Pragmatism and the Practice of NGO’s

The word pragmatic describes a philosophy or way of thinking that is concerned with the real-world application of ideas and isn’t afraid to take action on the basis of what works best. It’s the opposite of idealistic and focuses on what is most sensible, grounded, and practical (the four-year old who wants a unicorn for their birthday is not being pragmatic).

Pragmatism has roots in American philosophy and currently presents a third alternative to analytic and continental traditions worldwide. Its first generation was initiated by the so-called ‘classical pragmatists’ Charles Sanders Peirce (1839-1914), his Harvard colleague William James (1842-1910) and Josiah Royce (1855-1916), who were all concerned with exploring inquiry, meaning and the nature of truth. Their work also included a significant influence from the scientific revolution taking place around evolutionary theory, of which pragmatists were keen observers and sometime participants.

While pragmatism is often accused of relativism, it offers the potential to explore how individual experiences, knowing and acting are shaped through social interaction. This is especially valuable at the data collection stage of research, where there is a risk that researchers’ own interpretations or beliefs could skew the responses they receive. Pragmatism is therefore of particular relevance to research on the practice of NGO’s, as it provides a framework that can be used to understand how organisational processes are influenced by underlying beliefs and assumptions.

Using the work of Dewey as inspiration, pragmatism proposes that all human experience involves some level of interpretation – interpreting knowledge and beliefs leads to action which then leads to further interpretation and changes in behaviour (Morgan 2014a). By applying a pragmatic approach to research, we can utilise this dialectic process and uncover social realities that would otherwise remain obscured by philosophical approaches that assumed that human behaviour and actions existed independently from understanding.

We can apply this pragmatist perspective to research on the practice of NGO’s by exploring how a pragmatist approach can inform a range of research methods and epistemological stances. The three core methodological principles distilled from the pragmatism literature include:

Applied at the design stage, this neo-pragmatist approach can guide NGO researchers to select appropriate methodologies that are more likely to be able to capture the lived experiences of organisational staff. For example, in our own doctoral projects, pragmatism helped us to identify the need to engage with programme staff at the implementation level of our fieldwork and to conduct interviews and participant observation to supplement limited formal documentation of evaluative activities (Kelly & Kelly, 2019c). This was important as it allowed our research to gain an accurate understanding of the subtle and informal evaluative practices that are not always captured in formal documents. This was crucial to our ability to understand the impact of a particular programme on the lives of its beneficiaries. It was only through such a pragmatic and context-driven approach that we were able to uncover some of the hidden dimensions of NGO evaluative practices.