David R Maines. Encyclopedia of Sociology. 2nd Edition, Volume 3, Macmillan Reference USA, 2001.

Pragmatism, the Greek root word of which means “action,” grew out of a turn-of-the-century reaction in American philosophy to Enlightenment conceptions of science, human nature, and social order. Generally, it has sought to reconcile incompatibilities between philosophical idealism and realism. In the former, reality is conceived of as existing only in human experience and subjectivity, and is given in the form of perceptions and ideas. In the latter, reality is proposed as existing in the form of essences or absolutes that are independent of human experience. These two traditions have grounded different approaches to empiricism and in their extremes can be found, respectively, in the solipsism of the British philosopher George Berkeley and the positivistic embracement of natural law by the French sociologist Auguste Comte.

As a response and an alternative to these traditions, pragmatism has not been developed as a unified philosophical system. Rather, it has existed as a related set of core ideas and precepts that are expressed as versions or applications of pragmatic thought. Variation within that thought ranges across the realism-idealism continuum and is largely a function of different analytical agendas. Despite that variation, however, pragmatism has become quite broad in its application to theoretical and research problems. Acknowledged as the most distinctive and profound contribution of American intellectual thought, its influence can be found in all contemporary disciplines in the humanities and social sciences. Its intellectual roots are described in Rucker (1969), Martindale (1960), and Konvitz and Kennedy (1960), and its core ideas are described in Shalin (1986), Rochberg-Halton (1986), and Rosenthal (1986).

Main Ideas and Variations

In summary form, the main ideas embodying the thrust of pragmatism are as follows. First, humans are active, creative organisms, empowered with agency rather than passive responders to stimuli. Second, human life is a dialectical process of continuity and discontinuity and therefore is inherently emergent. Third, humans shape their worlds and thus actively produce the conditions of freedom and constraint. Fourth, subjectivity is not prior to social conduct but instead flows from it. Minds (intelligence) and selves (consciousness) are emergent from action and exist dialectically as social and psychical processes rather than only as psychic states. Fifth, intelligence and consciousness are potential solutions to practical problems of human survival and quality of life. Sixth, science is a form of adjustive intelligibility and action that is useful in guiding society. Seventh, truth and value reside simultaneously in group perspectives and the human consequences of action. Eighth, human nature and society exist in and are sustained by symbolic communication and language. In these core ideas can be seen the neo-Hegelian focus on dialectical processes and the concurrent rejection of Cartesian dualisms, the Darwinian focus on the emergence of forms and variation through adjustive processes, and the behavioristic focus on actual conduct as the locus of reality and understanding. These ideas were embraced and developed by a variety of scholars and thinkers, including Ralph Waldo Emerson, Percy Bridgman, C. I. Lewis, Morris Cohen, Sidney Hook, Charles Morris, Charles Peirce, William James, Charles Horton Cooley, John Dewey, and George Herbert Mead. Of these, Peirce, James, Cooley, Dewey, and Mead will be reviewed here for purposes of assessing the relevance of pragmatism to social science and sociology.

Charles S. Peirce (1839-1914) is generally credited as the originator of the term pragmatism and the formulation of some of its basic tenets. One of his earliest statements (1877-1878) pertained to methods for resolving doubt about conclusions, in which he argued in favor of science because of its flexibility and self-correcting processes. This view contrasts sharply with the Cartesian basis of science in subjectivism and individualism proposed by Descartes. Rather than focusing on belief and consciousness as definitive, Peirce focused on probability. Both truth and scientific rationality rest in a community of opinion in the form of perpetual doubt and through a process of revisions are measured in terms of movement toward the clarification of ideas. The emphasis in this process is both evolutionary, since Peirce saw modes of representing knowledge moving from chance (firstness) to brute existence (secondness) to generality or order (thirdness), and pragmatic, since truth is meaningful only in terms of future consequences for human conduct (the “pragmatic rule”).

William James (1842-1910) was driven by the problem of determinism and free will. This problem was expressed in his monumental Principles of Psychology (1890), in which he established a functional view assimilating biology and psychology and treated intelligence as an instrument of human survival, and in his brilliant analysis of consciousness (1904), in which he characterized human experience as an ongoing flow instead of a series of psychic states. Pragmatist principles were sharply articulated in these works. James accepted Peirce’s pragmatic rule that the meaning of anything resides in experimental consequences. Accordingly, the distinction between subject and object as fundamental was denied and was replaced with the idea that relations between the knower and the known are produced by and in ongoing experience. This more dialectical conceptualization informed his theory of emotions, which stressed bodily responses as producers of emotional responses (e.g., we feel afraid because we tremble) and his theory of the self, emphasizing the “I” (self as knower) and the “Me” (self as known) as tied to multiple networks of group affiliation. His focus throughout was on the operations of ongoing experience, and his formulations not only specified and elaborated pragmatist principles but anticipated or contributed to behaviorism, gestalt psychology, and operationalism.

Charles Horton Cooley (1864-1929), building on the work of James, rejected the legitimacy of all dualisms. In his famous statement that “self and society are twin-born,” he asserted the inseparability of individuals and society. Individuals, he proposed, are merely the distributive phase and societies the collective phase of the same social processes. The indissoluble connection of self and society, which was the dominant theme of Cooley’s writings, is manifested in their necessary interdependence. His theory of the social self held that self-concepts are behaviorally derived through reflected appraisals of the actions of others—the looking-glass self. Especially important in the process of self-acquisition are primary groups (family, friends), which link the person to society. Correspondingly, society significantly exists in the form of personal imaginations or mental constructs; society, Cooley stated, is an interweaving and interworking of mental selves. Cooley’s approach was thoroughly holistic and organic, with human consciousness and communication being the most critical processes, and his work added further to the pragmatist’s dismantling of the Cartesian split between mind and society.

John Dewey (1859-1952) was perhaps the most influential and prolific of the early pragmatists. Coming philosophically to pragmatism from Hegelianism, he emphasized intelligence, process, and the notion that organisms are constantly reconstructing their environments as they are being determined by them. He contributed forcefully to the critique of dualistic thought in his analysis of stimulus-response theory (1896). Instead of constituting an arc, in which the stimulus leads to a response (a dualistic conception), Dewey argued that they are merely moments in an overall division of labor in a reciprocal, mutually constitutive process (a dialectical conception). Central to those dialectics was communication, which according to Dewey was the foundation and core mechanism of social order. He developed an instrumentalist theory of language (1925)—language as a tool—which was generalized into a broader instrumentalism. One of his central interests was moral and social repair through the application of intelligence and scientific methods. He merged theory and practice in the view that ideas are instruments for reconstructing and reconstituting problematic situations. Those ideas may be moral judgements or scientific findings, but both take the general form of hypotheses, which are proposals for action in response to difficulties. Dewey thus built upon Peirce’s and James’s pragmatic rule by arguing that validity and truth statements, whether theological or scientific, are established by examining the consequences of action derived from hypotheses.

George Herbert Mead (1863-1931) sought understanding of emergent human properties, such as the ability to think in abstractions, self-consciousness, and moral and purposive conduct. His central argument was that these properties are grounded in the development of language and social interaction as humans adjust to the conditions of their environments and group life (Mead 1934). His position is said to be one of social behaviorism, in which the social act is the unit of analysis and out of which minds and selves develop. The act has covert and overt phases. It begins in the form of an attitude (an incipient act), is constructed through role-taking processes (imaginatively placing oneself in the position of others), and is manifested in overt conduct. All social behavior involves a conflation of subjective and objective processes through which persons adjustively contend with the facts of their environments and simultaneously create social situations. Mead’s explicit theory of time and sociality places these adjustments squarely in the dialectics of continuity and discontinuity (Maines et al. 1983).

In these five brief summaries can be seen how the early pragmatists wove together strands of scientific method, evolutionary theory, language, and behaviorism into a radically new perspective. Pragmatism provided a clear alternative to perspectives based on Cartesian dualisms and reconstituted science, morality, aesthetics, political theory, and social development in terms of dialectical transactions. Philosophical idealism and realism were brought into a common framework in the proposition that human experience and facts of nature and society (the “world that is there,” as Mead called them) are only phases of ongoing social processes that mediate persons and their environments in terms of transacted meanings. The variation within pragmatism hinges largely on individual affinities for idealism and realism: James and Cooley tended toward idealism, Peirce toward realism, and Dewey and Mead toward a transactional midpoint between the two. Moreover, there is variation in pragmatism’s influence in the social sciences and humanities. Dewey has been enormously influential in education and communication, Mead and Cooley in sociology and social psychology, Peirce in semiotics, and James in psychology. That variation, however, only represents modal tendencies, since pragmatism as a whole has had a significant impact across disciplines.

Influence in Social Science

Since 1980 there has been a major resurgence of interest in pragmatism (Bernstein 1986). Its compatibilities with quantum mechanics and relativity theory have been articulated, as has its relevance for the development of a more social semiotics and discourse analysis (Perinbanayagam 1986). The relation of pragmatism to hermeneutics, from the tradition of German Idealism, has been reexamined (Dallmayr 1987), as has its relation to critical theory in the work of Jürgen Habermas (McCarthy 1984), literary criticism (Rorty 1982), phenomenology (Ricoeur 1985), cultural studies (Carey 1989), and modernization theory (Rochberg-Halton 1986). According to some, such as Richard Bernstein and more recently John Diggins (1994), this resurgence indicates that the early pragmatists were ahead of their time. Some scholars in the 1990s have continued to revise pragmatist thought on its own terms. Wiley (1995) has proposed a sophisticated modification of Mead’s theory of the self through Peirce’s triadic, semiotic perspective. Joas (1993), while not writing on pragmatism, per se, has shown how pragmatist precepts have been intrinsic both to classical and contemporary theory. He also (Joas 1996) has retheorized creativity, long at the heart of pragmatism’s emphasis on novelty and indeterminism, for dominant sociological models based on structural differentiation, rational adaptation, and self-enhancement.

Other scholars have sought to reinvigorate pragmatism’s relevance for contemporary political and cultural agendas. Noting that the seeds of a feminist pragmatism existed in the work and practices of the classical thinkers (Mead, Dewey, James), Seigfried (1996) politicizes pragmatism in the common struggles of women, ethnic minorities, and the sexually marginalized. While retaining the traditional center of the perspective, she seeks to move it toward a reconsideration of contextual ethics and reciprocal moral responsibility and to promote the search for pragmatic truths that would emancipate people from distorted beliefs and values that become sedimented into accepted fact. These scholars also include Cornell West (1989), who articulated his version of “prophetic pragmatism” in The American Evasion of Philosophy and followed it with his influential Race Matters (1994), which was more politically engaged and contributed to a more vibrant democracy that better empowers local participation in institutional concerns. Still others have sought more radical revisions of pragmatism. Denzin (1992, 1996), drawing in part from West, provides a revision of pragmatism in postmodernist, cultural studies terms that seeks to transform it into a mechanism of cultural critique. Such works find audiences in humanistic circles, but have met with mixed reactions among social scientists. Farberman (1991) and Lyman (1997) reject the postmodernist project partly on the grounds of its nihilistic implications, Van Den Berg (1996) because of its limited vision of Enlightenment philosophy, and Maines (1996) because its core concepts are already contained in pragmatist thought. Others, such as Seidman (1996) have attempted more even-handed critiques and seek the common ground of postmodernism and pragmatism. Regardless of recent interpretations of pragmatism, the collapse of hegemonic theories and the corresponding import of post-positivistic debate in social scientific theorizing has brought the basic tenets of pragmatism back into the search for new paradigms in social theory.

These recent influences and developments notwithstanding, there has been a long tradition of direct influence of pragmatism on social science research and theory. Sociology’s first research classic was Thomas and Znaniecki’s (1918-1920) study of Polish immigrant adaptation to American urban life. They were interested in questions of personal adjustment, family relations, neighborhood formation, delinquency, and cultural assimilation, and they used the principles of pragmatism, especially as expressed by G. H. Mead, to answer those questions. Their monumental five-volume work presented their attitude-value scheme as a general theory of the adjustive relations between individuals and society. “Attitudes” referred to the individual’s tendencies to act and represented human subjectivity; “values” referred to the constraining facts of a society’s social organization and represented the objective social environment. Both are present in any instance of human social conduct, they argued, but the relationships between the two are established in processes of interpretation that they called “definitions of the situation.” Thomas and Znaniecki thus placed human agency at the center of their explanations, and they conceptualized society as the organization of dialectical transactions.

That research contained pragmatist ideas pertaining to the social psychological and social organizational aspects of human behavior. These aspects were developed during the 1920s and 1930s at the University of Chicago by Ellsworth Faris and Robert Park. Faris (1928) examined attitudes, especially in terms of the nature of their influence on behavior. He argued that human subjectivity is a natural datum for sociological research and proposed that wishes and desires, not attitudes, have a direct bearing on overt conduct. Park (1926) was more interested in large-scale historical issues such as urban organization and racial stratification. He directly applied Dewey’s focus on society as communication to his research on urban communities. These communities, he argued, have objective spatial patterns, but those patterns are not separable from human consciousness. Urban ecology thus has a moral dimension composed of meanings that collectivities attribute to urban areas. The pragmatist roots of Park’s sociology recently has been reemphasized in his theory of human ecology (Maines et al. 1996), his influence on applied sociology (Reitzes and Reitzes 1992; see also Maines 1997), and as a framework for describing and theorizing urban public space (Lofland 1998).

The pragmatist themes of individual/society inseparability and human behavior as transactions were pursued by other sociologists. In 1937, Herbert Blumer coined the phrase symbolic interaction to refer simultaneously to how humans communicate and to a sociological perspective. He applied that perspective to a wide range of research areas such as social psychology, collective behavior, race relations, and social problems (Maines 1989). Blumer’s posthumous volume on industrialization and social change (1990) elaborates the Thomas and Znaniecki formulations by presenting a conceptualization of causal influences that hinge on human agency and interpretation. Stone’s research on clothing and fashion (1962) similarly focuses on human behavior as transactions. In particular, his analysis of identity establishment identifies dialectical processes of communication through which individuals are located and placed in the social organization of society. His treatment of interpersonal identities is sympathetic to Cooley’s emphasis on the importance of primary groups, while his treatment of structural relations corresponds with Thomas and Znaniecki’s concept of values and predates contemporary social psychological research on individuals and social structure.

Studies of social organization have been directly influenced by pragmatist principles, as previously mentioned, but that influence has been especially apparent since the early 1970s (see Hall 1987 and Fine 1993 for summaries). Anselm Strauss’s research on occupations and formal organizations has been prominent in this recent work and has led to the development of the “negotiated order” perspective (Strauss 1978). Negotiations, he argues, are processes through which collective actions occur and tasks are accomplished. These processes are influenced by actor characteristics, the immediate situation, and larger structural contexts. However, those larger contexts are also influenced reciprocally by actual negotiations and their situations. Strauss’s model of social organization thus is a recursive and dialectical one. Stryker (1980) presents a slightly different version but one that is no less pragmatist. He incorporates traditional role theory to argue that social structural arrangements limit options and opportunities by channeling people into status and role positions. So located, people construct their identities in terms of social meanings that are hierarchically organized. Both Strauss’s and Stryker’s applications of pragmatism have stimulated considerable research and theoretical development.

Such development has continued with some vigor throughout the 1990s. Pestello and Saxton (2000) draw on explicit principles of pragmatism to reframe the study of deviance in terms of the dialectics of inclusion and exclusion. While closer to the classical statements, they share with the neopragmatists such as West, Seigfried, and Rorty the interest in reclaiming the vision of emancipatory democracy that has always been present in the perspective. Other scholars have used pragmatist principles to further develop areas of sociological theory. Fine (1992) addresses the relationship between agency and structure, and theorizes both the obdurate and interpretive dimensions of the relations among contexts of action. Musolf (1998) shows how agency and structure relations are expressed in an array of standard sociological areas (socialization, gender, deviance, power, society), while Hall (1997) offers an updated version of his earlier conceptual framework (Hall 1987) that allows analysts to better specify dimensions of agency-structure relations. Five dimensions are identified: strategic agency, rules and conventions, structuring situations, culture construction, and empowering delegates. He then shows how power is expressed along these dimensions and links together situations and contexts.

In a related approach to matters of agency and structure, Strauss (1993) builds on his earlier theory of negotiations to focus analysis on ordering processes. He begins by articulating over a dozen assumptions drawn from pragmatism that guide his analysis. He then presents a “processual order” theory that focuses on how larger scale processes and structures condition organizations and situations within which people interpret and construct their conduct and how local decisions have consequences for larger scale processes and structures. This theory has been used in research by Fischer and Dirsmith (1995) to examine organizational strategies and technology use in large accounting firms. Ulmer (1997) also has used the theory to explain how state sentencing guidelines are filtered through state and local political processes, and how local court communities set “going rates” for actual criminal sentencing. Ulmer’s research is especially relevant because it simultaneously presents data on statewide sentencing outcomes and the contextual practices that produce those outcomes.

Yet another related line of development has focused on what W. I. Thomas ([1927] 1966) called “situational analysis,” which examines the interplay of actors’ interpretations and the obdurate qualities of situations. Katovich and Couch (1992) draw on Mead’s theory of time to show how pasts are used by people to become socially situated. Situations, they argue, are not merely settings in which human conduct occurs, but rather are forms of conduct themselves and exist as transactions of pasts and futures. Gusfield (1996) presents his long line of research on alcohol problems, and addresses how those problems are constructed. He discusses various claims-makers within the alcoholism movement, and then dissects actual alcohol problems in terms of their situations—situations of drinking, of driving, of accountability—and the ideologies and logics-in-use that connect them. Hall and McGinty (1997) analyze educational policy processes from the “transformation of intentions” perspective. In a statewide study of the Missouri career ladder program, they show how various contexts (state legislature, advisory committees, bureaucratic offices, school districts, local schools) influence the original intended policy. Actual policy effects, accordingly, are strongly influenced by situational contingencies that render policy processes themselves less-than-rational. Similarily, Deutscher and colleagues (1993) analyze the contradictory findings from decades of attitude-behavior research, and provide a situational approach for explaining the inconsistencies between attitudes (what people say about themselves) and behavior (what people do). To understand consistency and inconsistencies between attitudes and behavior, they argue, we must understand the situations that produce those kinds of relationships.

One of the distinctive characteristics of social science research and theory that has been grounded in pragmatism is the reluctance to give credence to dualisms such as micro-macro or individual-society. While issues of scale have always been acknowledged and used, as the work of Park, Blumer, Stone, Stryker, Strauss, Hall, and Fine has demonstrated, the focus has been on the examination of social processes that produce, maintain, and change social orders. These social processes have generally been conceptualized as communicative in nature, and the central thrust has been on how large- and small-scale phenomena are simultaneously or similarly transacted by individuals and groups. The focus on those processes has maintained the action orientation of pragmatism, and the central precepts of the perspective are finding increasing currency and relevance in contemporary work in the social sciences and humanities.