Definitions and Types of Corruption

By being able to define what something is then we can understand how to prevent it.  That is not the same as suggesting that you ignore corruption. It is the opposite. Blandly labelling something as corruption is meaningless. For example, we can not cure cancer unless we know what type of cancer it is.


Traditionally, intellectual argument on ethics in Ireland has qualified as assuming that corrupt behaviour is wrong. We know that. The challenge is to diagnose it so we can cure it.


My book, Political Corruption in Ireland, which will be published next year, will demonstrate example after example, of how we got it wrong over two hundred years because we reverted to such crude analysis.



“The challenge is to distinguish between systemic and individual corruption; petty and grand corruption; moral and legal corruption; and rumours and reality of corruption.”



A Glossary of Terms:






Systemic corruption
As opposed to exploiting occasional opportunities, endemic or systemic corruption is when corruption is an integrated and essential aspect of the economic, social and political system, when it is embedded in a wider situation that helps sustain it. Systemic corruption is not a special category of corrupt practice, but rather a situation in which the major institutions and processes of the state are routinely dominated and used by corrupt individuals and groups, and in which most people have no alternatives to dealing with corrupt officials. Examples might include contemporary Bangladesh, Nigeria, Kenya, Cameroon and many others. (Michael Johnston: Fighting Systemic Corruption: Social Foundations for Institutional Reform.)


Sporadic (individual) corruption
Sporadic corruption is the opposite of systemtic corruption. Sporadic corruption occurs irregularly and therefore it does not threaten the mechanisms of control nor the economy as such. It is not crippling, but it can seriously undermine morale and sap the economy of resources.


Political (Grand) corruption
Political corruption is any transaction between private and public sector actors through which collective goods are illegitimately converted into private-regarding payoffs. Political corruption is often used synonymously with “grand” or high level corruption, distinguished from bureaucratic or petty corruption because it involves political decision-makers. Political or grand corruption takes place at the high levels of the political system, when politicians and state agents entitled to make and enforce the laws in the name of the people, are using this authority to sustain their power, status and wealth. Political corruption not only leads to the misallocation of resources, but it also perverts the manner in which decisions are made. Political corruption is when the laws and regulations are abused by the rulers, side-stepped, ignored, or even tailored to fit their interests. It is when the legal bases, against which corrupt practices are usually evaluated and judged, are weak and furthermore subject to downright encroachment by the rulers.


Grand corruption
High level or “grand” corruption takes place at the policy formulation end of politics. It refers not so much to the amount of money involved as to the level in which it takes place: grand corruption is at the top levels of the public sphere, where policies and rules are formulated in the first place. Usually (but not always) synonymous to political corruption.


Petty corruption
Small scale, bureaucratic or petty corruption is the everyday corruption that takes place at the implementation end of politics, where the public officials meet the public. Petty corruption is bribery in connection with the implementation of existing laws, rules and regulations, and thus different from “grand” or political corruption. Petty corruption refers to the modest sums of money usually involved, and has also been called “low level” and “street level” to name the kind of corruption that people can experience more or less daily, in their encounter with public administration and services like hospitals, schools, local licensing authorities, police, taxing authorities and so on.


Above taken from:


Legal and Moral Corruption

Corruption is derived from the Latin verb rumpere, to break. According to this approach, corruption is where the law is clearly broken. This requires that all laws must be precisely stated, leaving no doubts about their meaning and no discretion to the public officials. A legal interpretation of corruption provides a clearly demarcated boundary between what is a corrupt activity and what is not. ‘If an official’s act is prohibited by laws established by the government, it is corrupt; if it is not prohibited, it is not corrupt even if it is abusive or unethical’.  (John A. Gardiner, 1993. “Defining Corruption.” In: Corruption and Reform 7)



The legal approach provides a neutral and static method of adjudicating potentially emotive and perception determined concepts of corruption.  An understanding of corruption from law perspective serves to underline a deterioration of self-regulated behaviour and a dependence on the legal approach to determine right from wrong. The complexities of modern governance and a proliferation of corruption scandals have corresponded with a proliferation of complex corruption legislation.


Legislating for behaviour warrants focus upon the legality of an action and not the morality of that same action. Morality is increasingly being legislated for in the absence of and a loss of faith in self regulated behaviour. Although an act is committed within legal parameters it may lie outside moral boundaries. A corrupt act can be camouflaged by lawful justification. For example, ‘undue emphasis on narrow legalism has obscured more subtle yet costly manifestations of misgoverance’ where ‘“legal corruption” may be more prevalent than illegal forms’. (D. Kaufmann, September 2006, Corruption, Governance and Security. In: World Economic Forum. Global Competitiveness Report 2004/2005.)


From this perspective corruption encompasses undue influence over public policies, institutions, laws and regulations by vested private interests at the expense of the public interest. Cultural change, rather than legal change, may be necessary to impede corrupt behaviour. Non-corrupt actions may be within the letter of the law but do not account for the spirit of the law. The legal approach diminishes the role of moral discretion and is constrained by clearly defined edicts.


Above taken from Elaine Byrne, 2007. The Moral and Legal Development of Corruption: Nineteeth and Twentieth Century Corruption in Ireland. PhD Thesis, University of Limerick.








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