Pragmatic Philosophy and NGOs

Pragmatic (from Latin pragmata, meaning “to do” or “to be done”) is a philosophical perspective that advocates a practical approach to truth. It is a third alternative to both analytic and Continental philosophical traditions worldwide, first articulated by American thinkers Charles Sanders Peirce (1839-1914), William James (1842-1910) and their Harvard colleague Josiah Royce (1855-1916). Although these ‘classical pragmatists’ were influenced by earlier philosophies such as Kant and Hegel, they developed their own original ideas to form what has become known as the pragmatic tradition.

Pragmatism is a philosophical position that stresses the interconnectedness of experience, knowing and acting, and allows for different interpretations in the light of these interactions. This approach to research can be of great value in NGOs, as it provides a framework that is not constrained by preconceived notions and that allows for an exploration of the social dimensions of organizational processes and their consequences.

In practice, applying a pragmatist stance to research requires significant decision-making at the research design stage. This involves establishing research objectives, framing the research question and choosing a methodology. The choice of a pragmatic approach can be a challenging one, given that it raises the possibility that the research may fail to produce reliable results due to unforeseen pragmatic influences on what is being measured or observed. In the face of a recent crisis in experimental psychology, where a number of researchers have reported failures to replicate earlier experimental findings, this is certainly a valid concern.

Moreover, it is often difficult to identify the exact influence of pragmatics on a particular behaviour or communication act. This is especially true when examining human language use, as slang and the fact that words are often used in ways other than their literal meaning means that a pragmatic perspective on communication may be needed to understand these phenomena. For example, when your neighbour says to you “Gosh, look at the time” their intention is not normally to tell you the actual time of day; they are more likely indicating that it is time to leave or end the conversation.

However, the pragmatist philosophy offers a potential solution to these concerns by placing the research problem at the heart of the research rather than assuming that a single methodology is required to answer the question of what works or does not work. Moreover, by allowing for multiple methodologies, it is possible to avoid the pragmatic problem of unforeseen influences. This approach to research presents numerous opportunities for grounded and actionable knowledge that is anchored in the experience of NGO staff. This article explores how these principles can be enacted in the research design phase, using two doctoral projects as worked examples.