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What academia owes Jane Addams

Jane Addams is perhaps best known as Hull House activist, recipient of the 1931 Nobel Peace Prize, and forbearer of modern social work, as well as being a founding member of both the NAACP and the ACLU. Underappreciated, however, is her central role in the development of American Pragmatism and contemporary social inquiry methodology. Until the 1990s, when feminist philosophers and historians began working to recover her role in the development of pragmatist thought, her philosophical work was primarily mapped onto traditional nineteenth century gender role stereotypes and ignored. Male philosophers including Dewey, Williams, James, and Mead were seen as providing the original thought, while Addams brilliantly administered their theories. As contemporaries they reflected classic archetypes of gender: male as mind, thinking and leading; and female as body, experiencing, caring, and doing. Yet Addams was far more than a competent technician following the lead of male intellectuals. Dewey and Addams, in particular, were close colleagues and lifelong friends. Addams published a dozen books and more than 500 articles: essays on ethics, social philosophy, pacifism, and social issues concerning women, industrialization, immigration, urban youth, and international mediation. This body of work exemplifies the hallmarks of American Pragmatism: an interplay of experience, reflection, and action for the common good.

American social reformer, Jane Addams (1860-1935) by Library of Congress. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Addams’ influence on American Pragmatism is clearly reflected in contemporary social work scholarship and practice. Addams shared with Dewey and other pragmatists an action-oriented approach to knowledge acquisition and theory building that became the bedrock of contemporary social work scholarship. From a pragmatist’s perspective, we come to know the world through our experiences and actions in the world. Overt action in combination with reflection is necessary for acquiring knowledge. In short, we can test our ideas, concepts, and theories only by carrying out rational actions that follow from them and observing whether these actions result in expected outcomes. Yet Addams not only philosophized, she lived an action-oriented approach to knowledge in the pursuit of social justice. Likewise, contemporary social workers focus their practice and scholarship on addressing complex social issues such as poverty, disability, and oppression. A central tenet of pragmatism is that philosophy should address problems of the current social situation. Addams shared with other pragmatists commitments to democracy, freedom, and equality. Addams’ pragmatism, however, was arguably more radical than that of her male counterparts. Pragmatist tenets support critiques of gender, race, and class oppression, but it was Jane Addams who consistently brought oppression to the fore. From the outset, Addams theorized about her Hull House experiences addressing topics not typical of philosophical discussions such as garbage collection, immigrant folk stories, and prostitution; eventually extending her analyses to issues of race, education, and world peace.

The intellectual legacy of Jane Addams is also reflected in contemporary social science research methodology, especially mixed methods approaches increasingly used in nursing, public health, education, and social work, among other fields. Mixed methods inquiry is the intentional integration of qualitative and quantitative approaches to research in order to enhance the understanding of complex social phenomena. It combines the depth and contextualization of qualitative with the breadth of quantitative approaches. Fundamental to mixed methods research is the respectful engagement with differences including bringing to the fore voices that have been silenced, such as those of individuals living in poverty or with disabilities, or scholars pioneering alternative social inquiry methods. Contemporary mixed methods researchers address complex issues of human struggle with racism, poverty, illness, disability, and oppression through a back-and-forth conversation between micro and macro levels of analysis. The issues that concern us, like those that concerned Jane Addams, often involve specific individuals, groups, or communities embedded within macro level sociopolitical, economic, and cultural contexts. Indeed, the problems confronted by contemporary helping professionals are excellent candidates for mixed methods inquiry, the philosophical foundations of which were laid in the 19th century by Jane Addams and her colleagues.

Featured image credit: Hull House at the University of Illinois at Chicago by Zagalejo. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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