Structural Functional Approach to Public Administration

The structural functional approach to public administration is a term adapted from sociology and anthropology which interprets society as a structure with interrelated parts. This approach was developed by the celebrated anthropologist Malinowski and Radcliff Brown. So, according to them, a society has a structure and functions. These functions are norms, customs, traditions and institutions and can be analogized as organs of a body, as explained by Herbert Spencer. All these functions need to work together to make the body function as a whole.

Having explained the broader meaning of the term; it makes more sense for us to understand it from the perspective of public administration which would guide our further analysis of the topic. During his stint as a Researcher at the Foreign Policy Association in USA, Fred Riggs came across an interesting phenomenon regarding the American Public Administration. He found them to be extremely narcissistic in their approach which believed that the American way of administration was unique without any counterparts elsewhere in the world and that it was capable of answering all the administrative problems emerging in the new developing countries.

To explore the consequences of intermingling of contrasting systems in the developing countries, he looked at the structural functional approach of the social sciences. This approach provides a mechanism to understand social processes. The function is the consequence of patterns of actions while the structure is the resultant institution and the pattern of action itself. It reads complicated but the theory in itself is not that difficult to understand. Social structures can be concrete (like Government department and Bureaus or even specific societies held together by shared beliefs, customs and morals) and also analytic like structure of power or authority.

These structures perform certain functions and in terms of structural functional approach, these functions have an interdependent pattern between structures. So as a public administration student, if one would want to study bureaucracy, the first step would be to view beurocracy as a structure which has administrative system with characteristics like hierarchy, specialization, rules and roles. The behavioral characteristics can be rationality, neutrality, professionalism and rule orientation. Subsequently, one can proceed to analyze the functions of bureaucracy.

Now, we come to an interesting and relevant question pertaining to the above explanation. Do the similar kinds of structures perform the same functions? The structural functionalists say a big Nay to that, which means that a structure can perform multiple functions and vice versa i.e. one function can be performed by multiple structures.

According to Riggs, there are five functional requisites of a society:

  • Economic
  • Socio-communicational
  • Symbolic
  • Political

While talking about Riggs explanation of the concept and contribution to this approach, we cannot proceed further without mentioning his Prismatic Model. This model uses a common phenomenon as an analogy, when white light passes through a prism it breaks into seven colors of different wavelength. As per Riggs, the white light is the fused structure of traditional society. The rainbow represents the diffracted (or refracted) structures of an industrialized society. Inside the prism the society was in transition.

Prismatic Model

Riggs challenged the traditional approaches of public administration implying that basic principles of administration have universal application. It also contributed to the comparative study of public administration by providing a more relevant perspective; that not all systems work the same in all places, so one can take what one likes and leave the rest.


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