Pragmatic is the theory that meaning in human communication and behavior is determined by the context of an utterance. This includes not only the words used but also the social signs, body language and tone of voice that are accompanied by an utterance. It’s why the same sign you make with your hand for “stop” in America might be considered highly insulting if made in Greece, or why your tone of voice and the way you say things are more important than the actual words themselves.
While pragmatism is an ideal for a research methodology, it’s also a philosophical approach to life that can be incorporated into one’s own beliefs and actions. A pragmatic person is focused more on results and consequences than in matters of absolute truths or falsehoods. For example, if we tell a child there are invisible gremlins living in electrical outlets who will bite them if they touch them, this may be a pragmatic belief because it gets the desired result (the kid avoids touching the outlets).
The first flaw in pragmatism comes from its reliance on what works rather than what is true. This is akin to utilitarianism, which holds that it’s OK to do whatever it takes to get the desired end result. For example, a racist claim that blacks are not people the same as whites may work for some, but it is certainly not an acceptable belief in any ethical system.
As a philosophy, pragmatism has been eclipsed by the self-consciously rigorous import of analytic philosophy that came from the likes of Russell and Wittgenstein in the 20th century. But that’s not to say pragmatism disappeared altogether; Peirce, James and Dewey continue to inspire many researchers.
Moreover, pragmatic research methods are increasingly being employed in fields other than the social sciences. For example, in the pharmacology and health care fields, pragmatism has helped researchers focus on the outcomes of drug development. This can help avoid the waste of time and money in developing drugs that are ultimately not approved for use by regulatory agencies.
In the business world, pragmatic approaches are gaining popularity because of their ability to identify what actually happens during the process of making a decision. This can allow managers to understand what is working and what is not, and therefore make better decisions.
Pragmatism can also be applied in the realm of organizational studies and other forms of qualitative research. For example, by collecting and documenting the actions of staff in respondent organizations, pragmatist researchers can uncover complex themes and issues that might be buried under formal documentation or rhetoric.
In addition, pragmatist researchers can create corpora that can be examined for pragmatic features. For instance, using concordance searches to see if certain words are frequently paired with specific concepts can provide valuable insight into how those concepts are understood. By combining these two approaches, researchers can find more complete and meaningful ways of understanding the pragmatics of human communication.