Introductory Seminar in History

Corruption & Fraud

Corruption and fraud may be hard to see, but we’d like to think they are easy to identify. To organizations like the World Bank, corruption is “the abuse of entrusted power for private gain,” and it “thrives where temptation meets permissiveness.” But those definitions are recent inventions. They depend on our drawing clear distinctions between public and private, state and individual. They also rest on culturally specific assumptions about the “temptations” that can seduce a human being.


Drawing on history, social science, literature, and film, we will consider how ideas of corruption and fraud have changed throughout modern history. Why do different societies define certain behaviors as corrupt? Where does corruption happen? Who can be corrupted, how are they identified, and what happens to them? We’ll also inquire about corruption’s relationship to bureaucracy, to technologies of record-keeping and communication, and to forms of measurement. If we try to measure fraudulent activity, does that just invite new forms to slip through the cracks? Throughout the course, we’ll ask how we—as historians and social scientists—can we use accusations of corruption and fraud as tools to better understand institutions, individuals, societies, and cultures.


Selected readings:

  • James Astill, The Great Tamasha: Cricket, Corruption, and the Spectacular Rise of Modern India (2013).
  • Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, All the President’s Men (1974).
  • Mark Duggan and Steven Levitt, “Winning Isn’t Everything: Corruption in Sumo Wrestling” (The American Economic Review, 2002).
  • Matthew Hull, Government of Paper: The Materiality of Bureaucracy in Urban Pakistan (2012).
  • Suketu Mehta, Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found (2004).
  • Eugene Soltes, Why They Do It: Inside the Mind of the White-Collar Criminal (2016).


Selected films:

  • Roman Polanski, “Chinatown” (1974).
  • Charles H. Ferguson, “Inside Job” (2010).
  • J.C. Chandor, “Margin Call” (2011).
  • Costa-Gavras, “Z” (1969).

Corcoran Department of History
University of Virginia
Nau Hall - South Lawn
Charlottesville, VA 22904


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