The ICRN is currently seeking to become an ECPR standing group. If you are interested in becoming a member, please send an email to Ina Kubbe.


We have organized panels at the ECPR general conference 2016 and 2018


More current events are described below:


ECPR Members –

Call for Papers of Workshops running in Mons is now open!

New Trends in the Conceptualisation of Political Corruption (Paul M. Heywood and Doron Navot)

Will be held at the Mons campus of Université catholique de Louvain in Belgium, from 8–12 April.



Please submit your proposal via the form of ECPR by Monday 3 December 2018.
Kindly note: Paper proposals sent directly to Workshop Directors will not be considered.


Outline of the Topic

In the decade since the financial crisis – during which the gap between the top 0.1 percent and the rest has increased dramatically, the very rich have gamed both national and international financial systems, and politicians have received massive contributions to support tax reductions whilst development has effectively stagnated – accusations of corruption have again come to the fore. In parallel, the word ‘corruption’ and the idea of ‘misuse of public power for private gain’ have become a core focus for various approaches and sub-disciplines in the social sciences. In this workshop, we seek to examine to what extent we should take into account political corruption and corrupt practices when considering such recent developments as the Brexit vote in the UK, the election of Trump in the USA, the rise of populist leaders across many parts of the world threatening democratic stability, and the stark increase in global inequality. More generally, we aim to explore whether the concept of corruption can help us better understand and explain the current conditions and travails of polities around the world.


What is Political Corruption?

In broad terms, political corruption denotes abuse of power for private gain, personal benefits over the public interest, and particularism over universalism. The term relates to a wide range of problems—from patronage and nepotism to campaign financing and lobbying. The concept of corruption is rooted in morality. Traditionally, it had been focused on agent-centered issues such as motivations, intentions, vices, and self-serving, on the one hand, and on declining regimes, on the other hand. More recently, the term has become divorced from its origins, and people often use it as a catch-all shorthand for all kinds of problems:  from poor bureaucracy, through globalization and recurring financial crises to populism and the rise of ‘anti-political’ leaders. However, our point of departure for this workshop, is the definition ‘the misuse of (entrusted) power for private gain’.


What the core problem is

The core problem that our workshop examines is whether the language of corruption helps us understand why democracy as well as political and economic development more generally seems to be facing major challenges.  That is, does the concept of corruption potentially obfuscate the nature of contemporary politics? How far can we go with this notion to explain structural problems and to understand development problems, lack of economic growth, populism and public anger? What are the pros and cons of using the concept of corruption, in comparison to notions such as inequality and injustice? Can corruption serve to explain and shed light on problems in contemporary capitalism, or does it actually mask and obscure our understating?


A second problem the workshop would address is the looseness of the term ‘political corruption’ and the similarities between the meaning of corruption and everyday political practices. Simply put, real politics is crucial for order, peace, stability and prosperity, and there is nothing wrong with political ambition, personal gain and power—when deployed appropriately. However, as people become more concerned with private gain in public affairs, we risk developing anti-political sentiments.


Finally, the workshop aims to focus on the problem that mainstream anti-corruption strategies shades too easily into what may be loosely termed neo-liberal politics, constraining the potential of politics and providing pseudo solutions to key public challenges. In a similar vein, it is important to examine to what extent the ‘corruption eruption’ reflects authentic anger against governments, and that research on corruption does not become mobilized as part of an organized project of ‘dismantling the state step by step’. A proper understanding of political corruption will help us to identify—and to reject—questionable strategies and reforms that masquerade as being about ‘anti-corruption’ when in fact they are designed to mask alternative agendas.


Why it matters


The importance of this topic for political science is fourfold. First, as John Maynard Keynes observed, ‘it is ideas, not vested interests, which are dangerous for good or evil’. That is also true for our conceptualization of corruption, which affects how we think about politics and what we feel and do in the political arena. Second, as is well-recognized, anti-corruption has become a dominant element in global and national politics. A better understanding of corruption would shed light on anti-corruption movements and have the potential to assist the effort to curb corruption. Similarly, a better understanding of corruption might help to improve the regulation of public conduct through laws and the Courts. Third, thanks to its agential aspects (that is, the intentional and motivational elements) the concept of corruption enables us to examine the role of character and attitudes in public life and as a byproduct shed light on the role of institutions in a given polity. Finally, corruption has become very widespread notion, whether in local and national political vocabularies or in global discourse. Thus, if we want to understand public discourse, we need to examine more closely the meaning of corruption.


A Brief Literature Review


Over the past quarter century, scholars have regularly sought to reconceptualise corruption. Some scholars have offered new classifications of corruption, such as ‘institutional corruption’ (Thompson 1995; Amit et al. 2017), to supplement the standard definition of corruption as ‘the misuse of public power for private gain’. Others have offered new definitions of corruption.[1] Another group turned to sociology (Uberti 2016), or adopted an anthropologist perspective, questioning the idea of a universal definition of corruption (Torsello and Venard 2016). A fourth group, influenced by neo-institutionalism, emphasized the role of history in the development of corruption (Hellmann 2017). Some have criticised the principal–agent model that characterised most theories of political corruption during the 1980s and 1990s and instead has adopted a collective-action-based approach (Rothstein 2011; Mungiu-Pippidi 2013). A fifth group suggests the need for a better understanding of the different forms of corruption (Bauhr 2017; Heywood 2017). Many of the conceptual works about corruption are from the fields of political theory, comparative politics and developmental studies; however, there is a growing interest in the topic of political corruption in the stud  of the history of ideas.[2] There has also been an increase in interest regarding the conceptualisation of corruption in related disciplines, such as sociology, criminology, economics and law. One aim of this workshop is to analyse recent conceptual developments in the study of political corruption and to examine the extent to which these developments help us both to better understand abuse of public power and to tackle corruption.


In most of the literature in political theory, the point of departure is the legalistic definition of corruption, in which Nye's definition is the paradigm case.[3] According to political theorists, the most serious failing of this notion is that it neglects the corruption of norm-creating processes (Warren 2004) (also known as second-order corruption). As a supplement to the legalistic definition of corruption, Thompson (1995) and Warren (2004) offered a conceptualisation that is based on democratic deliberative theory. Philp (2017), in contrast, pulled together aspects of the definitions of public office and public interest. Although these theorists understood corruption differently, they all stressed its broad and systemic aspects. Similarly, whereas Nye defined corruption as deviant behaviour and delimited corruption to illegal behaviour, the new literature includes also legal behaviour, and practices that have become pervasive. 

In comparative politics and developmental studies, scholars have focused less on how to define corruption than on the question of why corruption is so pervasive and hard to tackle. The basic idea in this literature is that poor theorising of corruption might be one of the reasons for the failure of the anti-corruption strategies that global and non-governmental organizations have tried to implement in developing countries. In particular, these scholars have criticised the principal–agent model and the idea that there is a principled principal in countries where corruption is systemic norm. Whereas scholars such as Rothstein (2011; 2014) and Mungiu-Pippidi (2013) suggested the systemic corruption should be conceptualised as a collective action problem rather than as a form of agency problem, Marquette and Peiffer (2017) recommended considering the functionality of corruption in our conceptualisation and combined the principal-agent model and the collective-action-based approach. Similarly, scholars like Wedel (2015) and Bauhr (2017) suggested that understanding the difference between need and greed corruption contributes to better explaining the anticorruption potential of institutional and accountability reforms.


These new conceptualisations for both developed and developing democracies have produced a number of achievements. Theorists who adopted democratic theory as their starting point have exposed the fact that well-established democratic practices, including campaign financing and lobbyism, have corruptive potential (Johnston, 2014; Rothstein and Varraich, 2017, pp. 96–7). From this corpus, it is clear that certain abuses of power are pervasive even in developed democracies. Deliberative-democrats as well realists such as Philp help us to see that the conception of corruption must be far less rigid and rule-bound than the legalistic definition (i.e. the breaking of a rule or dereliction of an official duty for private gain). The developmental studies literature about systemic corruption reintroduced history and social relations to the discussion of political corruption – two factors without which the study of corruption would be flawed. Nevertheless, it is not clear whether the purpose of reconceptualising corruption – whether it is to understand public scandals better, to think better about problems in contemporary democracies or to develop anti-corruption strategies – has been achieved (see also: Rose 2017).




Our aim is to examine how the concept of political corruption has evolved since the early 1990s, and to what extent we are now in a better position to understand misuse of (entrusted) power in contemporary contexts. It is no longer clear that the conceptualisation of political corruption is strictly about how corruption had been understood throughout most of the history of political thought. That is, the existing literature has captured issues that are not rooted in the classical understanding of political corruption and that are unrelated to the original problems and puzzles the theory of corruption was designed to resolve.  So, the question might be do the new theories, conceptions and definitions of political corruption address the particular nature of corruption thought, the core problem and the related puzzles, such as private vices, institutions and public goods? In other words, what problems is the concept of political corruption meant to solve, and what are our intentions in understanding this problem? In particular, is there any point at which the concept of corruption is disconnected from mental, attitudinal and motivational aspects and from issues such as blameworthiness, personal responsibility, dishonesty, selfishness, self-centric, egoism and greed? A related set of questions that we would like to discuss is what we gain and lose when we disconnect the concept of political corruption from its moralistic and agential grounds.



Elinor Amit, Jonathan Koralnik, Ann-Christin Posten, Miriam Muethel, and Lawrence Lessig. 2017. "Institutional Corruption Revisited: Exploring Open Questions within the Institutional Corruption Literature." Southern California Interdisciolinary Law Journal 26: 447-467. 


Monika Bauhr. 2017. "Need or Greed? Conditions for Collective Action against Corruption." Governance 30 (4): 561–581.


Olli Hellmann. 2017. "The Historical Origins of Corruption in the Developing World: a Comparative Analysis of East Asia." Crime, Law and Social Change 68: 145-165.


Paul M. Heywood. 2017. "Rethinking Corruption: Hocus-Pocus, Locus and Focus." The Slavonic and East European Review 95 (1): 21-48.


Barry Hindess. 2012. "Introduction: How Should We Think about Corruption?" In Manuhuia Barcham, Barry Hindess and Peter Larmour (eds) Corruption: Expanding the Focus. Canberra, Australia: Australian National University.


Michael Johnston. 2014. Corruption, Contention and Reform—The Power of Deep Democratization. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.


Oscar Kurer. 2015. "Definitions of Corruption." In: Paul M. Heywood (ed.) Routledge Handbook of Political Corruption. London and New York: Routledge, pp.30–41.


Alena Ledeneva, Roxana Bratu and Philipp Köker. 2017. "Corruption Studies for the Twenty-First Century: Paradigm Shifts and Innovative Approaches." The Slavonic and East European Review 95(1): 1-20.



Amanda Maher. 2016. "What Skinner Misses about Machiavelli’s Freedom: Inequality, Corruption, and the Institutional Origins of Civic Virtue." The Journal of Politics 78(4): 1003-1015.


Heather Marquette and Caryn Peiffer. 2017. "Grappling with the “real politics” of systemic corruption: Theoretical debates versus “real-world” functions." Governance 2017 First published: 9 October 2017. DOI: 10.1111/gove.12311


Alina Mungiu-Pippidi. 2013. "Controlling Corruption Through Collective Action." Journal of democracy 24(1): 101-115.


Joseph S. Nye. 1967. "Corruption and Political Development: A Cost-Benefit Analysis." American Political Science Review 61(2):417-27.


Mark Philp. 1997. "Defining Political Corruption." Political Studies 45 (3): 436–462.


Mark Philp. 2017. "The corruption of politics." Social Philosophy and Policy, 34.

Permanent WRAP URL:


Jonathan Rose. 2017. "The Meaning of Corruption: Testing the Coherence and

Adequacy of Corruption Definitions." Public Integrity. online

DOI: 10.1080/10999922.2017.1397999


Bo Rothstein. 2011. The Quality of Government: Corruption, Social Trust, and Inequality in International Perspective. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.


Bo Rothstein. 2014. "What is the Opposite of Corruption?" Third World Quarterly 35 (5): 745-746.


Bo Rothstein and Aiysha Varraich. 2017. Making Sense of Corruption. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.


William Selinger. 2016. "Le grand mal de l’époque: Tocqueville on French Political

Corruption." History of European Ideas 42 (1): 73–94.


William Selinger. 2016b. "Fighting electoral corruption in the Victorian era: An overlooked dimension of John Stuart Mill’s political thought." European Journal of Political Theory DOI: 10.1177/1474885116664018.


Robert Sparling. 2013. "Political Corruption and the Concept of Dependence in Republican Thought." Political theory 41(4): 618-647.


Robert Sparling. 2017. "The Concept of Corruption in J.G.A. Pocock's The Machiavellian Moment." History of European Ideas 43(2): 156-170.


Robert Sparling. 2017b. "Impartiality and the Definition of Corruption." Political Studies. First Published September 25, 2017


Dennis F. Thompson. 1995. Ethics in Congress. Washington: Brookings Institution.


Davide Torsello and Bertrand Venard. 2016. "The Anthropology of Corruption." Journal of Management Inquiry 25(1): 34-54.


Luca J. Uberti. 2016. "The Sociological Turn in Corruption Studies: Why Fighting Graft in the Developing World is Often Unnecessary, and Sometimes Counterproductive." Progress in Development Studies 16(3): 261-277.


Mark E. Warren. 2004. "What Does Corruption Mean in a Democracy." American Journal of Political Science 48 (2): 328–343.


Mark E. Warren. 2015. "The meaning of corruption in democracies." In: Paul M. Heywood (ed.) Routledge Handbook of Political Corruption. London and New York: Routledge, pp. 42-55.


Janine R. Wedel. 2015. "High Priests and the Gospel of Anti-Corruption." Challenge 58(1): 4-22.


Which contributions you expect in the Workshop:


We encourage the submission of papers from a range of perspectives, subfields and approaches within and outside of the discipline of political science and political theory that would explore the conceptualization of political corruption, considering one or more of the following themes:

(1). The purpose of reconceptualising and redefining political corruption. Our aim is to examine how the concept of political corruption has evolved since the early 1990s. A related set of questions that we would like to discuss is what we gain and lose when we disconnect the concept from its moralistic and agential grounds.

(2). The relationship between political corruption and political science, or the study of corruption and the study of power. Simply put, the concept of corruption occupies a peculiar place in political science. Whilst the public prominence of corruption is hardly to be questioned, its analytical potential is not clear. Likewise, it not clear whether misuse of power for private gain is indeed an independent problem in contemporary politics.

(3). The reduction of the concept of corruption and disagreements about its meaning to other concerns and other concepts. Whilst concern about corruption links to larger themes and the understanding of corruption is related to how we understand other problems and ideas, is the core of corruption entirely derived from other concerns? A related theme is the extent we disagree about the meaning of political corruption.

(4). The growth in the use of the term corruption in public discourse. Do we adequately situate the public rage about corruption within the larger problems in the nexus of democracy and capitalism?

(5). What drives the conceptual innovation, and does this achieve its goals? Is the criticism of the standard conception of corruption justified? Is there anything that we cannot explain or theorise with the old conception?


[1]See, for example, Warren (2004), Kurer (2005) and more recently, Cave and Ferretti (2017), who suggested we should define political corruption as "the abuse of entrusted public power for the pursuit of a surreptitious agenda" (Cave and Ferretti 2017).

[2] For example, Robert Sparling (2013; 2017) and Amanda Maher (2016) has debated the meaning of corruption in the republican tradition, and how neo-republicans should conceptualize it today, while William Selinger (2016; 2016b) has showed the importance of corruption for classical liberals such as John Stuart Mill and Alexis de Tocqueville, and explicated its meaning.

[3]‘Corruption’ as Nye defined it, ‘is behavior which deviates from the formal duties of a public role because of private-regarding (personal, close family, private clique) pecuniary or status gains; or violates rules against the exercise of certain types of private regarding influence’ (Nye 1967, 419).