Pragmatic is all about context – it’s the part of language that goes beyond literal meaning and considers social, cultural, and situational factors when we communicate. It’s the part of language that takes into account how we interpret each other, how our intentions might change based on how we interact and how our environment might influence our behavior.
The pragmatist approach to philosophy was popularized by the American philosophers Charles Peirce (1878-1926) and William James (1860-1936), who took the Deweyan ideas about inquiry, action, and experience and applied them to all kinds of subjects. Their views were influential in a number of different fields, from sociology to psychology and from biology to business management.
One important practical application of pragmatism was the invention of the field of pragmatics, which studies how we use language in conversation and interactions. This field is a subset of semantics, which studies the meaning of words and sentences in a literal sense. Pragmatics adds the dimension of context to language, which allows us to understand more of what people are actually saying when they use those words and sentences.
Another key application of pragmatism is the development of research methods. Pragmatist researchers try to incorporate elements of both qualitative and quantitative research into their work, focusing on how the knowledge gained from each method can complement each other and provide greater insight into organizational processes. They also strive to make the research process as useful as possible, by incorporating a ‘usefulness-focused evaluation’ perspective into their work.
This pragmatic approach is particularly well suited to research that involves interviewing a wide range of individuals in the organization being studied. It allows the researcher to surface complex themes and issues that might be obscured by formal documentation or rhetoric in the organization being studied. This approach has a strong relevance to NGOs, where many organizational processes are not documented and, thus, must be deduced from the actions and experiences of staff members.
Pragmatism has also been applied to the study of communication and culture. For example, the pragmatist understanding of the nature of a sign or gesture is useful in explaining how a four-year-old might ask for a unicorn for her birthday and be misunderstood by her grandparents in Greece (see this BuzzFeed article on 19 Simple Gestures That Might Be Highly Misunderstood Abroad). Pragmatic language research also varies by culture, because different languages, religions, and cultures have their own sets of pragmatic norms.
For example, a hand gesture that might be understood as a sign of respect in the United States could be seen as an insult in other parts of the world. This is because the pragmatist view of communication and culture focuses on how a particular situational context can influence what is considered appropriate or not. The pragmatist view of a truth or ‘fact’ is that it is what works, rather than what might be ideal in the long run. This is why pragmatism is particularly well suited to organizational learning research, which is concerned with how we can apply the knowledge that we gain from our experience of working in an organization in new ways to improve its performance.