Pragmatics is a theoretical framework that focuses on human communication and on the way that people interact in social settings. It is a branch of philosophy that emerged in the United States during the late 19th century. In addition to linguistics and psychology, it draws on sociology and anthropology to study human behavior (Hammond 2013; Morgan 2009).
Pragmatism is not only a theory of communication but also a methodology for research. It promotes a problem-solving, action-oriented process of inquiry that is based on democratic values and commitment to progress. It is particularly useful for educational action research that aims to create democratic communities and social justice (Biesta 2010; Greene and Hall 2010; Johnson and Onwuegbuzie 2004).
The concept of pragmatics originated in linguistic studies. However, it has recently been rediscovered by scholars in a number of other fields, including cognitive science and developmental studies.
A major challenge to creating a unified theory of pragmatics is the difficulty in characterizing the diversity of meaning products that people generate when they interpret messages conveying different kinds of meaning within and between contexts. In fact, it is not uncommon for people to infer different messages from the same utterance at different times and places given their different understandings of tasks or goals.
This phenomenon is also known as contextually dependent meanings or multimodality, and it is a crucial element of language comprehension. It is a central feature of language use and understanding, but it is too often neglected in pragmatic theories (e.g., Ferreira and Patson 2007).
There are many ways that pragmatics can be analyzed experimentally in cognitive science, such as examining the time it takes people to read individual words conveying different kinds of pragmatic meaning or comparing their performance in reading a full phrase or sentence to a reading test. Other techniques, such as eye-movement and moving-window experiments, examine how people interpret linguistic expressions in the context of a conversation or other interaction (e.g., a group discussion), and it is these methods that can provide new insights into the nature of pragmatic understanding.
Moreover, we need to investigate the social, cultural, and interpersonal contexts in which people interact, as these contexts have a profound impact on how they interpret the meanings that other people give them. This is especially important in relation to socially and emotionally complex utterances, such as those that involve conflict or negotiation.
In particular, we need to more fully consider the role that task demands play in generating pragmatic meanings, as well as the effects of these task demands on people’s performance on other tasks (e.g., reading and thinking).
For example, if a husband talks about his new car and favorite TV show to his wife, the wife may understand that he is just sharing information with her (semantics), but she will interpret his remark as an uninvited intrusion into her private space and as a rude monopolization of her time (pragmatics). She will feel that he is trying to talk over her, ignoring her presence, and that he has no idea of her feelings.