ARTICLE 63: Research Methods for Ph. D. and Master’s Degree Studies: Pragmatism

Written by Dr. Hannes Nel

How is truth discovered in different paradigms?

Should it be based on exact and timeless facts?

Or perhaps how well an argument can be motivated?

Or will it be different for different contexts and communities?

I discuss how truth is discovered through pragmatism in this article.

Pragmatism is concerned with action and change. It focuses on communication and shared meaning-making to develop practical solutions to social problems. To be understood, a society must be observed and interpreted in terms of the action that takes place in the society. Without action, according to the pragmatist point of view, any structure of relations between people is meaningless. Action is used to change existence. To perform meaningful change, action needs to be guided by purpose and knowledge. The world is thus changed through an intervention consisting of reason and action. There is an inseparable link between human knowing and human action.

The purpose of pragmatic inquiry is to create knowledge in the interest of change and improvement. In this respect pragmatism is futuristic in the sense that it does not focus on existing knowledge, but rather strives to create new, improved, knowledge. The knowledge character of pragmatism is not restricted to explanations and understanding. Other forms of knowledge such as prescriptive, normative, descriptive, explanatory, and prospective are essential in pragmatism. 

Prescriptive knowledge refers to giving guidelines.

Normative knowledge refers to the process of exhibiting social and moral values.

Descriptive and explanatory knowledge are self-explanatory.

Prospective knowledge refers to the action of suggesting possibilities or options.

Pragmatism strives to identify actions that will make a constructive difference to a community while seeking general principles that will enable the implementation of the actions in other communities or geographical areas with the same or similar good results. Therefore, pragmatism does seek to identify generalisation of the research findings.

Pragmatism does not seek truth or reality for its own sake because truth and reality are always debatable, changing and dependent on the perceptions of those who are in power or have the initiative. Therefore, pragmatism strives to facilitate human problem-solving.  According to pragmatist assumptions the dynamic reality is based on our actions. As a pragmatic researcher, you will fall back on your own epistemology while making use of scientific research methods to collect and analyse data objectively. This means that you will need to do empirical research in a natural context.

 Pragmatism is not committed to any one system of philosophy or reality. Pragmatist researchers focus on the ‘what’ and the ‘how’ of the research problem, i.e. the ontology as well as the epistemology. The pragmatic paradigm places the research problem central and applies all approaches to understanding the problem. Data collection and analysis methods are chosen as those most likely to provide insights into the problem statement or question.  To achieve this, pragmatism makes use of abduction, which means a spiral process between induction and deduction by converting observations into theories and then testing the theories in practice.

For research, inquiry is central to the application of pragmatist thinking. It is seen as a natural part of life aimed at improving the conditions of society in the world by adapting the context in which it finds itself. This implies the controlled and directed transformation of an uncertain situation into one that is so precise in its constituents, distinctions and relations as to convert the elements of the original situation into a unified whole. 

A host of data collection methods can be used, including surveys, interviews, focus groups, etc. Data collected in this fashion can then be further analysed by means of quantitative or qualitative methods. Also, some data can be analysed quantitatively while others are analysed qualitatively. Corroboration can, however, become problematic in the sense that quantitative data can mostly not be compared with qualitative data.

In terms of research approach, pragmatism is a practical and applied research philosophy that can support a mixed approach. Pragmatism favours an emic approach with you and the target group working together to solve a social problem.

Pragmatism rejects the distinction between realism and anti-realism, which has been the core of debates about positivism versus interpretivism in the social sciences. It can be associated with constructivism, seeing that experience and reflection are required for change to take place.

Pragmatism disagrees with ethnomethodology in the sense that the former focuses on the research problem or question whereas the latter focuses more on social life. This differentiation, however, is not significant. Both pragmatism and ethnomethodology accept qualitative research methods and both seek the improvement of social life. This largely applies to the other interpretive paradigms as well, namely hermeneutics, symbolic interactionism, interpretivism and phenomenology.

Many academics criticise the pragmatic paradigm. However, most of the critique is aimed at qualitative research methodology rather than at pragmatism. Some criticism is directed at a particular context or field of research, such as religion. The paradigm as such is criticised for focusing too much on the research problem or question while the purpose of the research might be neglected. This argument, however raises the question if the problem does not lie with the manner in which the research problem or hypothesis is formulated. After all, the research problem or hypothesis should be articulated to the purpose of the research. Research should indeed, focus on the research problem or hypothesis.


Pragmatism investigates action to achieve change.

Observation is mostly used to collect data.

Truth and reality are regarded as debatable and dynamic.

The paradigm is not committed to any specific reality.

Knowledge can be descriptive, exploratory, prescriptive, prospective and normative.

A variety of research methods can be used.

An emic approach towards the target for the research is mostly followed.

Data collection and analysis focus on the research problem.

Empirical research in a natural context is conducted.

Research is aimed at solving problems as well as generalisation.

Principles for improvement are developed.

Pragmatism is associated with some elements of the interpretivist paradigms and opposed to other elements of the interpretivist paradigms.

Criticism against the paradigms is that the purpose of the research is sometimes neglected.

However, neglecting the purpose of the research is not necessarily unique to pragmatism.


Pragmatism is, in my opinion, a good and logical foundation for research in the post COVID-19 reality.

It investigates action.

It solves immediate and real problems.

Change is always part of the purpose of the research.

Existing knowledge is used to create new knowledge.

And it is flexible and efficient.

Enjoy your studies.

Thank you.  

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