Who was Jane Addams and what can she teach us about field research?


In a recent chapter published in the Oxford Handbook of Jane Addams (open access) , social scientists Chiara Ruffa and Chiara Tulp engage with the work of Jane Addams, an American sociologist of the early twentieth century. Increasingly considered a founding figure of the social sciences, Addams’ thinking and life trajectory also provide useful lessons for contemporary scholars who engage in field research. Ruffa presents this contribution in the following interview.

In your contribution entitled “Strange Encounters? Contemporary Field Researchers and Six Lessons from Jane Addams,” you suggest lessons to be learned from the work and life of pioneer social scientists Jane Addams. Could you introduce us to this American sociologist and social worker from the beginning of the twentieth century?

In recent years, I have become increasingly interested in contributing to bringing a plurality of voices into scholarly conversations, engaging particularly with voices that are less often heard. In this vein, this chapter grew out of the personal necessity to contribute to a growing movement that gives voice and visibility to the founding mothers of social science disciplines. Jane Addams was a pioneer along many dimensions and an extraordinary thinker, even though she never received the recognition she deserved. A growing number of scholars have in recent years started to write about her (Owens 2018; Shields 2017; Tickner and True 2018) and, in our chapter, we focus on her relation to fieldwork. Jane Addams was an extraordinary woman and a founding figure of the social sciences even if she did not have a conventional scholarly career. Among other things, she reminds us of the importance of immersion and contextual knowledge to her ability to connect human-to-human beyond identity differences. Addams’s approach to immersion, in particular her notion of humanity, implicit empathy, and courage, reflects important cornerstones of fieldwork in International Relations and warrants more recognition. In our chapter, we engage in a conversation with Jane Addams to tease out six key lessons for the modern field researcher and I will mention three now.

Hull House Community WorkshopFirst, in contrast to many of her contemporaries, Addams took her research a step further by immersing herself completely in the contexts/communities she was studying. In addition to collecting data through questionnaires, Addams lived at Hull House for almost half a century. Over time, Addams thoroughly immersed herself in the Chicago community she lived in. She believed immersion to be indispensable for properly understanding the context of her studies and the social issues arising within the immigrant neighbourhood. In addition, she extensively and systematically documented her observations and the stories she collected from inhabitants of the immigrant neighbourhood surrounding Hull House. In contemporary research this practice is akin to keeping thorough field notes during field research. Addams published her observations and stories in various books and newspaper outlets (Addams, 1912/2005, 1912, 1907/2007), frequently using them as a foundation for her arguments for social reform. Similarly, Addams carefully documented her travels through Europe, both before and during the First World War. In addition, Addams and her peers at the International Women’s League carried out extensive interviews with politicians, soldiers, and soldiers’ families.

Second, Addams can teach us about how we view and treat the communities we research. As IR researchers, we seek to interview soldiers, rebels, peacekeepers, and civilians affected by war. Sometimes this can entail interactions with persons who engaged in active combat, or even the commission of crimes against humanity, even though many of us have rather pacifist inclinations ourselves. Addams’s notion of humanity and empathy can be useful to bridge our identities as researchers, pacifists, and feminists when engaging with participants in the field. Addams fervently argued that human nature is inherently good and that humans generally prefer cooperation over conflict. To Addams, social divisions and tensions were a consequence of war, and not a result of human nature or instinct to mistrust others. In other words, the natural human inclination is to come together in friendly ties and cooperation (Addams, 1922, p. 52). Perhaps it was this belief in the inherent human ability to form friendly relations that enabled Addams to approach individuals from all walks of life with open-mindedness and empathy—whether she shared their social status, religion, or norms and values or not. Her work may remind us that everyone should be considered worthy of respect and of being listened to. Addams wonderfully shows how one can feel a commonality and empathy even when engaging with people that do not share the same ideals and values. It is particularly noteworthy how Addams strove to approach everyone, from politicians to mothers to soldiers, with a degree of empathy. Addams engaged actively with members of the military, both before they were deployed from the United States, and after they had served during the war, even though Addams herself had no military background, and was a fervent opponent of militarism and war (Addams et al, 1907/2007). In short, Addams was able to overcome the gap in presumed values and beliefs. What we take away from Addams is her ability to separate the individual she spoke to, whether it be a politician or soldier, from what they represented—like the army, the political elite—and to listen to them as human beings worthy of respect and empathy.

Third, Addams always made efforts to engage with multiple perspectives, and seek out groups of people who were frequently overlooked, yet deserve to be seen and heard. Whichever topic Addams concerned herself with, be it education, women’s voting rights, labour strikes, or world peace, she listened to members of all a selected community so that she would be able to articulate their wants and needs to (elite) political institutions (Deegan, 1988; Addams, 1922). Like Addams, contemporary (field) researchers bear the responsibility to pay attention to those on the margins and to include them in our understanding of peace and security (Wibben, 2020), even if the results of such work might not lead to popular policy-advice or topics for publication. Addams’s work can teach us to actively seek out conversations with people from all different walks of life, and to not let personal or professional prejudices determine whom we listen to, and to whom we do not.

Jane Addams and Elisabeth Burke - Public Domain pictureDelegation to the Women's Suffrage Legislature, 1911.
Jane Addams of Hull House (left) and Elizabeth Burke of the University of Chicago. Public Domain

 Another important component was Addams’s notion of courage. We turn to Addams for inspiration in taking such steps away from the professional metrics in International Relations, and having the courage to step out of the researcher’s comfort zone. Knight (2010) wrote that [a]t seventy-two Addams was willing to be blunt. She told her audience, [. . .] that it was dangerous when people clung to old ideas, whether they did so out of loyalty to tradition or fear of appearing radical. What people needed to do now, she said, was imagine new possibilities while also seeing life as it was. Such “free and vigorous thinking”, she promised, would “liberate new sources of human energy” and make it possible to build “a bridge between those things which we desire and those things which are possible” (pp. xiii–xiv). Addams was extraordinarily courageous: she fought and argued strenuously for her ideas, and we have a lot to learn from her about this.

In particular, you propose an interesting reflection on the profession of researcher and the questions and perplexities that research can generate, in a world in which cost-effective and impact factor generating research must be produced. What do you think about this?

I am very concerned about the negative consequences of the pressures coming from the neoliberal academy that are narrowing the space that allows researchers to think, collaborate, and grow freely and creatively. I fundamentally believe that we should resist the pressures coming from cost-effective and impact-factor considerations and we should protect the academy as a space in which creative thinking is nurtured. At the same time, peer-reviewed journals in the international arena create platforms for conversations, disagreements, and the creation of cumulative knowledge, with potentially positive influence over society, which we have a responsibility to serve. The blind peer-reviewed system is highly suboptimal but it also has a dimension of meritocracy that should not be underestimated. So how do we strike that balance? We should allow for conceptual, theoretical, and methodological pluralisms. We should constantly self-question our own assumptions and biases as well as practise humility and modesty. The other element of this is to allow a plethora of formats in which academic writing can be produced, in which contributions in several languages are welcome while at the same time making sure that we are part of global, international conversations and that academia stays truly free and open.

I learned a lot from feminist and interpretivist thinkers about these issues as well as from Jane Addams. These scholars—such as Annick Wibben and Anna Danielsson—have taught me to better understand these tensions and acquire the tools to navigate them and resist them in constructive ways. A crucial element for me in this respect has been to engage with a community of colleagues and coauthors that have pushed me to question my own assumptions and think and work collaboratively. And here is where Jane Addams has been a great teacher for me once again. Addams was adamant on how we are not alone in pushing for social change both within and outside the academy. We need to work harder to support each other, to think together about how we would like academia to look and how to change it, rather than accept the status quo. Addams reminds us that we must claim space and authority—alone and together as a way to survive in academia and be better activists. We have to stand up for ourselves, and trust ourselves. Addams was heavily criticised, and when speaking out against WWI, silenced. For instance, publishers encouraged Addams to publish anonymously or under a pseudonym (Addams, 1922). She refused because she had the courage to stand up for her opinions. Addams carved out a new space for herself by becoming a social worker at Hull House, and by co-founding an international women’s peace movement.

Also, Addams reminds us of the importance of openness and curiosity and how we should normalise feelings of being lost, slowness, and not quite fitting in—especially in the contemporary publish-or-perish culture that drives academia. It is okay to lose your way and explore and we should allow ourselves to be slow and work to create structures that support our explorations.

Interview by Miriam Périer, CERI.


Addams, J. (1912/2005). A new conscience and an ancient evil. The MacMillan Company.
Addams, J. (1912). Twenty years at Hull-House with autobiographical notes. The MacMillan Company.
Addams, J. (1922). Peace and bread in time of war. University of Illinois Press.
Addams, J., Carroll, B. A., & Fink, C. F. (1907/2007). Newer ideals of peace (1st Illinois ed). University of Illinois Press.
Deegan, M. J. (1988). Jane Addams and the Men of the Chicago School, 1892–1918. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Books.
Knight, L. W. (2010). Jane Addams: Spirit in action (1st ed.). W.W. Norton.
Owens, P. (2018). Women and the history of international thought. International Studies Quarterly 62(3), 467–481.
Shields, P. (ed.). (2017). Jane Addams: Progressive pioneer of peace, philosophy, sociology, social work and public administration. Cham, Springer.
Tickner, J. A., & True, J. (2018). A century of international relations feminism: From World War I womenʼs peace pragmatism to the women, peace and security agenda. International Studies Quarterly, 62(2), 221–233. https://doi.org/10.1093/isq/sqx091.
Wibben, A. T. R. (2020, April 15). We already know what to do – duck of Minerva. Duck of Minerva. https://www.duckofminerva.com/2020/04/we-already-know-what-to-do.html.
Ruffa, Chiara and Chiara Tulp, “Strange Encounters? Contemporary Field Researchers and Six Lessons from Jane Addams” , in Patricia M. Shields (ed.), Maurice Hamington (ed.), Joseph Soeters (ed.) , The Oxford Handbook of Jane Addams, Oxford Academic, 2022.


- Jane Addams speaks to visitors to the Hull House, 8 April 1935. Public Domain.
- Hull House Community Workshop, 1938. Public Domain.
- Delegation to the Women's Suffrage Legislature, 1911, Jane Addams of Hull House (left) and Elizabeth Burke of the University of Chicago. Public Domain

Back to top