Why is Pragmatism so topical for organization studies and management practices today?

Why is Pragmatism so topical for organization studies and management practices today?

Professor Philippe Lorino discusses his bookPragmatism and Organization Studies, winner of the 2019 European Group for Organization Studies (EGOS) award. 

Historical background and today’s challenges

January 1872: In Cambridge, Massachusetts, a dozen Harvard graduates form a group that, for a year, will discuss philosophical issues, questioning the academic tradition of European idealist philosophy perceived as an ivory tower isolated from the vicissitudes of life. As intellectuals, they feel challenged by the strong traumas and challenges that the American society of their time faces: the aftermath of the American Civil War (1861-1865), a terrible massacre that raises the pressing question of constructive versus destructive conflicts; the publication of Darwin’s book “On the Origin of Species” in 1859, that leads to the discovery of human beings’ continuity with the rest of nature and to ecological awareness; the particularities of American social experience in that era of rapid industrial development (U.S. manufacturing production multiplied by 11 in 30 years) and technological revolution; massive immigration flows.

May 16th, 1924: At the Western Electric Company’s huge Hawthorne Works (40 000 employees), a young engineer named Walter Shewhart hands his boss a one-page memo which will make history in industrial management. Shewhart’s document consists of a diagram and a short text. It sets forth the essential principles which are involved in what we know today as process quality control, and, beyond, the founding principles of quality management, conceived as an anti-Taylorian managerial revolution. In the following years, Shewhart trains Edwards Deming in Hawthorne factory. Deming becomes the leading figure of quality management in Japan and contributes to the development of the Toyota management system, which will become the archetype of non-Taylorian management.

November 4th, 2008: The Democratic candidate Barack Hussein Obama is elected the 44th president of the United States, “sweeping away the last racial barrier in American politics”, according to the New York Times. Obama, a senior lecturer at the University of Chicago Law School from 1996 to 2004 and US Senator from Illinois since 2004, demonstrates, in his political speeches and writings, a form of philosophy with special relations to the reform tradition of the University of Chicago, involving early figures such as John Dewey, George-Herbert Mead and Jane Addams, pioneering community organizers, scholars, educators, activists in the immigrants’ settlement house movement and the Peace movement, advisors to public leaders. Obama himself has dedicated time to community organizing and educating.

What links these three events? Pragmatism. In 1872, the pragmatist intellectual trend started as an anti-Cartesian revolt by amateur philosophers. Cartesian philosophy separates body and mind, action and thought: it teaches that reasonable action must be governed by rational models that have been thought and designed by a “pure” mind, in isolation from social and material vicissitudes. For the pragmatists, intellectuals must get out of their academic ghetto and contribute to taking up the impressive challenges of their time. In 1924, pragmatist ideas became a major inspiration for anti-Taylorian managerial thought. Taylorism separates design and execution: workers must execute standard tasks previously designed and optimized by engineers. It is a typical Cartesian way of thinking, based on the separation between thought and action, between thinkers and actors. Reflective managers and consultants like Shewhart, Deming, and Toyota leader Ohno, inspired by pragmatist ideas, reject Taylorian dualism and promote a participative, exploratory and experience-based process of continuous improvement, “management by quality”, “Toyotism”, or “kaizen”. In 2008, Barack Obama refers to the pioneering experience of pragmatist thinkers and activists Dewey and Mead, professors at the University of Chicago, and Jane Addams, their friend, the founder of Hull House, the first and biggest settlement house in the U.S., Nobel Peace Prize. He adopts their political philosophy, which favours pluralism, negotiation, field experience, and social reformism.

Why is pragmatism so topical today, to theorize as well as practice organizations? We are now living in a period characterized, as were the late decades of 19th century, by war and political violence, massive migrations, industrial and technological revolution, environmental challenges and growing ecological awareness. The ever-renewed illusion of rational control based on logical representations of collective action, government by experts, hierarchical omnipotence, has caused and keeps on causing serious problems and crises. Complexity and uncertainty require exploratory inquiries, experimentation, community involvement, valuation and dialog, some of the major themes of pragmatist thought. 

The pragmatist contribution to organization studies and management practices: three examples

Pragmatism with its key concepts can renew organization and management studies virtually in all areas. Let us give three examples: management, governance and managerial techniques.

  1. Firstly, the pragmatist approach to management favours a vision of organizations centred on collective activity rather than rational decision-making based on information processing. In this perspective, activity is collective and should be principally managed by actors themselves, working as a concerned community. The pragmatist approach radically challenges rationalist dualisms, that separate thought and action, permanence and change, value and fact. It combines the key role of experience (habits) and the exploratory nature of social activity (inquiry). Collective activity never starts from scratch and always involves the usual meanings of gestures and acts, the language of habits culturally inherited, but it also constantly explores new situations in order to experiment renewed collective ways of acting (dynamics of inquiry). Habits (experience) and inquiries (exploration/experimentation) are inseparably integrated: inquiries start from disrupted habits and lead to transformed habits. An essential part of collective inquiries is the process of valuation, whereby social value judgments are debated and temporarily agreed, and facts deemed relevant for the retained values are simultaneously constructed. Practical experience is both the starting and ending point of inquiry; therefore, management cannot do without the input of field actors, as stated by Toyota leader Ohno: “actors are the thinkers of activity”.

  2. Secondly, the pragmatist approach to governance is pluralist, dialogical and emergent. It questions the "government of experts", a conception according to which the truth of situations would be accessible to knowledgeable and overlooking actors (leaders, managers, controllers), capable of founding standards of action on rational representations. Pragmatism favours a vision of stakeholders’ governance -and of democratic government at the political level- whose key words are pluralism, dialogue and emergence. Pluralism: on any questionable and improvable situation, there are multiple and equally legitimate perspectives. The plurality of viewpoints is a force driving inquiries, an asset for the relevance and robustness of adopted action. Dialogue: the inescapable plurality of perspectives gives rise to confrontations that transform each participating perspective. Emergence: these dialogues can generate new perspectives that would have been out of reach if such interactions had not occurred. Governance is not an issue of governing a given set of options, but of exploring and enlarging the space of possibilities through creative controversies. Therefore, competence is collective and emerges from dialogical relations. The stakeholders of governance are not given as such; social groups potentially concerned by corporate activities -shareholders, customers, neighbourhoods, suppliers, tax-payers, regulators...- become stakeholders only by taking an active part in the governance process. If originally unsuspected impacts are discovered, new stakeholders can join the inquiry and the boundaries between organisation and “environment” can be redefined: what is at stake is an ecological system in which boundaries are instrumental and contingent.

  3. Thirdly, the pragmatist approach views management techniques and instruments (accounting, finance, indicators, budgets and plans, human resources tools...) as signs, meaning-making semiotic mediations, rather than mimetic representations of reality. Pragmatism rejects the classical rationalist vision of instruments as exact (Taylorism) or partially but sufficiently exact (cognitivism) representations of action and thought, information processing procedures that would reproduce reality and specify action. Pragmatism replaces the rationalist heteronomous vision of collective action (action framed by rules and procedures that are external to it) with an autonomous vision (action is reflective and produces its own frames). Rather than unambiguous specifications of action, instruments and models are resources for situated meaning-making and acting, introducing, here and now, into particular situations, experience and history (the before and after of the situation) and broader social relations (the “elsewheres” of the situation, which impact it and are impacted by it).


By way of conclusion, let us note that today’s possibility to process more abundant data through more sophisticated algorithms reinforces the expectation that situations can be controlled. However, what slips through the net of massive data processing and sophisticated algorithms is a distilled concentrate of radical novelty, puzzling uncertainty, and tangled complexity. More than ever, we need to consider situated action as a central object of study, taking seriously the disruptive power of situations and the complexity of collective meaning-making. Pragmatism teaches us how to use sophisticated models without ever forgetting that they are not ontological truths, that novelty always pops up when least expected, that there is no substitute for life experience, and that social vigilance requires the understanding and possible contestation of systems and algorithms by democratic publics.

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