Vol. 18 No. 9 (September, 2008) pp.845-847
CORRUPTION AND THE SECRET OF LAW: A LEGAL ANTHROPOLOGICAL PERSPECTIVE, by Monique Nuijten and Gerhard Anders (eds). Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2007. 234pp. Hardback. $99.95/Ł55.00. ISBN: 9780754671107.
Reviewed by Frederic Charles Schaffer, Department of Political Science, University of Massachusetts Amherst. Email: schaffer [at] mit.edu.
We tend to view law and corruption as opposites. Where the law prevails, we typically hold that corruption has been held at bay. Where corruption prevails, we typically believe that the law has been transgressed. The contributors to this edited volume seek to challenge this dichotomous view. They aim to show the “hidden connections” (p.xi) that link law and corruption. To do so, they adopt the methods of anthropology, arguing that the tools of this discipline can be used to deconstruct simplistic binary oppositions and build up in their place more complex pictures of social reality. Except for the editors’ introduction and a methodological chapter by Giorgio Blundo, the book consists of (mostly) ethnographic case studies from China, Italy, Mexico, Burundi, Indonesia, pre-war Japan, and the US borderland with Mexico.
What are the hidden connections that join law and corruption? As Gerhard Anders and Monique Nuijten explain in their introduction, the law and its transgression cannot exist without each other insofar as one defines the other. That law makes its own transgression possible is the “secret of law” to which the book title refers (p.12). Unfortunately, this thesis is developed only abstractly in the introduction, and its implications are not fleshed out well in the remainder of the volume.
Other connections between law and corruption, thankfully, are explored more concretely. The most interesting of these play on the complexity of the word corruption itself. “Corruption” is a term that English speakers use to condemn from two distinct vantage points. To call an act “corrupt” is to condemn it as the violation of (certain kinds of) standards that are defined either by law or morality. Thus corruption can refer to either the transgression of law or moral depravity. Several contributors to this volume direct our attention to this duality. Illegalities, they remind us, may be viewed as moral by participants or member of the community. Thus the same act, practice, or institution can be both corrupt and not corrupt depending on the normative standard applied. The rich analytic possibilities opened up by this insight are well exploited in the book. Andrew MacNaughton and Kam Bill Wong, for instance, examine engagingly five illustrative civil service corruption cases heard by the Daishinin, the highest criminal appeals court in pre-War Japan. In two of these cases, the civil servants found guilty of corruption argued that they were merely acting in accordance with the Japanese traditional practice of gift giving, arguments which the court ultimately rejected. In another strong chapter, perhaps the most thought-provoking in the volume, Alan Smart and Carolyn Hsu examine the practice of guanxi (gift exchange, but [*846] literally, “relationship,” “network,” or “connection”) in China and tease out its complicated relationship with morality and corruption. Depending on how particular gift exchanges are performed, ordinary Chinese citizens can see them as either reasonable and legitimate or abusive and corrupt.
Given that laws vary from polity to polity, and that norms of morality vary from culture to culture, the contributors to this volume shy away from offering any “universal” or “cross-cultural” definition of corruption (p.7). Consequently, the burden is on the author(s) of each chapter to specify the contextual meaning of corruption in the particular country under investigation. This task is met with mixed success. Among the most problematic chapters in this regard is Josiah Heyman and Howard Campbell’s examination of corruption in various US government agencies operating at the Mexico border. In an otherwise fine chapter, the authors neglect to explain what they mean by corruption, and include among a catalog of corrupt acts the killing and sexual assault of immigrants (pp.204, 208). Without additional explanation about the motives for and context of such acts, it is difficult to see what makes them instances of corruption as opposed to some other form of misconduct. Smart and Hsu, in contrast, handle the definitional challenge with far greater care. They expertly explain the meaning of the Chinese rough equivalent of corruption - fubai and tanwu - and draw for the reader the fine moral line that distinguishes “corrupt” acts that are fubai or tanwu from “reasonable” ones that are guanxi.
On the whole, the ethnographic approach of the volume is well suited to the task at hand, and the case studies provide the kind of thickly textured accounts so often missing in political science. Deserving special mention in this regard is Pieter de Vries’ vivid portrait of Jesús Lopez, a gregariously corrupt Mexican cacique. There are, however, some methodological mis-steps in the book. Because corruption is difficult to study, some authors examine what people say about corruption rather than corruption itself. For instance Simon Turner, in his study of Burundi, focuses uniquely on narratives of corruption, and finds that through them people “attemp[t] to grasp their own misfortune” and “express fears that things are not what they appear to be” (pp.125-126). But because he never moves beyond an analysis of words, Simon cannot say for sure that the stories he heard were merely reflections of fear and concern. Maybe his informants were also keen observers of Burundian politics. In this context it is striking that some of the political practices described by Turner’s informants – buying off opponents in particular – correspond closely to the maneuvering described by Rosberg and Jackson (1982, at 38-58) in their classic study of uninstitutionalized politics in Africa.
Finally, a word on organization. There is, unfortunately, little thematic division of labor between the substantive country-based chapters. Each is oriented to diverse sets of questions, sometimes overlapping, sometimes not. And while Anders and Nuijten’s introduction provides an excellent overview of the anthropological literature on corruption, it fails to lay out a roadmap showing how the various chapters of this volume [*847] fit together. One chapter in particular seems disconnected from the rest. Livia Holden and Giovanni Tortora’s account of the twists and turns of the defense mounted by Tortora (an Italian defense lawyer) of a man accused of mob-land murder had, as far as I could tell, little to do with corruption, and is thus a curious addition to this book. There are, too, important themes developed in individual chapters that should have been brought together and explored further somewhere in the volume. Both Heinzpeter Znoj’s incisive chapter on bureaucratic corruption in Indonesia and Heyman and Campbell’s study of the US borderland advance compelling hypotheses, respectively, about the institutional and sociological causes of corruption. But the question of causation, regrettably, is not taken up seriously by the editors in their introduction, and the volume lacks a concluding chapter.
Rosberg, Carl G., and Robert H. Jackson. 1982. PERSONAL RULE IN BLACK AFRICA: PRINCE, AUTOCRAT, PROPHET, TYRANT. Berkeley: University of California Press.
© Copyright 2008 by the author, Frederic Charles Schaffer