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Study analyzes, raises questions on institutional corruption

Researchers attempt to define institutional corruption, analyze its causes, symptoms

Though institutional corruption may seem like something of the past, researchers from Edward J. Safra Center for Ethics at Harvard examined how corruption remains prevalent today in a study published in the Southern California Interdisciplinary Law Journal. The study outlined the various aspects of corruption among institutions, including defining institutional corruption, tracing the different ways it arises and analyzing possible ways to remedy the issue.

Jonathan Koralnik, a student at Washington University in St. Louis and one of the study’s lead authors, said he was driven to write this paper because institutional corruption is widespread and damaging to society, though many are unaware of it. The paper was meant to raise certain questions in regard to institutional corruption, and subsequently elicit academic feedback and bring in a number of insights that would tackle the issue, he added.

The study initially cites a definition of institutional corruption by Dennis Thompson: “political gain or benefit by a public official under conditions that in general tend to promote private interests.”

Lawrence Lessig, professor of leadership at Harvard and a co-author of the study, expounds upon this in the paper, explaining that institutional corruption exists when something legally influences an institution to undermine its purpose.

Institutional corruption is different from other types of corruption, such as personal corruption, in that it requires institutional actors, according to Seamus Miller, one of the directors of the Center for Applied Ethics and Public Ethics. There are some acts that are “quintessentially corrupt,” such as bribery, nepotism and abuse of authority, he added.

Koralnik shared these sentiments, emphasizing that institutional corruption necessitates the involvement of a network of people to make the corruption possible. If a congressman accepts donations that sway legislative decisions, though there is one person at the focus, there are many people that take part.

But the issue of how institutional corruption arises is complex, Koralnik said. It begins when external funding causes institutions to depart from their original purposes; for this reason, it is difficult to stop, Koralnik said.

Miriam Müthel, chair of organizational behavior at the WHU-Otto Beisheim School of Management and one of the authors of the study, said that institutional corruption causes a loss of trust, which is evident in increasingly negative public perceptions of institutions. Better understanding of institutional corruption would allow for better means to fight it and an increase in public trust, she added.

There are methods to potentially prevent institutional corruption, Koralnik said. For example, blind funding in the medical field allows those who conduct research to not be influenced by those who fund the research.

Marianna Fotaki, professor of business ethics at Warwick Business School and former network fellow at the Safra Center, said that the paper gives a good overview of institutional corruption and its unique features. But it was largely centered around the United States, she said, and ignores many aspects of institutional corruption that are prevalent in the international sphere, such as globalization and deregulation.

Philip Nichols, professor of social responsibility in business at the Wharton School, said that the paper attempted to use a definition of institutional corruption that was too broad to be able to find solutions or explain some specific instances. He also wished that the researchers had better explained some elements, like the paper’s particular use of trust regarding institutions, and had addressed more of the existing research.

Correction: A previous version of this article said that the study was published in the Southern California Institutional Law Journal. In fact, it was published in the Southern California Interdisciplinary Law Journal. The Herald regrets the error.


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