Pragmatism in Research on Non-Governmental Organizations

Being pragmatic – believing only in truths that can provide practical benefits – can be seen as a more realistic approach to life and work. In a world filled with dreams, aspirations and ideals, being pragmatic allows individuals to stay grounded and focus on what is important, which can ultimately lead to more success.

This philosophical approach to life is especially useful in research, where it can guide the search for knowledge anchored in and applicable to respondent experiences. It also encourages a flexible and iterative research process that is beneficial to both the researcher and the organization being researched. As such, it can be considered a valuable tool for conducting qualitative applied social research on NGOs, particularly in relation to the research design and data collection phases.

The roots of pragmatism stem from the ‘Metaphysical Club’, a circle of Harvard-educated men who met for informal discussions in early 1870s. It included proto-positivist Chauncey Wright (1830-1875), future Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes (1841-1935) and two then-fledgling philosophers who became classical pragmatists: Charles Sanders Peirce (1839-1914), a logician, mathematician and scientist, and William James (1842-1910), a psychologist and moralist with a medical degree.

Pragmatism arose in response to a rising tide of socio-political and scientific change, including the industrialization of American society and the growing acceptance of natural science as a valid field of study. It also coincided with a period of transition for philosophy in general, when classical platonism and idealism declined and analytic philosophy rose to dominance.

A central tenet of pragmatism is that reality is constantly changing and being modified by actions. This belief means that we can only know what something is through experience, rather than by a fixed definition or absolute value. It also means that we must be willing to compromise on what is true and false, and not get caught up in the idealism of either ‘absolute good’ or ‘absolute evil’.

In terms of research, pragmatism enables researchers to steer clear of metaphysical debates over the nature of truth and reality, instead focusing on ‘practical understandings’ of concrete real-world issues (Patton 2005). This flexibility is valuable in navigating the complex, dynamic processes of organizational settings, as well as for exploring how these may be shaped by individuals within them. It can also help researchers to develop more flexible and iterative approaches to inquiry, allowing them to move easily from the ‘world of practice’ to the ‘world of theory’. This is the approach we used in our own research on NGOs, as discussed in the following sections of this article.