Pragmatism in Organizational Research

The pragmatic approach is the ability to identify, evaluate, and act on relevant information in a given situation. Pragmatism is an epistemological perspective that places a premium on practical experience as the basis for truth. It is also a philosophical framework for research that emphasizes the need to develop actionable knowledge. Pragmatism has influenced both qualitative and quantitative methodologies and has applications in the social sciences, business and management and the humanities.

Classical pragmatists sought to resolve what they saw as an irreconcilable dichotomy in philosophy: the “tough-minded” empiricist commitment to experience and the a priori principles that appeal to rationalization. They promised that pragmatism would provide a middle ground, bridging these two ways of thinking.

Pragmatism evolved out of informal discussions between members of The Metaphysical Club, a group of Harvard-educated men that included proto-positivist Chauncey Wright (1830-1875), future Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes (1841-1935) and two would-be pragmatists, Charles Sanders Peirce (1839-1914), a logician, and William James (1842-1910), a psychologist and moralist with medical training. The pragmatists discarded traditional notions of truth and validity, instead asserting that the value of propositions lies in the way they are used. In other words, a true proposition must be valid in that it is capable of being employed in the practical endeavors of life (James 1907: 9).

A core principle of classical pragmatism was that all inquiry is situated within the practical world and therefore should be based on the concrete situations in which such inquiries are carried out. This embeddedness in practical situations is what makes pragmatism relevant to both theorists and practitioners. It also addresses a key challenge in organizational research by encouraging researchers to be flexible in their investigative techniques.

A number of contemporary pragmatists have expanded on these original ideas. They have explored issues such as the nature of reality, ethics, the meaning of life and the role of language in the creation of meaning. They have also contributed to the development of computational pragmatics, a subfield of artificial intelligence which seeks to improve the abilities of computer systems in processing human communication and interaction by developing models that are more in line with the way humans process information. This includes recognizing context, dealing with ambiguity, and providing an account of reference resolution (how computers determine whether two objects are the same or different). In addition, pragmatists have contributed to the development of grounded theory, an empirical method for conducting qualitative analysis of data. They have also developed a range of methods that allow for the inclusion of the multiple interests and agendas of diverse participants in research processes (Teddlie & Tashakkori, 2003; Morgan, 2014a).