Pragmatic Philosophy for NGOs

Pragmatic is the study of language in context and focuses on how meaning is constructed rather than assuming a literal interpretation. It also looks at implied meanings of utterances. It is a useful paradigm for research in NGOs because the majority of organizational processes are improvised and largely reliant on the knowledge and experiences of staff members.

This makes it difficult to document and analyze these processes, but pragmatist researchers can use their inquiry process to surface complex themes that may not have been documented or articulated in official documentation or rhetoric. The pragmatist approach also suspends questions of the final ‘truth’ of research outcomes and instead focuses on their usefulness for a particular end. This can be useful in doctoral research because many projects are time-bound and focusing on pragmatic results can allow the researcher to get to work quickly with the data and avoid getting bogged down in philosophical issues and debates.

The philosophy of pragmatism was developed by James, Peirce, and Dewey, with a later contribution from Davidson and Rorty. It is an anti-dogma, non-positivist philosophy that promotes a pragmatic middle ground between dogmatic realism and neo-positivism. It is a pragmatist approach that allows us to find a truth, or truths, in the midst of a constantly evolving and uncertain world.

A central tenet of pragmatism is the belief that all knowledge comes from experience, and that the more we experience something the more true it becomes. This belief is a counter-argument to the dogmatic realism that posits that reality can be derived from objective factual knowledge. The pragmatic view also promotes the idea that there are multiple truths, that truth is contextual and relative and that it is up to individuals to determine which of these truths they want to live by.

The field of pragmatism has two main branches: semantics and pragmatics. Semantics deals with the conventional or literal significance attached to individual words, phrases and whole sentences. It includes theories of ambiguity, indexicality and demonstratives and is most closely related to linguistic philosophy. Pragmatics, on the other hand, is more concerned with the practical implications of an utterance, such as its meaning, its use in a conversation and its reference to other utterances. Pragmatics also involves theories of inference and communication, such as speech act theory, reference resolution (e.g., the determination of whether an utterance is referring to a particular object or person) and conversational implicature.

A detailed discussion of pragmatism’s epistemological, ontological and definitional roots is beyond the scope of this article, but a concise overview is presented in the ‘Background’ section. Three selected methodological principles are then used as a framework to detail how pragmatism was applied in two project examples, including a critical analysis of the strengths and limitations of each principle. This discussion links the research to practice through a reflexive and iterative analysis of how the three principles were employed throughout the research process from design and data collection, to results, conclusions and dissemination.