Pragmatic Approaches to Research on Non-Governmental Organisations

Pragmatics is the study of language in use, focusing on what people really mean when they say something. It is about how people adapt their communication to suit the situation, taking into account cultural norms and the particular circumstances of an utterance. Pragmatic skills are often developed during adolescence and include the ability to follow social norms in different situations, as well as understanding how to correctly convey information to others.

The pragmatist approach to research, which is used in the two project examples presented in this article, allows researchers to adopt an open-minded and flexible attitude that can be used to navigate research on NGOs. It encourages flexibility in both methodological approaches and the choice of research questions, so that research can evolve as the research progresses and is informed by the needs of participants.

This flexible approach to research is particularly useful for researchers aiming to understand the social complexity of NGOs, which are often influenced by dynamic and complex processes that can be difficult to capture in formal documentation. In Project example 1, pragmatism was key in unpacking the need to conduct a wide range of research methodologies to explore the informal and everyday evaluative practices of staff, which were not recorded in formal documents. It also facilitated the development of an integrated research framework for data collection that allowed for the inclusion of a follow-up survey and participant observation.

In Project example 2, pragmatism enabled the inclusion of a’mapping exercise’ at the data analysis stage to explore the relationship between the formal and informal aspects of evaluation, and the impact this has on organisational outcomes. In this way, a more complete picture of the context and influence of evaluative practice is obtained.

Pragmatism is a valuable paradigm to guide management research, as it steers clear of metaphysical debates about truth and reality, and places an emphasis on practical understandings of real-world issues. This allows it to work alongside a range of methods, including those favoured by qualitative-dominant interpretivist understandings of socially constructed realities.

Rather than seeking to prioritise ontological, epistemological or axiological consistency between different research methods, pragmatist management researchers are able to make judicious use of the best available methods to answer their research questions, and thus provide high quality, credible and applicable knowledge.

The three selected pragmatist principles are examined in the light of our doctoral research as worked examples. This section provides a brief overview of each principle before outlining how the two projects used them to guide their design and research process. This is followed by a discussion of how these research processes linked to practice, using the projects as case studies. It is hoped that this paper will provide other researchers with a useful framework to guide their own pragmatist management research. This paper was originally published in the International Journal of Business and Management. It can be accessed via the IJBM website here. The full version of the article is available in PDF format.