Definitions of corruption on the Web:

  • corruptness: lack of integrity or honesty (especially susceptibility to bribery); use of a position of trust for dishonest gain
  • putrescence: in a state of progressive putrefaction
  • decay of matter (as by rot or oxidation)
  • moral perversion; impairment of virtue and moral principles; “the luxury and corruption among the upper classes”; “moral degeneracy followed intellectual degeneration”; “its brothels, its opium parlors, its depravity”; “Rome had fallen into moral putrefaction”
  • destroying someone’s (or some group’s) honesty or loyalty; undermining moral integrity; “corruption of a minor”; “the big city’s subversion of rural innocence”
  • inducement (as of a public official) by improper means (as bribery) to violate duty (as by commiting a felony); “he was held on charges of corruption and racketeering”
  • In philosophical, theological, or moral discussions, corruption often refers to spiritual or moral impurity, or deviation from an ideal. Frequently, this takes the form of contrasting a pure spiritual form with a corrupted manifestation in the physical world. …
  • Corruption may refer to: * Putrefaction, the decomposition of recently-living matter. Other meanings of the term use this as a metaphor. …
  • Corruption or bastardisation is a way of referring to certain changes in a language. The most common way that a word can be said to be corrupted …
  • Political corruption is the use of governmental powers by government officials for illegitimate private gain. Misuse of government power for other purposes, such as repression of political opponents and general police brutality, is not considered political corruption. …
  • Corruption is a 1968 British film directed by Robert Hartford-Davis, from a screenplay by Derek Ford and Donald Ford, and featuring Peter Cushing …
  • The act of corrupting or of impairing integrity, virtue, or moral principle; the state of being corrupted or debased; loss of purity or integrity; depravity; wickedness; impurity; bribery; The act of corrupting or making putrid, or state of being corrupt or putrid; decomposition or …
  • corrupt morally or by intemperance or sensuality; “debauch the young people with wine and women”; “Socrates was accused of corrupting young men”; “Do school counselors subvert young children?”; “corrupt the morals”
  • corrupt – lacking in integrity; “humanity they knew to be corrupt…from the day of Adam’s creation”; “a corrupt and incompetent city government”
  • corrupt – bribe: make illegal payments to in exchange for favors or influence; “This judge can be bought”


Published in Monograph No 65, September 2001
Corruption in South Africa, Results of an Expert Panel Survey


There is no room for a comprehensive discussion of definitions of corruption. However, some of the more well-known ways in which corruption has been defined, include:
  • “the giving, offering, or agreeing to give a benefit to an official or agent and the receiving, obtaining or agreeing to receive or attempting to obtain a benefit by a public official or agent”;5  

  • “the violation of formal rules governing the allocation of public resources by officials in response to offers of financial gain or political support”;6  

  • “behaviour 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 behaviour”;7  

  • “the abuse of public roles or resources for private benefit”;8  

  • “the abuse of power, most often for personal gain or for the benefit of a group to which one owed one’s allegiance. While the term ‘corruption’ is most often applied to abuse of public power by politicians or civil servants, it describes a pattern of behaviour that can be found in virtually every sphere of life”;9  

  • “a symptom of something gone wrong in the management of the state where institutions designed to govern the relationships between citizens and the state are used instead for the personal enrichment of public officials and the provision of benefits to the corrupt”;10 and  

  • “C(corruption) = M (monopoly power) + D (discretion) — A (accountability). In other words, the extent of corruption depends on the amount of monopoly power and discretionary power that officials exercise and the degree to which they are held accountable for their actions.”11
From the above definitions, corruption appears to be more than bribery (to which it is often reduced in legal definitions), and relates to various forms of mismanagement, abuse or misuse of mainly public authority, office, duties, trust or resources, for private, personal or sectoral interest, benefit or gain.

How should corruption be defined and understood? What are examples of corrupt behaviour? One of the most intractable debates in the anti-corruption literature is that around definition, despite the fact that most people, most of the time, know corruption when it is encountered. Corruption is a highly complex and diverse phenomenon with many different manifestations. It can be grand or petty, incidental, systematic or systemic. It can be judicial, administrative, legislative or political in nature. It can occur in the public, private or civil society sector. It can involve groups or individuals. Academics from various disciplines (including lawyers, historians, moralists, economists and political scientists) and international organisation experts define it in various ways.

Definitions of corruption

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October 2009


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