“Understanding corruption in the twenty-first century: towards a new constructivist research agenda”, Sofia Wickberg (Sciences Po CEE, France)

The search for a universally acceptable definition of corruption has been a central element of scholarship on corruption over the last decades, without it ever reaching a consensus in academic circles. Moreover, it is far from certain that citizens share the same understanding of what should be labelled as ‘corruption’ across time, space and social groups. This article traces the journey from the classical conception of corruption, centred around the notions of morals and decay, to the modern understanding of the term focussing on individual actions and practices. It provides an overview of the scholarly struggle over meaning-making and shows how the definition of corruption as the ‘abuse of public/entrusted power for private gain’ became dominant, as corruption was constructed as a global problem by international organizations. Lastly, it advocates for bringing back a more constructivist perspective on the study of corruption which takes the ambiguity and political dimensions of corruption seriously. The article suggests new avenues of research to understand corruption in the changing context of the twenty-first century.

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