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Jane Addams as a Sociological Theorist

Jane Addams was born in 1860 in Cedarville, Illinois. She is an American widely regarded sociologist and philosopher. Besides, she was the second woman rewarded with Nobel Peace Prize in 1931. In 1889 she became a co-founder of the first settlement house in the United States called Hull House. Together with her friend E. Starr, organized in Chicago, crèche, library, gym, bookbinding, communal kitchen, art studio, museum work, pension for young workers, etc. (Davis, 1973).

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Addams educated in the United States and Europe. In 1877, she entered the Rockford Female Seminary that prepared women for missionary work. Addams graduated from high school with honors in 1881; a year later received a bachelor’s degree. There she found out about the women community and how women can be supportive to each other. Later Addams repeated this atmosphere at Hull House. In late 1881 she entered the Women’s Medical College (Philadelphia), but because of poor health, Addams was able to study only a few months (Davis, 1973).

Her father and Abraham Lincoln made a great impact on her development, being moral examples and inspirations to her. In spite of the fact that Addams was a great organizer and activist, she showed an interest in social theory too. She was caught up in Ancient Greek and Romantics’ philosophy. Being at Rockford, Addams was also consumed by the works of John Ruskin and Thomas Carlyle, who made a significant impact on her way of thinking. Lively conversations with William James, John Dewey, and George Herbert Mead at Hull House had a great effect upon Addams too. Being mentally matured, Addams began to develop her public philosophy in the American Pragmatist Tradition. (Elshtain, 2002)

In 1899 Addams adjusted her activities into theoretical form, publishing The Function of the Social Settlement. Addams examined knowledge as the most significant contemporary issue. She was sure that this knowledge creation could be mutually beneficial: society can find something useful from the knowledge, which immigrants brought. Immigrants, in turn, can gain from learning about Americans too. It was a great and new step that immigrants could enrich American culture. Since Addams founded Hull House, she became an author of ten books and over 500 articles. The most significant of them are Democracy and Social Ethics, 1902, and New Ideals of Peace, 1907. Her articles were published in popular periodicals as well as in scholarly, in which Addams played the role of social leader and philosopher (Joslin, 2004).

Addams, being really interested in social philosophy, devoted all her writing to social growth and improvement. Sympathetic knowledge, pluralism, lateral progress, and fallibilism are the main aspects of her social philosophy. Addams was sure that social activities, which were held in Hull House, such as dances, going in for sports, clubs, and others, were necessary to make people feel comfortable with each other, thus encouraging sympathetic knowledge. Dealing with Hull House, she noticed that immigrants did not take part in the political process and the economy in full size, though they had legal rights. Unfortunately, they were unable to realize them because of other laws, which were aimed at the restriction of equality. Proceeding from this, the concept of “lateral progress” came, which the main idea is that progress must be broad-based and put into effect not only by a privileged minority but by the whole society. The concept of lateral progress can be applied to different social problems. For example, when the question of women’s suffrage arose, Addams emphasized that this step would lead to lateral progress, which means unification of all people, not only women. (Elshtain, 2002)

Addams considered being a social critic, but, nevertheless, she was an adherent of such social philosophy, which was based on alternative and flexible plans of action. Being a staunch pacifist, she suffered from criticism all her life. She never followed any ideological ideas but understood the point of view of feminists, socialists, anarchists, and various Christian movements (Elshtain, 2002).

She has had a significant impact on the humanitarian sphere. Thanks to the work of Hull-House, the plight of immigrants not only softened but also served as a model for the organizers of such institutions everywhere. Despite all achievements, Addams was not immediately recognized as a classic American philosopher. Her contemporaries, including George Herbert Mead, William James, and John Dewey, acknowledged the impact of her works on their thinking. Being a member of the Chicago School of Sociology, Addams played a great role in the thinking model of colleagues in the sphere of sociology. She became a co-author of the Hull-House Maps and Papers, which later determined the main methodologies and orientation of actions of the School (Joslin, 2004).

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Addams admits that her philosophy is the basis for political, social, and historical positions. Despite the fact that her theoretical work depends on the social issues of her time, many of the ideas and concepts are still relevant today. Being adherent to pluralism, classical American philosophers have generally been skeptical of women’s suffrage and other rights, but Addams has made them interested in women’s fortune by means of her works. This fact is still significant to the modern field of Sociology, which is proved by the contemporary philosopher Charlene Haddock Seigfried. She developed the term “pragmatist feminism” to demonstrate the favorable interplay of American philosophy and feminist theory. In her works, she used Jane Addams as a typical example of a pragmatist feminist (Joslin, 2004). Today, Hull House is still functioning according to the vision of Jane Addams and keeps serving many hundred thousand people in Chicago.


Davis, A. F. (1973). American Heroine: The Life and Legend of Jane Addams. London: Oxford.

Elshtain, J. B. (2002). Jane Addams and the Dream of American Democracy. New York: Basic Books.

Joslin, K. (2004) Jane Addams: A Writer’s Life. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press.

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