Grappling with the “real politics” of systemic corruption: Theoretical debates versus “real-world” functions

Heather Marquette, Caryn Peiffer

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle (Academic Journal)peer-review

66 Citations (Scopus)
1332 Downloads (Pure)


A growing body of research argues that anticorruption efforts fail because of a flawed theoretical foundation, where collective action theory is said to be a better lens for understanding corruption than the dominant principal–agent theory. We unpack this critique and advance several new arguments. First, the application of collective action theory to the issue of corruption has been, thus far, incomplete. Second, a collective action theory-based approach to corruption is in fact complementary to a principal–agent approach, rather than contradictory as is claimed. Third, applications of both theories have failed to recognize that corruption persists because it functions to provide solutions to problems. We conclude by arguing that anticorruption effectiveness is difficult to achieve because it requires insights from all three perspectives—principal–agent theory, collective action theory, and corruption as serving functions—which allows us to better understand how to harness the political will needed to fight corruption.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)499-514
Number of pages16
Issue number3
Early online date9 Oct 2017
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jul 2018


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