Fred Riggs


Fred W. Riggs’ article “Agraria and Industria: Toward a Typology of Comparative Administration,” published in 1955, won him wide acclaim among scholars. Since the publications of The Ecology of Public Administration (1961) and Administration in Developing Countries (1964), Riggs’ position and reputation in the field of comparative public administration has been peerless. T. Parsons once said that “sociologists all critique Max Weber, but no one can do social research independently and scientifically without referring to Weber’s theories.” In the same manner, those who study comparative public administration will criticize Fred W. Riggs’ “fused-prismatic-diffracted model,” but in conducting research, no one is free of Riggs’ influence.

The limits of Riggs’ theory can be summarized along the following lines. First, one school of thought that supports the “fused-prismatic-diffracted model” believes that this model can replace empirical studies in general. In other words, empirical studies are regarded as having little to no value. The primary reason for this stems from the perspective that empirical studies are time-consuming and expensive. As Milne astutely points out, however, it is dangerous for novice scholars to rely entirely upon model theories. Shortcomings arise when scholars erroneously believe that once one is familiar with one model of administrative theory, one can draw broad conclusions about the administrative features of all regions without conducting empirical research.

A second critique of Riggs’ theory identifies the scope of the “fused-prismatic-diffracted model” as being too broad and abstract. Riggs’ structural function studies, which include several cultural factors–including economic, social, and political—are difficult to follow. Therefore, some scholars may be tempted to denounce this kind of large-scale theory as middle-range theory, and hence, consider empirical investigations as supplemental. The objective is thus to shorten the distance between theory and practice. Concrete examples include the study of the influence of foreign capital enterprises on political transformations, and minutely detailed categorizations of hierarchical power systems.


Another critique of the “fused-prismatic-diffracted” model argues that while it is predicated on the notion of deduction, there is little empirical evidence to support it. Most sciences require empirical evidence so that results can be verified, not only repeatedly but also at any time and place. Moreover, objective comparisons would then likewise be possible. Riggs, however, endeavors to prescribe “formalism” as a given standard, and most scholars consider this concept as unsatisfactory. Moreover, when scholars attempt to use Riggs’ model to study the administrative systems of foreign countries, they often encounter numerous difficulties. Scholars have also found that in some cases the “fused-prismatic-diffracted model” ignores certain variables, but in others it exaggerates them. For instance, as Riggs himself pointed out, aside from cultural factors there are others that should also be considered. These include historical background, the political structure of post-colonial countries, territorial size, the status of hierarchical power, and the role of the military, as well as social ideologies. Most importantly, the unique circumstances of each country will have a profound influence on administrative behavior. Yet, these are factors that Riggs seldom discusses.


In adopting a deductive process, the “fused-prismatic-diffracted” model likewise ignores the ultimate goal of public administration in its attempt to build a value-free science. W. Wilson argues that the primary function of any public administration is to work efficiently. Therefore, it should be obvious that a public administration cannot and should not abandon certain values. Moreover, while the “fused-prismatic-diffracted model” tends to supplement its theory with empirical evidence, it is sometimes difficult to find appropriately related evidence. The uniqueness of Riggs’ theory is undeniably influential. Yet, his theory is to some extent predicated on logical speculation or assumptions. For instance, Riggs believes that formalism is the primary and sole factor in increasing administrative hierarchical power within prismatic societies. This argument, however, is too simple and unequivocal to accept. To illustrate his argument, Riggs uses American society as his  model of a diffracted society. The shortcoming here is, although American society is a developed and industrialized country, one cannot infer that it is free of formalism and no longer a prismatic society. Therefore, the theoretical hypothesis that American society is a model which one should use in constructing a diffracted society is both inappropriate and unsatisfactory.

Although the analytic pattern of the “fused-prismatic-diffracted model” is based on a structural functional approach, the primary focus of Riggs’ analysis is placed instead on social factors. This analytical perspective tends to exclude other factors, which by extension prevents alternative explanations including the psychological and cognitive aspects of a prismatic administrative system. It is therefore evident that Riggs overemphasizes the organic and unified nature of social systems.At this point, it is significant to note that Riggs repeatedly emphasizes that the primary reason he uses the terms “fused,” “prismatic,” and “diffracted”, rather than classical words like “traditional,” “transitional,” and “modern”, is to avoid any insinuation of determinism. However, in characterizing prismatic theory as “a vast and remote serial structure” Riggs has not diminished its deterministic air. Riggs’ use of the prefixes eo- (primitive, old) and neo- (new, modern) are no less value-laden and deterministic than the terms agrarian and industrial, and perhaps even more so. Furthermore, the use of ortho- (straight, correct) for the transitional stage is puzzling. Instead, his choice of terms has only served to highlight criticisms of Riggs’ supposedly value-neutral public administration model. It is widely acknowledged that constructional theorists often fall prey to committing causal inferential errors, and Riggs is no exception. To his credit, Riggs openly admits that the prismatic model is suitable only in examining phenomena that occur during the social transformation process.

In an actual society, however, “independent variables” and “dependent variables” are complex and thus hard to predict. Consequently, causal inference is difficult to avoid. From a purely functional or linguistic point of view, the “fused-prismatic-diffracted” model uses too much terminology and specialized jargon. To understand it, one must patiently wade through the definitions provided by Riggs himself. Thus, in designing a new model, and in the effort to distinguish it from others, Riggs established a unique vocabulary that has no application whatsoever to other models. In addition, from a structural perspective, the “fused-prismatic-diffracted” model is awkwardly divided into three sections. This type of organization reflects the model’s formalist limitations. Factors that cause or instigate social transformations are latent, unstable, and indefinite at best. In describing the evolution of Middle Eastern society, D. Lerner’s “The Passing of Traditional Society” proves this point decisively. Certainly, there are societies whose transformations have occurred as a result of powerful external forces.

Under these circumstances, if one insists on using the “fused-prismatic-diffracted” model for analytical purposes, the result would be irrelevant to the facts. Thus, rather than starting from the angle of time and history in analyzing social transformations, one should study the interrelationship between the endogenous and the exogenous in order to better comprehend social change and development. As Pawson and Tilley have argued, programmes cannot be considered as some external impinging ‘force’ to which subjects‘respond.’Rather, programmes ‘work’ if subjects choose to make them work and are placed in the right conditions to enable them to do so. If evaluation remains obvious to contextual factors and fails to draw upon practical and experiential insights, we will never discover why any given project ‘work’ or not, why it may be successful for some and not others and which features of it might successfully be transplanted elsewhere (Squires and Measor, ).Still others argue that Riggs’ prismatic model presents an overly pessimistic perspective in its analysis of transitional societies. It is more likely, however, that Riggs`is merely skeptical about the prospect of modernizing developing regions. One reason for his attitude is that he views the transition process of non-Western societies from the epistemology of Western culture. A strong and valid criticism argues that not only is it inappropriate to apply Western standards to non-Western societies, but it is highly improper and dangerous as well.


Overall, an ecological public administration should improve upon its weaknesses in the following ways. First, in using ecological public administration as a research approach, the notion that the environment alone can determine administrative behavior should be avoided. Riggs observes that, while it is important to describe the environment’s influence on other subjects, inversely, one should also acknowledge the influence individuals have on the environment. Only by taking into consideration the dual aspects of interacting influences can we hope to develop an authentic ecological model.

Second, although the ecological approach attempts to explain the transformation process within an existing system or within the functioning of a peculiar environment, it still largely ignores the ultimate concern of public administration, namely, the evaluation of policies and the realization of intended goals.

Milton J. Esman, a comparative public administration scholar, points out that in additional to traditional research, one should also pay more attention to those studies that make a direct contribution to the substance of public administration. These include studies on industrial development, education, public sanitary science, personnel administration, and financial-economic policies, among others. Thus, rather than pointing out behavioral limitations, the ecological approach should emphasize strengths in problem-solving instead. Lastly, public administrative models that build upon the foundation of the ecological approach are usually predicated on intuitive and a priori assumptions. The models are found to be inefficient and cumbersome due to their lack of empirical experience. John Forward thus proposes an ecological public administrative model that employs statistical analyses to study related ecological factors that are based on empirical experience.

The aforementioned criticisms of Riggs’ “fused-prismatic-diffracted” model are not, of course, without their own shortcomings. Some of them may have misrepresented and even distorted the essence of science, while others are derived from entirely different

analytical approaches. In light of the interpretation and criticisms, one shouldn’t completely ignore the “fused-prismatic-diffracted” model’s contributions and strengths. Should we as social scientists and scholars fail to apply effective tools that appropriately acknowledge the “kaleidoscope” of attributes that comprise each society, then, I fear, the future development of sociology is itself rather limited indeed. Contemporary approaches to public sector strategic leadership in global and domestic arenas reflect a shift toward intangible assets rather than physical or financial capital as sources of sustainable world-class public service. This is true whether the focus is organization-specific resources, core competencies, knowledge management, or organization learning. Sustainable world-class public service occurs when an operating unit implements a value creating strategy (originated, exemplified, or endorsed by the global leader) that other global units are unable to imitate.

Increasingly, this value creating strategy is based on intangible capability-based factors,that is ecological environment. The use of public office for personal ambition and private gain not only turns the traditional public service ethos on its head but may require an entirely new response in developing a responsible accountability or ecological environment.

In conclusion, Riggs argues that listing merely one environmental factor does not constitute adopting an ecological approach. What ecological public administration requires, or more specifically what defines research as being ecological, is the identification of critical variables as well as the demonstration of administrative items and plausible patterns of correlation.

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