In administration in developing countries (1964) Riggs presented the concept of “prismatic society” to explain the unique conditions and the dynamics of politics and administration in developing countries.
As an alternative model for conceptualizing developing countries Riggs offered his “prismatic model “based on the metaphor of a prism. When white light (that is light made up of all visible wavelengths) passes through a prism it is diffracted broken into a variety of colors—a rainbow. Similarly Riggs contended societies in the process of development move from a fused mode in which little or no differentiation exists to a diffracted condition in which there is a high degree of functional specialization.
In administrative terms, this means a change from a situation in which a few structures perform a variety of functions, as in very underdeveloped conditions, to one in which many specific structures perform specific functions, as in highly developed societies like the industrial countries of the west. When the system begins to assign specific functions to specific structures, then it is evolving into a higher mode of differentiation. This phase is also referred to as transitional to the ultimate position of a complete differentiation.
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. By the same token, those who study Comparative Public Administration will inevitably find reason to critique Fred W. Riggs’ “fused prismatic diffracted model”, but in conducting research, no one is free of Riggs’ influence.
Riggs is often criticized for tearing down rather than building up. His models tend to explain why Western methods do not work without suggesting what does. It is worth remembering that Riggs’ father did not merely explain the failure of Western agriculture. He also helped set up China’s first Department of Agricultural Engineering at the University of Nanking which developed technologies relevant to local conditions. Fred Riggs is one of the very few scholars who contributed immensely to the emergence of comparative public administration and to an in depth understanding of public administration in these post colonial countries.
In this endeavor, Riggs began with a bipolar analytical framework known as the so-called agraria-industria model, which highlighted the contextual distinction of public administration between the traditional agrarian societies and modern Haque industrial nations . While the agraria is characterized by self-contained and agriculture-based economy, family- or clan-based organization, divine authority source, and communalistic value; the industria possesses interdependent market economy, achievement-oriented organization, secular authority, individualistic value, and so on. Given such contextual variations, the administrative system in the agraria is characterized by politics-administration fusion, lack of specialization, and ritualistic action; but in the industria, it is based on politics administration division, specialization, impersonal human relation, and functional action. In his research on public administration, Riggs continued to emphasize the importance of its contextual determinants.
However, since these extreme ideal types, which hardly had any real life examples, were not adequate to explain the nature of society and administration in the post colonial developing nations, Riggs was searching for a more appropriate model. He eventually came up with a new analytical construct (known as the prismatic model) to explain these transitional nations. Riggs articulated this prismatic model based on the metaphor of prism – as the fused white sunlight (which represents the fusion of several colours) passes through a prism, it becomes diffracted into several separate colours. Here the fused light signifies the fused structures of traditional society (single structure performing all necessary functions); the diffracted colours represent the specialized or differentiated structures of modern society (separate structures or institutions for major functions); and the situation within the prism (which is a transitional phase between the fused and diffracted stages) reflects the condition in developing nations, which Riggs began to define as prismatic societies. In explaining the nature of administration in these transitional societies, Riggs systematically used an ecological approach to explore their non administrative domains of society, politics, economy, and culture.
In general, such prismatic societies are characterized by formalism (theory-practice gap), heterogeneity (co-existence of the traditional and the modern), and functional overlaps (similar functions are performed by different institutions). These features are reflected in the prevalence of polycommunalism in society (interaction among communities based on suspicion and distrust); the bazaar-canteen model economy and its price-indeterminacy (caused by the influence of social status, bargaining capacity, and official position on economic behavior); and polynormativism in decision process (representing the use of both rational and non rational criteria). These ecological or contextual factors, according to Riggs (1964), play significant role in shaping the nature of public administration in developing nations, which he presents as SALA MODEL administration characterized by the coexistence of universal official norms and respect for traditions, which is reflected in the influence of family and community on official decisions (e.g. nepotism and favoritism); prevalence of both ascriptive and achievement criteria leading to the ‘attainment’ norms in public offices; and so on. However, Riggs refined this prismatic model and added new dimensions to it during his entire career in order to better understand the nature of public administration in developing countries based on an adequate understanding the role played by their unique ecological or contextual forces.
There are some major critics who consider Riggs’ models too deductive and theoretical without adequate empirical basis; too static about the influence of external social forces; too indifferent towards social change; and too over-generalized on the basis of only few case studies. Although there could be some truths in these critical observations, Riggs often offered adequate responses to these critics: that his theory-building was based on in depth case studies; that he maintained a balance between the ideographic and nomothetic approaches in his academic work; and that he was always against claiming the American administrative system as a universal model. Irrespective of some of the alleged limits of Riggs’ work, his theoretical models and arguments discussed above, are largely based on a nomothetic approach and an ecological perspective.
Limitations. 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.
Lack of Empirical Evidence. 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.
Ignoring the Ultimate Goal of Public Administration. 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 (1979: 294) 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, 2005:27) 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.