Transparency International

Figure 1: Experience of bribery across highly developed nations; results presented rely on data from the TI Global Corruption Barometer (pooled 2006 – 2013) provided by Transparency International

How is this variation explained? In fact the number of studies using victimization studies (i.e. asking people about their experience of being asked for a bribe) remains rather small in the academic literature. More often, studies have relied on perceptions and expert indices (e.g. CPI) to gauge how much corruption exists in a country. This research has demonstrated important regularities, such as the high rates of perceived corruption in former socialist societies, and lower rates associated with GDP, Protestantism, democracy, education, and freedom of the press.

However, the existing evidence base has several weaknesses and we argue for the following:

  • A more disaggregated approach to corruption, distinguishing, for example, between extortion by public officials in dealings with members of the public, extortion in contracted-out functions, bribery by smaller enterprises and by multinationals etc.
  • More effort in thinking about and testing mechanisms – there needs to be a clearer understanding of exactly what it is about high GDP, or a long history of democracy, or a high proportion of Protestants in the population, that might curb corruption (or particular types of corruption). We should focus more on the specificity of the correlation than on its size.
  • Sociological contributions can also play a major methodological and substantive role
    • Methodologically, there needs to be much more attention to issues such as data quality, validity, and equivalence of meaning.
    • Substantive theories advancing ideas about power differentials, particularistic loyalties, and collective properties such as culture or trust might be helpful.

Download the paper here. CSI also has a working paper on The Incidence of Bribery in Europe.