An Introduction to Pragmatics in Organizations

Pragmatics is a linguistic discipline that studies how language can be used to convey meaning in social and natural settings. This is in contrast to semantics, which deals with the literal linguistic meanings of expressions; syntax, which examines how words are combined to produce sentences; and semiotics, which looks at how symbols and signs are used to convey information.

The roots of pragmatism can be traced to the 1870s in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where philosophers such as Charles Sanders Pierce, William James, and John Dewey advanced a philosophy that emphasized human experience over abstract concepts and beliefs. This approach was a departure from the philosophical approaches of the time, which assumed that human behaviour and actions existed apart from knowledge and understanding. Instead, pragmatists advocated that we interpret our experiences through dialectics of knowing and acting (Morgan, 2014a).

To a pragmatist, the child is a social being with a’miniature of society’ at school. Rather than relying on a book or teacher, the child gains more and more knowledge through personal experiences, which promotes self-directed learning and the development of socially desirable qualities that can contribute to a better life for him.

Similarly, when examining organizational processes, pragmatists advocate that research should be designed to make sense of ‘unseen’ processes within organizations that can have an impact on performance and effectiveness. This, they believe, will enhance the quality of organizational change.

In terms of methodology, pragmatists embrace an abduction process that aims to move from observations to theories by reasoning at an intermediate level (Friedrichs and Kratochwil, 2009; Morgan, 2014a). This is achieved through flexible and adaptive forms of data collection and analysis, which enable researchers to explore organizational processes in ways that are not static or theory-driven.

The adoption of a pragmatist orientation was strongly influenced by our desire to contribute useful and actionable knowledge anchored in respondent experience and, therefore, of practical relevance to the case study organizations. This meant that our methods had to be designed to enable staff to share their perspectives and to capture the many forms of evaluation that took place in the NGOs, as they implemented change and improved practices.

We drew on the three methodological principles of pragmatism, which guided us towards making appropriate methodological choices at the research design stage. These principles included: a commitment to the research objective, an emphasis on actionable knowledge and the need to engage with multiple interpretations of the research problem.

These methods, which facilitated the flexibility and adaptability required to capture the many different interpretations of organizational realities that NGOs employ in practice, were crucial to both projects’ success. In Project example 1, pragmatist principles enabled us to design an ethnographic methodology which augmented interviews with participant observation of programme staff. This provided a unique lens through which to observe and record the complex evaluative practices that were taking place without due recognition at the organizational level.

This research methodology allowed the researcher to investigate ‘unseen’ organizational processes at the implementation level, in order to understand their impact on project outcomes. Moreover, it allowed the researcher to enact the research objectives by capturing staff interests and perceived benefits of the project at an early stage. In Project example 2, pragmatist principles were also integral to the design of the data collection methodology, which aimed to capture both the formal and informal organizational documentation that was being used by NGOs as they developed and implemented change.