For myself, undertaking a ‘Research Methods’ MSc was my earliest introduction to the ontologies and epistemologies we hold as individuals and researchers. It can be intriguing and exciting learning about the intrinsic views we hold regarding the nature of the world (Ontology), and what we deem as acceptable knowledge (Epistemology). However, during this time I found myself at a crossroads, agreeing with varying aspects of different ontologies and epistemologies, seeing a place for both positivism and interpretivism, especially when different research questions are posed. It was this last point in particular that enabled me to be at home within pragmatism, allowing me to adapt my approach based on my perception of appropriateness to the question I am tackling (Saunders et al. 2009). Solidified by its affinity with a “social justice agenda” (Morgan 2014, p. 1050), with my own PhD research focusing on the resilience of alternate food supply chains for the purpose of tackling food poverty. A problem which has seen The Trussell Trust (2018) provide in excess of 1.3m emergency food supplies to those in need between April 2017 and March 2018.
The problem for pragmatists, I found, was that you will come under considerable scrutiny, more so than those who position themselves in less encompassing philosophical positions. Feeling the need to defend against, and offer an alternate perspective to its criticisms has led me to write this post.
What sets pragmatism apart from other epistemologies is that it has allowed “researchers to focus on empirical problems and get on with the process of producing scholarship” (Pratt 2016, p. 509), and it is here that much of its criticism has stemmed from. By avoiding the debates between opposing philosophical positions, the “paradigm wars” (Gage 1989, p. 4), pragmatism has been reduced to a position of anti-intellectualism, a simple ‘GET OUT OF JAIL FREE’ card. Here, I argue that this refusal to show loyalty to just one philosophical position is exactly why it is the opposite of anti-intellectual, less a ‘GET OUT OF JAIL FREE’ and more a ‘COMMUNITY CHEST’. By selecting ontologies and epistemologies by their appropriateness to a research question, pragmatists are required to have an all-inclusive, ‘COMMUNITY CHEST’ of knowledge around differing viewpoints, from which to select from. Coupled with a need to reassess their adopted position with each study they undertake, its research question, aims and objectives. In my area of research, Mohan et al. (2013) looks at how efficiency can be improved within not-for-profit food supply chains using a simulation model, suggesting the research is undertaken from an objective ontological position. Alternatively, Johnson et al. (2013) explores the role of social capital in generating supply chain resilience from a subjective, explicitly stated social constructionist standpoint. While both these approaches differ considerably, they both seem logical to myself given their aims, with one focusing on the systematic characteristics of supply chains and the other on the human side.
It has been argued that we are in the midst of a paradigm shift that is establishing pragmatism as the dominant belief system when tackling problems within the social sciences (Morgan 2007). While this helps to validate a pragmatist standpoint, I believe it also offers explanation for much of the criticism pragmatism faces. Until the 1980s, there was a reliance on quantitative research methods as positivism became the dominant belief system. The Post-1980s saw a paradigm shift displace positivism and reliance change towards qualitative research methods. This was supported by the projection of misconceptions onto positivism by those from opposing epistemologies, with Bryant (1985) cited in May (2011, p. 10) arguing the “term is often used in a pejorative sense without due regard to its history”. Having disputed such anti-intellectual claims surrounding pragmatism I believe this raises the question:
Are academics of opposing philosophical positions projecting misconceptions as a form of sabotage to destabilise the dominant belief system?
While any criticism of pragmatism can be attributed to the “paradigm wars” (Gage 1989, p. 4), they are undermined by the fact that these wars are not only fought between paradigms, but within themselves. An example of this is constructionism, with Pernecky (2012, p. 1125) presenting the notion of “strong” and “weak constructionism”. While strong constructionists believe “knowledge about both social and physical facts is constructed”, weak constructionists believe “knowledge about social facts is constructed but knowledge about physical facts can be objective” (Pernecky 2012, p. 1125). This lack of consensus among philosophers of the same paradigm make it difficult to accept many of the criticisms placed on the legitimacy of pragmatism.
Finally, in pragmatic fashion, it is important to acknowledge that the criticisms of pragmatism are rather a direct representation of the belief system held by its critics, and their loyalty to it, rather than a flaw within the epistemology itself. For example, incommensurability is as much a characteristic of epistemologies such as positivism and interpretivism as commensurability is of pragmatism.
Gage, N. L. The paradigm wars and their aftermath a “historical” sketch of research on teaching since 1989. Educational Researcher 18(7), pp. 4-10. doi: 10.3102/0013189X018007004
Johnson, N. et al. 2013. Exploring the role of social capital in facilitating supply chain resilience. Supply Chain Management: An International Journal 18(3), pp. 324-336. doi: 10.1108/SCM-06-2012-0203
May, T. 2011. Social research: Issues, methods and practice. 4th ed. London: McGraw Hill.
Mohan, S. et al. 2013. Improving the efficiency of a non-profit supply chain for the food insecure. International Journal of Production Economics 143(2), pp. 248-255. doi: 10.1016/j.ijpe.2011.05.019
Morgan, D. L. 2007. Paradigms lost and pragmatism regained: Methodological implications of combining qualitative and quantitative methods. Journal of Mixed Methods Research 1(1), pp. 48-76. doi: 10.1177/2345678906292462
Morgan, D. L. 2014. Pragmatism as a paradigm for social research. Qualitative Inquiry 20(8), pp. 1045-1053. doi: 10.1177/1077800413513733
Pernecky, T. 2012. Constructionism: Critical pointers for tourism studies. Annals of Tourism Research 39(2), pp. 1116-1137. doi: 10.1016/j.annals.2011.12.010
Pratt, S. F. 2016. Pragmatism as ontology, not (just) epistemology: Exploring the full horizon of pragmatism as an approach to IR theory. International Studies Review 18(3), pp. 508-527. doi: 10.1093/isr/viv003
The Trussell Trust. 2018. WHAT WE DO. Available at: https://www.trusselltrust.org/what-we-do/ [Accessed: 11 February 2019].
Saunders, M. et al. 2009. Research methods for business students. 5th ed. Harlow: Pearson Education Ltd.