The Ambivalence of Blurred Boundaries: Where Informality stops and corruption begins?


Alena Ledeneva

date de sortie


For years, I have been working on issues of informality. Yet these issues are often also branded as corruption. The research question whether the boundaries between the two can be drawn cannot be answered with help of definitions. Analytical distinctions prove useless in the face of practices emb edded in particular sets of constraints, practical norms and ‘moral economies’ (Olivier de Sardan 1999, 2008). If I am asked to give a one-word clue to identify the missing bit in the puzzle of crossing boundaries between informality and corruption, I would say—ambivalence. In its sociological sense, ambivalence, in the definition of Robert Merton, refers to incompatible normative expectations of attitudes, beliefs, and behaviour. The incompatibility is assigned to a status and the social structures that generate the circumstances in which ambivalence is embedded (Merton 1976: 6-7). The core type of sociological ambivalence puts contradictory demands upon the occupants of a status in a particular social relation. Since these norms cannot be simultaneously expressed in behaviour, they come to be expressed in an oscillation of behaviours: of detachment and compassion, of discipline and permissiveness, of personal and impersonal treatment (Merton 1976: 8).


The bi-polar concept of ambivalence
In the context of modernity, ambivalence is associated with fragmentation and failure of manageability. Zygmunt Bauman defines ambivalence as the possibility of assigning an object or an event to more than one category and views it as a language-specific disorder. The main symptom of disorder is the acute discomfort we feel when we are unable to read the situation properly and to choose between alternative actions (Bauman 1991: 1, 12). Bauman lists ambivalence among “the tropes of the ‘other’ of order: ambiguity, uncertainty, unpredictability, illogicality, irrationality, ambivalence, brought about by modernity with its desire to organise and to design” (Bauman 1991: 7). Ambivalence thus implies a form of disorder and negativity.


In my view, ambivalence can be singled out from the Bauman’s list for its bi-polarity, oscillating duality (both order and disorder; both positivity and negativity), and relative clarity of the polar positions. It is a social counterpart of emotional ambivalence in psychology (love-hate) or materials with ambivalent qualities in physics (semiconductors). In other words, it is a situation of co-exiting thesis and anti-thesis, without possibility and certainty of their synthesis, yet without uncertainty as to what co-existing views, attitudes and beliefs are. The latter qualification would not apply to ambivalence in psychoanalysis, where is often associated with ambiguity. For the purposes of the following discussion of substantive, functional and normative ambivalence, I distinguish the concept of ambivalence from ambiguity in the following ways. First, ambivalence is a bi-polar concept, not multi-polar as is the case with ambiguity. Its poles (thesis and anti-thesis) are clearly defined. There is little uncertainty as to what these poles, or co-existing views, attitudes and beliefs are. The uncertainty is created by the unpredictability of their actualisation.


The incompatibility of constituents of the ambivalence is different from duplicity, from the deliberate deceptiveness in behaviour or speech, or from double-dealing. When moulded by the clashing constraints, ambivalence can result in the ability for doublethink (the illogical logic), dual functionality (functionality of the dysfunctional) and double standards (for us and for them). The ambivalence is best understood through the paradoxes it produces, such as the role of hackers in advancing cybersecurity, for example, and can be identified by looking into the open secrets of societies (Ledeneva 2011).


My interest in the theme of ambivalence originated in a study of blat—the use of personal networks for getting things done in Soviet Russia, or Russia’s ‘economy of favours’ (Ledeneva 1998). The latter referred not only to the circulation of favours—favours of access to the centrally distributed goods, services and privileges—but also to the sociability of blat channels—friends and friends of friends routinely used for tackling shortages and problems. The pervasiveness of blat turned favours into an alternative currency of ‘mutual help and mutual understanding’ needed for the functioning of non-market economy and embodied peoples’ frustration with the non-consumerist ideology and political constraints of the centralised planning and distribution. On the individual level, favours delivered by friends, acquaintances and friends of friends granted solutions to small time problems. On a societal level, they represented a way out for the Soviet system that struggled to adhere to its own proclaimed principles. A discreet re-distribution of resources within social networks—an implicit social contract, known as the ‘little deal’—became part of the solution (Millar 1985).


The contradictory nature of constraints, and informal practices needed to resolve them, are well reflected in the anecdote about six paradoxes of socialism:
No unemployment but nobody works.
Nobody works but productivity increases.
Productivity increases but shops are empty.
Shops are empty but fridges are full.
Fridges are full but nobody is satisfied.
Nobody is satisfied but all vote unanimously.


Each of these paradoxes hides a reference to an informal practice that helped the Soviet system to continue with its formal claims for superiority, yet also undermined the declared principles.


A Russian phrase ‘nel’zya, no mozhno,’ (prohibited, but possible) offered a summary understanding of the Soviet society with its all-embracing restrictions and the labyrinth of possibilities around them (the shops are empty but fridges are full). Blat was an open secret for insiders, but a puzzle for outsiders unequipped for handling the ‘doublethink’ associated with blat. It was not that a formal ‘no’ necessarily turned into ‘yes’ after pulling some blat strings. The formula no+blat=yes is misleading, for it emphasizes the importance of blat but downplays the importance of constraints. In the Soviet times, even outsiders could make useful friends and mobilise them and their networks to get things done. Yet there was always a limit to what friends could do. Sometimes blat worked and sometimes it didn’t. Thus, its formula should grasp both ends of the paradox, that is blat=no (shops are empty), and at the same time blat=yes (fridges are full).


Blat and shortage
No coherent rules about blat economy of favours, which were predominantly associated with access to goods and services in short supply, could be deduced: it was both the formally prescribed ‘no’ and the informally pushed ‘yes’ that constituted an ambivalent outcome, somewhat dependant on the size and potential of the networks, while also being constraint-driven, context-bound, uncertain and irregular. Moreover, under conditions of shortage (or rationing), a positive outcome for one was preconditioned by negative outcomes for the others. While the state monopoly of centralised distribution created shortages, the monopolisation of blat re-distribution by each particular gatekeeper perpetuated these shortages further. The constraints of socialism drove people to outwit the centralised distribution system. At the same time the harshness of these constraints made it impossible for the regime to fully enforce the existing regulations, which created opportunities for brokers to circumvent them. ‘Pushers’ of constraints (tolkachi and blatmeisters) created value for themselves and their networks at the expense of less-opportunistic players. Thus, functionally, blat softened the constraints of the Soviet system for some but was dependent on the continuing existence of constraints for others. Working with constraints to unleash their enabling power became the preoccupation of experienced brokers, who often functioned for the sake of the Soviet system but contrary to the system’s own rules. Thus blat could function in both productive and non-productive ways.


Informal practices that make ends meet
Obtaining goods and services through blat channels provided just one example of the many informal practices that made the Soviet regime more tolerable and, at the same time, helped to undermine its political, economic and social foundations. In his Economics of Shortage, Janos Kornai theorizes principles of rationing, or the non-price criteria of allocation, and forms of allocation of resources (Kornai 1979). Each of these can be associated with an informal practice, serving specific needs at various stages in socialist development. For example, associated with queuing is the practice of absenteeism from a workplace (no unemployment, but nobody works), that in late socialism served people’s consumption, but also served to alleviate the hardship of queuing and to reduce criticism towards the regime, incapable of tackling shortages. Because absenteeism had utility for late socialism and could not be ruled out completely, it was prosecuted by authorities in selective campaigns, often to signal that the practice went out of proportion or to punish regional and local officials, on whose territories the raids for absentees in the shops’ queues were made. Selective enforcement, or under-enforcement, became the reverse side of over-regulation.


The theme of ambivalence became similarly central for the post-communist transition. In my following book, How Russia Really Works, I argue against the stigmatisation of practices that replaced blat during Russia’s dramatic break-up with its communist past. Contrary to the assumption that informal practices had to disappear once the oppressive system collapsed, I identified new practices that emerged and functioned ambivalently in order to serve the transition: they both supported and subverted the post-Soviet political, judicial and economic institutions. Newly established in the 1990s democratic and market institutions, including competitive elections, free media, independent judiciary, and private property rights, became enveloped in informal practices that both facilitated their development and undermined it. Practices associated with manipulation of electoral campaigns (black public relations or piar), misuse of information and compromising materials (kompromat), use of informal control and leverage (krugovaya poruka) in the formally independent judiciary, circumventing market-induced economic constraints with barter schemes, non-transparent ownership and creative accounting were the most widespread in that period (Ledeneva 2006).


Blat and sistema
My initial theorization of the ambivalent role of blat networks has also helped in the subsequent exploration of the network-based system of informal governance—sistema—under Putin. In periods of stability, the ambivalent workings of blat networks at the grassroots are indeed similar to those of power networks in sistema, but one important distinction has to be emphasised. If the blat ‘economy of favours’ had to some extent an equalising effect on the chances of accessing resources for networked individuals and thus reduced the privilege gap between insiders and outsiders od the centralised distribution system, the trickle-down effect of the present-day ‘economy of kickbacks’ seems to be reverse: it undermines competition, excludes the outsiders, and rewards insiders through network-based allocation and mobilisation. If blat networks tended to operate on the basis of obligation perceived as ‘mutual help’, power networks tend to operate on the basis of a hierarchical, patron–client logic, associated with practices of ‘feeding’ (kormlenie) aimed to enhance the power of the ruler and leave his subordinates under his ‘manual control’ (Ledeneva 2013). This difference also stems from the political and economic frameworks in which networks operate. As the Soviet system was not economically viable due to its centralisation, rigid ideological constraints, shortages and the limited role of money, blat networks had some equalising, ‘weapon of the weak,’ role in the oppressive conditions, and to some extent served the economic needs of the central distribution system. In Putin’s Russia, power networks operate without those constraints and extract multiple benefits from the post-Soviet reforms, while undermining the key principles of market competition (equality of economic subjects and security of property rights) and the key principle of the rule of law (equality before the law). They are, in effect, the ‘weapon of the strong.’ The effect of dominance, omnipresence, pressure under which everyone has to live is often referred to as ‘sistema.’


What it lacks in democratic graces, Russia’s sistema appears to compensate with the effectiveness of its informal incentives, control and capital flows operated by power networks and their impressive capacity to mobilise. Reliance on networks enables leaders to mobilise and to control, yet they also lock politicians, bureaucrats and businessmen into informal deals, mediated interests and personalised loyalties. This is the ‘modernisation trap of informality’: one cannot use the potential of informal networks without triggering their negative long-term consequences for institutional development (Ledeneva 2013).
The similarity of functional ambivalence of both blat and power networks points to an important dimension of Russia’s modernisation: in order to modernise, one should not only change the formal rules, but also modernise networks. Modernising networks in the context of informality and corruption first of all means changing people’s attitudes to favours of access for ‘svoi’ at all levels. Networks through which favours are channelled, and their functional ambivalence, are essential for the understanding of economies of favours and their similarities with and differences from corruption.


The blurred boundaries between sociability and instrumentality
It is possible to establish a borderline to distinguish between friendship and blat (the use of friendship) in practical terms—if a help to a friend comes from one’s own pocket, it is help of a friend, if a help to a friend comes at the expense or through redistribution of public resources, it is a favour of access. The nature of formal constraints, the lack of private property or clear divisions between the public and the private in socialist societies, provides a degree of entitlement to whatever the economy of favours has to offer. As opposed to favours given, received or exchanged at the expense of personal resources, an economy of favours implies that a favour-giver is not only a giver but also a gatekeeper or a broker benefiting from the position of access and discretionary powers. It is also often the case that a favour-recipient is not only a beneficiary of a re-distributed object or service, delivered by a friend, a friend of a friend or a broker, but also a recipient of what s/he is entitled to have. In other words, a favour does not produce an outcome visibly different from that achieved in other ways (inheriting, rationing, queuing, purchasing in black market), which makes defining the boundaries even more difficult to establish.


To complicate matters further, the difference between sociability and instrumentality is defined not only by the source of resources (private or public) but also by the incentive (material or non-material). Thus, the intermediation of blat is essential to protect one’s positive and altruistic self-image and to misrecognise one’s own experiences: one helps a friend, not oneself, and that friend returns a favour eventually. Both parties maintain a ‘good friend’ self-image while using public resources for ‘non-selfish’ purposes. When the moral norms prescribe that one must help a friend but also that blat is immoral and unethical, the normative ambivalence—the partial ‘misrecognition game’—is the way out.


Selfless re-distribution of public funds for a moral cause is not likely to be seen as self-serving, or corrupt. And yet, where there is a potential of mutuality, sociability breeds instrumentality. Selflessness of favours, or disinterested giving, is an essential feature of an economy of favours: ‘I favour your interests, you favour mine, and we are both selfless and non-interested in material gain individuals.’ Acting sociably, for a non-material and/or non-personal gain, allows the giver not to cross the borderline of a corrupt exchange, while the recipient of material gain is not in the position to re-direct public resources and technically does nothing wrong. Where a ‘favour of access’ involves the misuse of public office, the self-image is ‘rescued’ from being corrupt by an altruistic incentive and the lack of direct private gain.


In turn, non-material incentives may include all kinds of moral or emotional gains and losses. Apart from grace, noted by Julian Pitt-Rivers (2011) and Humphrey (2012), dignity and humiliation can certainly be brought into the discussion of non-material incentives. In literary sources, Eric Naiman observes, they seem to undergird just about every act of giving and receiving, and the recipient’s sense of self-worth (dignity) and the degree of resentment he experiences, even—and perhaps especially—towards those who do the most for him are essential components in the understanding of the meaning and consequences of any favour. The sense of daily frustration surrounding the material aspects of much late-Soviet life surely had an impact on the giving and receiving of favours, and their perception.


The blurred boundaries between favours of access and corrupt transactions
The resemblance of blat favours aimed at circumventing formal rules and procedures—manipulating access to resources through direct purchase as in bribery or diverting of public resources for personal gain—makes them a member of a wider family of informal practices and complicates the matter of drawing the boundaries between favours and corrupt exchanges (Ledeneva 1998: 39-59). It also raises the question whether blat was in fact a dysfunctional corrupt practice. This may be the case in certain contexts but it is also misleading, for neither blat nor corruption have a clear or single meaning, nor are these terms independent of normative, context-free judgement (Ledeneva 2009). According to Lampert (1984: 371), cases of corruption have a ranking specific to the society. The Soviets clearly felt that bribery was a worse form of corruption than a small scale use of public resources for private ends (such as using workers to do private jobs in enterprise time). Cultural connotations of money as ‘dirty’ made non-monetary transactions fairly legitimate (Humphrey, 2000). This was in tune with the distinction drawn between various forms of offence in the Criminal Code and the different penalties for engaging in them (Heinzen, 2007). Blat was not on the criminal scale at all and could not strictly speaking be characterized as illegal (by reason of its small scale or recognized necessity (voiti v polozhenie), thus falling in the category of ‘good’ or ‘ambiguous’ corruption (see also Krastev, 2004). The oppressive nature of the communist regime, and its centralized way of distribution of goods and privileges, introduces another twist in interpretation of the nature of blat practices: if blat corrupted the corrupt regime, can we refer to it as corruption? With these considerations in mind, to equate blat and corruption in Soviet conditions is to misunderstand the nature of Soviet socialism.


It is tempting to argue that blat subverted the Soviet system, and thus should be held responsible for undermining its principles and foundations leading to the ultimate collapse of the Soviet Union. Yet blat also served the needs of socialist system, and thus supported its existence, operating contrary to the system’s own acclaimed principles. Such functionality of the dysfunctional, or ambivalence, applies, for example, to the role of hackers in advancing cybersecurity (Ledeneva 2000; Assange et al. 2012). Apart from the ambivalent relationship (subversive/ supportive) with the Soviet institutions, blat produced a similar bearing on personal relationships—people were forced to use their personal networks instrumentally and that instrumentality helped to sustain those networks. People were made to want to be ‘needed’: former blatmeisters are nostalgic about blat, and babushki mind being replaced by professional child carers. The ambivalence of social networks is an interesting angle to explore as it helps identify similarities and differences in those conditions that make people use their networks for getting things done in different societies.


From ethnography to the next generation indicators
In my ethnographic fieldwork of economies of favours and informal governance, I have searched for signs of recognition of invisible matters one does not need to spell out: semi-taboos about economies of favours, complicity to leave things unarticulated, ambivalence of attitudes towards sensitive subjects. These are all pointers to the potentially innovative research. Societies’ open secrets, such as economies of favour and others, have a great potential for novel research. However there are inevitable obstacles to the study of ambivalence, whether substantive, functional or normative.


Quantitatively, the size of economies of favours is even harder to assess than that of non-quantifiable forms of corruption, such as nepotism, conflict of interest, hospitality (TI 2011). The subjectivity of value of favours, their cross-cultural incomparability and ambivalence makes it impossible to measure the size of economies of favours objectively. Rather, one could assess a spread of the phenomenon, following the methodology of measuring perception, as in the Corruption Perception Index (CPI). It should also be possible to measure the gap between the perception of others’ use of favours and self-reported experience of giving and receiving favours. Given cultural specificity of economies of favours—there are often no exact translations of related idioms, slang, or jargon from one language to another—qualitative research is essential to establish the facilitating conditions, main gatekeepers, principles of inclusion and exclusion, multiplicity of norms, needs satisfied, degrees of obligation and codification, influence of kinship, tradition and religion, social inequality and other divisive narratives. The main challenge, however, is to create quantitative indicators for the ‘immeasurable’ that would grasp ambivalence, misrecognition, doublethink, and double standards, and that could potentially be comparable across societies and move beyond the existing paradigms of measuring corruption.


One unintended consequence of the ‘informalisation’ of global economy (Sassen) is that the existing indicators of performance and change are becoming less effective. In the studies of corruption, the contemporary global corruption paradigm (GCP) with its governance indicators and multiple indices seems to have exhausted its measurement and policy potential. On the one hand, it has been dubbed as a magnificent policy failure (Persson, Rothstein, Teorell 2013) due to its incapacity to achieve its proclaimed goal—to reduce corruption all over the world. On the other hand, the present paradigm has turned unequipped to handle the ‘globalisation’ of corruption practices, as majority of indices are tied to the countries, and to differentiate between cultural contexts, assuming that corruption would be the same everywhere. The aim of a colloquium hold at the Institute of Advanced Studies in Paris on 26-27 June was to explore the following questions:
Comparing the incomparable:
How to create culture sensitive next generation indicators that would be compatible with existing transnational surveys? Can Drazen Prelec’s ‘truth serum’ methodology be applied to the corruption perception data (Prelec 2004)?
Corruption and political trust: Which invisible practices we need to know about to assess the quality of government and governance comparatively? Which are the questions that could/should be included in general social or political surveys? What are the ways to assess the impact of the perception of corruption on political behaviors and attitudes?
Practical norms: For the contexts of systemic corruption, one should search for the bottom-up, user-friendly indicators for informal practices, with focus on strength rather than frequency of relationships and practical norms rather than perceptions. How does media, new media and social media pin down practical norms? How to visualise and articulate the invisibility of informal practices?
Ambivalence of corruption: Identifying societies’ practical norms and open secrets, such as implicit acceptance of corrupt practices and their functionality, presents a challenge. Corruption gets lost between insiders’ and outsiders’ miscommunication. How to construct indicators that would reflect cultural differences and ambivalent attitudes towards corruption? How to tackle the issue of ambivalence of principal and agent roles, of public and private interests, of double standards and the Orwell’s doublethink in contexts with systemic corruption. Is it possible to assess the spread of double standards in societies?
Norm reversal: Within the existing measurements, how to distinguish indicators for the countries with systemic corruption—where corruption is a practical norm—from indicators for the countries where corruption is a deviation? Can a national-based comparison be replaced? What are the alternatives?
Nudge policies: Following Richard Thaler and Cass Sunshine ‘nudge’ approach from behavioral science, is it possible to create indirect anti-corruption policies that would be small-scale, yet effective in changing people’s behaviours? The idea is to explore the possibility of ‘oblique’ approach, suggested by John Kay in his Obliquity, for the anti-corruption policies.


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Alena Ledeneva | résidente à l’IEA de Paris

Alena Ledeneva is Professor of Politics and Society at the University College London. She studied Economics at the Novosibirsk State University (1986) and Social and Political Theory at the University of Cambridge. She authored a number of books including Can Russia Modernise? Sistema, Power Networks and Informal Governance (2013); How Russia Really Works (Cornell University Press, 2006). Her expertise is on Russia and global affairs, global governance and corruption.


01/10/2013 - 30/06/2014