Ethics or the Right Thing?

Corruption and Care in the Age of Good Governance

By Sylvia Tidey

A sympathetic examination of the failure of anti-corruption efforts in contemporary Indonesia. Combining ethnographic fieldwork in the city of Kupang with an acute historical sensibility, Sylvia Tidey shows how good governance initiatives paradoxically perpetuate civil service corruption while also facilitating the emergence of new forms of it. Importing critical insights from the anthropology of ethics to the burgeoning anthropology of corruption, Tidey exposes enduring developmentalist fallacies that treat corruption as endemic to non-Western subjects. In practice, it is often indistinguishable from the ethics of care and exchange, as Indonesian civil servants make worthwhile lives for themselves and their families.

This book will be a vital text for anthropologists and other social scientists, particularly scholars of global studies, development studies, and Southeast Asia.


“In this excellent ethnography, Sylvia Tidey interrogates the widely prevalent assumption in global discourse about the state and development that corruption is always inimical to the “good,” thereby challenging dominant conceptions of good governance. Based on long-term research in Indonesia, she argues—and convincingly demonstrates—that corruption can, in practice, be deeply intertwined with care. More broadly, the book offers an insightful perspective on ethics embedded in a nuanced understanding of social and political relations.”

Daniel Jordan Smith, author of A Culture of Corruption: Everyday Deception and Popular Discontent in Nigeria

“This is an example of anthropology at its best – beautifully written, utterly compelling and dealing with endless entanglements without losing the reader. Theoretically, it is a sophisticated picture of how individuality, relational life and broader social processes interact on the themes of care and corruption. Tidey conveys an area that has been largely underplayed by social science – that people navigate contradictions, paradoxes and opposing meanings all at the same time. As binary polarisations in political ideologies return with force, this nuanced and subtle account of an ethical domain is timely.”

Emma Crewe, author of The Anthropology of Parliaments: Entanglements in Democratic Politics

“Where, if anywhere, does care stop and corruption begin and vice-versa?  These are fundamental ethical issues that receive searching exploration in this brilliantly observed study of civil servants in Kupang, simultaneously Indonesia’s self-styled “giving city” and its allegedly most corrupt.  A strikingly original examination not only of personal but also of political morality, this book marks a major advance in the anthropology both of ethics and of governance.  It is destined to be widely influential.”

Joel Robbins, author of Becoming Sinners: Christianity and Moral Torment in a Papua New Guinea Society


Sylvia Tidey is Assistant Professor of Anthropology and Global Studies at the University of Virginia. 


© HAU Books, 2022
6″ x 9″, 250 pp.

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Chapter 1. Kupang, the Giving City

Chapter 2. Corruption as Caring Responsibility

Chapter 3. Between the Ethical and the Right Thing

Chapter 4. Poetics and Poiesis

Chapter 5. Reading the Bidding Books



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