Pragmatic Thinking and Organizational Research
The term pragmatic is often used to describe someone who focuses on what works rather than on ideals. However, pragmatism isn’t just about how we act; it’s also about how we think. Pragmatic thinking is a mindset that helps us to compromise on truths, adapt to change, and discard old traditions that don’t serve us anymore. This article explores the different concepts that are embodied by the term pragmatic, and describes how they apply to organizational research.
Pragmatic refers to the ways we make sense of ambiguous language and context, and it’s about how this knowledge informs our behavior and decisions. While semantics, syntax, and semiotics are areas of study that deal with the rules that determine the literal linguistic meaning of expressions, pragmatics is about the ways we use those expressions in context to achieve particular meanings.
One of the first proponents of pragmatic philosophy was a group of Harvard-educated men who met for informal philosophical discussions in the 1870s. They included the proto-positivist Chauncey Wright, Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, and two then-fledgling philosophers who would later become pragmatists: Charles Sanders Peirce (also known as “the father of modern logic”) and William James.
Peirce and James believed that the most important element of truth is how an action relates to the world around it. This was a stark contrast to their idealist contemporaries, who were focused on moral principles and theories of how the world should be. This approach to truth was considered radical at the time, because it meant that ideas and beliefs were less valuable than the consequences of a person’s actions.
Unlike idealists, pragmatists don’t always focus on the good of others or the larger social impact of their actions. Instead, they are more concerned with how an action will affect them and the people involved in it. The pragmatist view of truth means that it’s subjective and dependent on how a person perceives what is true for themselves, and it may differ from the truth perceived by other people.
The pragmatist view of truth has significant implications for conducting research on human interactions and organizational processes. In this way, it challenges traditional research paradigms like positivism and constructivism. Pragmatism has a strong link to the concept of inquiry, which is the ability to respond to a situation by considering possible courses of action and their consequences. This enables a researcher to choose the most appropriate course of action in a given situation, and to evaluate its effectiveness (Feilzer 2010).
The field of pragmatics draws on other fields such as sociology and anthropology, which study how human societies and cultures develop and function. These fields are helpful for explaining how communication involves much more than just the words a speaker uses, but also the non-linguistic social signals and body language that a speaker gives off to indicate what they mean. One major pragmatic theory is relevance theory, which was developed by Dan Sperber and Deirdre Wilson based on Grice’s notion of implicature.