Pragmatism in Organizational Research

Pragmatic is a philosophical perspective that emphasizes practical application of ideas, rather than assuming that human action and thought exists outside of a context or that knowledge can only be derived by pure deduction. Its roots stem from the work of Charles Sanders Peirce (1839–1914) and his close friend and Harvard colleague William James (1842–1910), but has since grown into a distinct philosophy with its own subfields within psychology and sociology (Brandom 2008; Morgan 2014a).

Pragmatism is often viewed as a middle ground between analytic and continental traditions in philosophy and offers a more liberatory approach to knowledge, particularly in the fields of feminism, ecology, Native American philosophy and organizational research. It is also the basis for a new field of study called experimental pragmatics. Experimental pragmatics focuses on how we use language to negotiate meaning and is concerned with what we actually manage to communicate. It asks questions about what we are trying to say, the particular circumstances and the effects of what we are attempting to communicate on our listeners.

In a pragmatic research approach, the choice of methodologies is driven by the need to generate useful and actionable knowledge anchored in respondent experience. It places a high importance on the ability to engage with diverse stakeholders in a collaborative process and to uncover the unique interests and agendas of different staff. It also enables the researcher to be flexible in data collection and analysis, moving from observations to theories by reasoning at an intermediate level, known as abduction (Friedrichs and Kratochwil, 2009).

For example, in both of the project examples used in this article, a pragmatist approach was key to engaging with the wider staff community in a meaningful way throughout the research, whilst ensuring that all relevant staff voices were heard. This was achieved by adopting a qualitative methodology and using techniques such as participant observation, focusing groups and interviews to gather the necessary data.

This flexibility in data collection and analysis enables the pragmatist researcher to develop a more grounded understanding of complex organizational processes. By combining theory and practice, it is able to identify a range of factors that influence the ways in which employees behave in specific situations and then formulate solutions to address those factors. This is in contrast to more traditional quantitative methodologies that focus solely on the measurement and statistical evaluation of an organisational process or product, which lacks the sensitivity required in a pragmatic research approach. This is why a pragmatic approach is so valued by organizations who wish to develop a deeper and more comprehensive understanding of their processes. Imagine if everyone had to explain their literal meaning of every word they said, conversations would be quite stilted and there probably wouldn’t be a whole lot of slang or jokes! In other words, without pragmatics, there wouldn’t be any communication.