Pragmatic Philosophy and Research in Nonprofit Organizations
Pragmatic is an approach that seeks to determine meaning by evaluating the context of a statement rather than its literal linguistic components. Pragmatics looks at things such as the intent behind an utterance, the listener’s state of mind, and the way in which speakers convey information without explicit words (e.g., through implication). In the world of research, pragmatics has a long history of interest and has given rise to a variety of theories. For example, the field of experimental pragmatics, founded by Dan Sperber and Deirdre Wilson, is a major source of pragmatic theory.
The term “pragmatism” first arose in print about a century ago, when William James (1842-1910) applied it to a philosophical outlook that he scrupulously swore was based on the ideas of his colleague C. S. Peirce (1839-1914). While many philosophers have embraced pragmatism, no one has outlined a set of essential articles or tenets to which all pragmatists subscribe. Nonetheless, there are certain themes and theses that have loomed large in pragmatist thought.
Among these themes are the notion that an ideology or proposition is true only if it works satisfactorily and that the meaning of a proposition must be found in its practical consequences, whereas unpractical ideas are to be rejected. It is also a view that truth lies in the process of arriving at solutions, not in an absolute sense of what’s factual or false. For instance, a parachutist’s assumption that their parachute will open may not be factual in any sense of the word but it is likely to be productive.
A third theme is that reality and experience are interconnected. For pragmatists, this is evident in the research process itself, which involves learning through doing and observing. This can be especially beneficial in the study of NGOs where organizational processes are rarely documented, and thus must be discovered through a combination of formal documentation and staff reports.
Pragmatism also offers a framework for analyzing research data and making informed choices about how to proceed with research in the real world of respondent organizations. It allows for flexibility in research design and emphasizes the importance of incorporating staff interests and perceived benefits at the outset of any inquiry.
Pragmatism has a particular relevance for research in the social sciences. Specifically, it provides a framework for examining people’s use and understanding of language in its naturalistic setting. In addition, the pragmatist philosophy can be used to examine how research participants’ perceptions and interpretations of experiment results affect the validity of those results. This aspect of pragmatics is often neglected in studies of human perception and cognition, as scholars rely on theoretical interpretations of experimental results without addressing the nature of the tasks that researchers ask participants to perform. The pragmatist framework can be a valuable tool for bringing this critical element of pragmatics to the attention of psycholinguistic and cognitive neuroscience researchers. This is important because, as we will show, it is in the task demands themselves that pragmatics plays a significant role.