The recent Seattle and Washington demonstrations against "globalization," and against the social equity issues and international institutions for which that term has (for some) become symbolic, might seem far removed from the long-standing debate over the best definitions of corruption. Certainly, reasoned discourse was not in great abundance at those events, nor always in the commentaries that followed. But looked at another way, these controversies may be just the latest manifestations of the kinds of conflict that have shaped analytical and popular notions of corruption for centuries. These are conflicts over the acceptable links between wealth and power, and over demands for accountability. Understanding them not only places our contemporary definitions of corruption, and their origins, in a useful perspective; it may also point to ways in which those ideas are about to undergo another major shift - one that reflects the changing role of the state, and important dilemmas of governance, in the emerging global system.
Debate over definitions has long been a feature of the analysis of corruption. Classical conceptions focusing on the moral vitality of whole societies have given way to more limited modern definitions, in which specific actions are classified by a variety of standards. This modern meaning of the term "corruption" is more specific, but has by no means settled the matter: the question of definitions still derails many a promising scholarly discussion. Not only are these modern definitions matters of dispute; at another level, they have come to seem incomplete, or even irrelevant to the episodes that spark public outcry. Corruption and scandal are not synonyms (Moodie 1980) - we may find either in the absence of the other - and definitions need not suit public tastes nor serve the cause of reform. But even where legal and social conceptions of corruption are relatively settled and congruent, most analytical definitions omit a large penumbra of political actions that many perceive as corrupt, and that pose significant questions relating to fairness, justice, and the connections between wealth and power. In deeply-divided or rapidly-changing