Pragmatics and Organizational Processes

Pragmatics is the study of contextual meaning in language. It takes social, cultural, and situational factors into account when understanding how people communicate with language.

It’s like semantics, but a lot more complex! Semantics is about the literal meaning of words and sentences – but pragmatics goes beyond that. It’s the subtle art of communication.

People’s pragmatic knowledge can help us understand why some sentences are more meaningful than others. For example, you might say to your daughter “Eating cookies can make you gain weight.” She would probably interpret this as you calling her fat (the semantics). But because she has your pragmatic knowledge that eating cookies doesn’t necessarily make someone gain weight, she can ignore the implication and simply reply “OK”.

Another important pragmatic concept is relevance theory. This framework, which was inspired by Grice’s ideas about implicature, states that every utterance conveys some relevant information. When an utterance isn’t relevant, listeners will typically discard it or ignore it. Listeners also track syntactic clues to figure out the intention of the speaker, based on social context. For example, when the daughter says to her mother “I’m going to eat cookies,” she’s likely not saying that she wants her to gain weight – but instead, that she’s telling her mom that her friend is coming over later and needs some cookies.

The pragmatist philosophy stems from a group of Harvard-educated men who met to discuss informal philosophical topics during the early 1870s. This group included proto-positivist Chauncey Wright and future Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, as well as Charles Sanders Peirce, a philosopher, mathematician, and scientist who would eventually become one of the first self-consciously pragmatists. Pragmatism is a belief that research should steer clear of metaphysical debates about the nature of truth and reality and focus on ‘practical understandings’ of real-world issues.

The principles of pragmatism are useful in qualitative research on organizational processes because they offer guidance for how to uncover, interpret, and share the practical implications of research data with respondent organizations. This article uses examples from two of my own qualitative doctoral projects to demonstrate how pragmatist principles were applied at each step of the research process to ensure that the resulting research was both valuable and meaningful to my respondents.

The pragmatist approach to research was particularly beneficial for the qualitative phase of my studies because it encouraged me to view my research as a tool that could be used to change and improve organizational practice. It helped me to avoid the common trap of viewing organizational data as ‘descriptors of the world as it actually is’ and instead use it to create new ways of doing things. This, in turn, contributed to a more effective and sustainable outcome for the case study participants and their organizations. This is why, at the very beginning of my research design stage, I incorporated pragmatism as an overarching philosophical orientation. Using this framework, I hope to contribute to the growing body of literature on pragmatism and its usefulness in research.