Sub-theme 63: Pragmatism and Organizing for Change

Frank Jan de Graaf
Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences, The Netherlands
Anna Rylander Eklund
University of Gothenburg, Sweden
Line Revsbæk
Aalborg University, Denmark

Call for Papers

About a century ago, Pragmatism first emerged as an influential movement in education and community transformation in the USA, with a strong agenda for inclusive and democratic societal change. Recently, there has been a resurgence of interest in the potential for Pragmatism to inform organization studies, especially as a source of practical and processual insight (e.g., Dittrich & Seidl, 2018; Dionysiou & Tsoukas, 2013; Farjoun et al., 2015; Lorino, 2018; Shotter, 2017; Simpson, 2018; 2009). The classical pragmatists – C.S. Peirce, William James, John Dewey and G H. Mead, along with the activists Jane Addams and Mary Parker Follett – were engaged in practical initiatives for societal change, using methodologies based on experimentation, community building and participative democracy. Inclusion, social change and pluralism are critical concerns in Pragmatist inquiry, as ways of exploring and transforming complex situations.
In an era where complexity abounds and struggles to address societal challenges and wicked problems (Rittel & Webber, 1973) are intensifying while at the same time the risks of fragmentation and polarization are also increasing, Pragmatism offers unique perspectives on inclusion in governance and the processes of organizing for change (Dewey, 1927/1988; Follett, 1918/1965). Pragmatist notions of ‘cooperative action’ (Addams 1902/2002), ‘communities of inquirers’ (Peirce and Dewey), ‘democratic governance’ (Follett) and ‘participative democracy’ (Dewey) are still resonant in today’s organizations (e.g., Ferraro et al., 2015; Lake, 2014; Shields, 2003).
Participative democracy beyond governance is “a mode of associated living, of conjoint communicated experience” (Dewey, 1916/2010: 50) dependent on active, competent participants who are reflexive in relating their own actions to those of others and considering the actions of others to give point and direction to their own. Diverse sources of stimulation introduce novelty, which in turn offers challenges to conventional thought. The ‘functional relating’ ” (Follett, 1941) of the action of self and others requires an ‘integrative attitude’ that liberates thinking from bounded alternatives (Follett, 1941), resulting in a “breaking down of those barriers of class, race, and national territory [and other social categorizations] which kept men [sic] from perceiving the full import of their activity” (Dewey, 1916/2010: 50). From a Pragmatist perspective, constructively integrating diversity drives the development of participative democracy. This demands conscious group creation (Follett, 1918/1965) and abiding by ‘the law of the situation’ (Follett, 1941) to develop methods of working with a situation rather than merely in it, taking orders ‘from the situation’ rather than from any authority or prescriptive formula. A Pragmatist view of democracy is thus inclusive and holistic, embracing all citizens, arguing against a ‘government of experts’ (Dewey, 1988) and not stopping at the gates of the work organization. This view also includes developing ‘industrial democracy’ (Dewey), a democratic governance of and across organizations and participative organization of work.
This subtheme calls for papers that engage a Pragmatist perspective to address inclusion and inclusivity in the context of organizational change, organizing for change, and changing organizational practices. We are particularly interested in papers that show and discuss the practical implications of a Pragmatist stance.
Focusing on social-human experience, Pragmatism transcends the Cartesian thought/action dualism viewing instead “action and thought as two facets of the same process” (Lorino, 2018: 94) where “theoretical thought emerges from ordinary experience and is a constitutive and permanently involved element of action” (Lorino, 2018: 70). Thus, theory, in a Pragmatist perspective, becomes a ‘semiotic mediation’ finding its meaning in its “conceivable capacity to transform situations” (Lorino, 2018: 70). As an additional concern, in this subtheme, we are especially interested in papers exploring the capacity of Pragmatist ideas to inform and transform present problem situations though the processes of inquiry and organizing.
Acknowledging the performative epistemology and the inherently creative nature of action in Pragmatism (Joas, 1996), we are interested in learning about how organizational scholars engage with emergent realities (Mead, 1932/2002) and the plurality of possible futures made open in collective inquiry: How is the process of collective inquiry and building the community of inquirers performed (e.g., Kerveillant & Lorino, 2019)? What are the practical implications of taking orders ‘from the situation’ (Follett, 1925/2003)? What are the ethical and epistemological implications of working and researching with the situation and not merely on or in it (e.g., De Graaf, 2019; Revsbæk, 2018; Revsbæk & Tanggaard, 2015)? How do we engage with creative experience (Follett, 1924), designing the emergent ‘what-may-be’s (explorative/emancipative) of a process ontology, rather than capturing ’what-is’ (descriptive) or claiming ‘what-should-be’ (normative)?
In this sub-theme we want to explore such issues in relation to the themes of inclusion and organizing for change and invite fellow scholars from diverse fields of research to explore a variety of topics such as (but not exclusively):

  • How and where do Pragmatist concepts such as “participative democracy”, “democratic governance”, “cooperative action”, “integrative attitude” and the creation of “group process” find relevance in contemporary societies, organizations and the organizing for change?

  • Much work in today’s organizations is dependent on adhering to preset goals, standardized and prescriptive formats for conducting work, and hierarchical structures for decision making that thwart attempts at Pragmatist organizing for emergent realities. How then can we constructively work with the duality of these inherently incommensurable worldviews (Rylander et al., 2020)?

  • The overarching purpose of democratic governance is to “free the creative spirit of man” (Follett, 1918) through collective inquiry. This is how to get the fullest contribution from each individual, and it is thus the key to development and progress for any organization (Follett, 1941). How can organizations today take such an inclusive purpose into account, and how is it compatible with focus on shareholder value etc.?

  • How may we organize organizational learning (Elkjaer, 2004; Elkjaer & Simpson, 2011) to embrace situated innovation and acknowledge skillful improvisation in the organizing for change, and what is the learning needed in organizing for change?

  • What is the role of practitioners and professionals as social beings within these collective processes of inquiry (De Graaf, 2019)? This requires ethical and leadership orientation of all individuals involved. How do actors engage in purposing (Follet, 1942) while trying to maintain overall ambitions or values (e.g., Dittrich & Seidl, 2018)?


  • Addams, J. (1902/2002): Democracy and Social Ethics. Chicago: University of Illinois Press.
  • de Graaf, F.J. (2019): “Ethics and behavioural theory: How do professionals assess their mental models?” Journal of Business Ethics, 157 4), 933–947.
  • Dewey, J. (1916/2010): Democracy and Education. Las Vegas: Lits.
  • Dewey, J. (1927/1988): “The public and its problems.” In: J.A. Boydston (ed.): The Later Works, 1925–1953, Vol. 2: 1925–1927. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University press.
  • Dittrich, K., & Seidl, D. (2018): “Emerging intentionality in routine dynamics: A pragmatist view.” Academy of Management Journal, 61 (1), 111–138.
  • Elkjaer, B. (2004): “Organizational learning: The ‘third way’.” Management Learning, 35 (4), 419–434.
  • Elkjaer, B., & Simpson, B. (2011): “Pragmatism: A lived and living philosophy. What can it offer to contemporary organization theory?” Research in the Sociology of Organizations, 32, 55–84.
  • Ferraro, F., Etzion, D., & Gehman, J. (2015): “Tackling grand challenges pragmatically: Robust action revisited.” Organization Studies, 36 (3), 363–390.
  • Farjoun, M., Ansell, C.K., & Boin, A. (2015): “Pragmatism in organization studies: Meeting the challenges of a dynamic and complex world.” Organization Science, 26 (6), 1787–1804.
  • Follett, M.P. (1924): Creative Experience. New York: Longmans Green.
  • Follett, M.P. (1925/2003): “The giving of orders.” In: H.C. Metcalf & L. Urwick (eds.): Dynamic Administration: The Collected Papers of Mary Parker Follett. New York: Routledge, 50–70.
  • Follett, M.P. (1941): Dynamic Administration: The Collected Papers of Mary Parker Follett. London: Pitman.
  • Follett, M.P. (1918/1965): The New State – Group Organization, the Solution for Popular Government. New York: Longmans, Green and Co.
  • Joas, H. (1996): The Creativity of Action. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  • Kerveillant, M., & Lorino, P. (2019): “Dialogical communities of inquiry to explore the social governance of risk. Methodological outcomes of field research about nuclear safety.” Paper presented at the 35th EGOS Colloqium, Edinburgh, 2019.
  • Lake, D. (2014): “Jane Addams and wicked problems: Putting the pragmatic method to use.” The Pluralist, 9 (3), 77–94.
  • Lorino, P. (2018): Pragmatism and Organization Studies. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Mead, G.H. (1932/2002): The Philosophy of the Present. Amherst: Prometheus Books.
  • Rittel, H.W., & Webber, M.M. (1973): “Dilemmas in a general theory of planning.” Policy Sciences, I (2), 155–169.
  • Revsbæk, L. (2018): “Resonant experience in emergent events of analysis.” Qualitative Studies, 5 (1), 24–36.
  • Revsbæk, L., & Tanggaard, L. (2015): “Analyzing in the present.” Qualitative Inquiry, 21 (4), 376–387.
  • Rylander Eklund, A., & Simpson, B. (2020): “The duality of design(ing) successful projects.” Project Management Journal, 5 (1), 11–23.
  • Simpson, B. (2009): “Pragmatism, Mead and the practice turn.” Organization Studies, 30 (12), 1329–1347.
  • Simpson, B. (2018): “Pragmatism: A philosophy of practice.” In: C. Cassell, A.L. Cunliffe & G. Grandy (eds.): The SAGE Handbook of Qualitative Business and Management Research Methods: History and Traditions. London: SAGE Publications, 54–68.
  • Shields, P. M. (2003): “The community of inquiry: Classical Pragmatism and public administration.” Administration & Society, 35 (5), 510–38.
  • Shotter, J. (2017): “James, Dewey, and Mead: On what must come before all our inquiries.” In: A. Langley & H. Tsoukas (eds.): The SAGE Handbook of Process Organization Studies. Thousand Oaks: SAGE Publications, 71–84.
Frank Jan de Graaf is Professor of Corporate Governance and Leadership at the Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences and lectures in the executive education program of the University of Amsterdam Business School, The Netherlands. His research focuses on governance and leadership, with special interest in financial institutions. Frank is currently leading government/market funded research projects on financial decision-making and moral courage of accountants. He published in ‘Journal of Business Ethics’, ‘Critical Perspectives on Accounting’, ‘UNSW Law Journal’, ‘International Journal of Pension Management’, ‘Journal of Investing’, ‘Journal of Management History’, ‘EFMD Global Focus’, and ‘Business & Society’.
Anna Rylander Eklund is a Senior Researcher at Demos Academy as well as at he School of Business, Economics and Law, University of Gothenburg, and Chalmers University of Technology, Sweden. She teaches, conducts research and leads research projects addressing the intersections between design and management, academia and practice. Anna’s current research explores democratic forms of organizing and artistic and creative practices in organizational contexts, are typically cross-disciplinary and explore new formats for conducting and communicating research. Her research has appeared in diverse outlets including ‘Organization Studies’, ‘European Management Journal’, and ‘Project Management Journal’.
Line Revsbæk is an Associate Professor at Aalborg University (AAU), Denmark, with AAU’s Research Group on “Processes and Learning in Organizations (POLO)”. Her research is in organizational learning, organizational socialization, newcomer innovation and qualitative research methodology, and she has lead action research projects in employee induction, professional learning community building, and reflexive writing inquiries in organizational contexts. Line works from Pragmatism (especially G. H. Mead) and process theory perspectives to develop process research methodology, published in ‘Qualitative Inquiry’ (Revsbæk & Tanggaard, 2015) and ‘Qualitative Studies’ (Revsbæk, 2018).