Hortense Powdermaker (1896-1970)

by SYDEL SILVERMAN

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British-trained American anthropologist Hortense Powdermaker was best known for her wide-ranging field studies, two of them ground-breaking areas for anthropological research. As one of the persons who guided American anthropology to professional maturity during the interwar period, she brought together psychological and cultural perspectives, and examined the heretofore mystified process of anthropological fieldwork.

Powdermaker was born in Philadelphia on December 24, 1896, to a German-Jewish family of business people. She was one of four children; one sister, Florence, later became a prominent psychoanalyst. When she was five, the family moved to Reading, Pennsylvania, and when she was twelve, they settled in Baltimore. As she describes her adolescence in retrospect, Powdermaker felt detached from and critical of what she considered the family's materialistic values and sterile culture. She attended Goucher College, where she took two courses in sociology that she found unsatisfying, and then concentrated on history and the humanities. During college she "discovered" the Baltimore slums and the labor movement, and following her graduation she moved to New York, where she found a job with the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America. Unhappy with her desk-job assignment, she asked to be allowed to organize workers. Her two years as a union organizer in Cleveland and Rochester were, in a sense, an introduction to fieldwork, and evidently she was good at it. Eventually, however, she found the work limiting, and dreading the prospect of a lifetime career as a labor organizer, she resigned her job - seeking a change of scene, she set off for England.

Having decided to stay for while in London, as a diversion Powdermaker registered for some courses at the London School of Economics (L.S.E.). One of them was social anthropology with Bronislaw Malinowski, and immediately she found that "anthropology was what I had been looking for without knowing it." It was the fall of 1925, and she joined the two other graduate students


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working under Malinowski, E. E. Evans-Pritchard and Raymond Firth. The small band soon expanded to include Isaac Schapera, Audrey Richards, and a few others. (Powdermaker has described the relationship among them and with Malinowski as "a sort of family with the usual ambivalences" [Powdermaker 1966:42-43].) She took courses with others on the L.S.E. faculty, but the only one other than Malinowski who influenced her was Radcliffe-Brown. Although she still had no ambitions for an academic career, at Malinowski's insistence she registered for the degree and subsequently wrote a library thesis on leadership in "primitive" society. She was awarded the Ph.D. in 1928.

Malinowski's intellectual and personal influence on Powdermaker was powerful. A charismatic and generous teacher, Malinowski was not, however, a mentor in the sense of sponsoring her career. Like many of her contemporaries, Powdermaker spent ten years after receiving her degree devising research projects on her own and seeking support wherever she could find it. Malinowski's introductions opened doors that sometimes led to limited research funds, but the possibility of a professional position for her was apparently never considered.

As a student at the L.S.E., Powdermaker longed to have "a people" of her own, and she was eager to study at firsthand an "untouched primitive" society. In April 1929, with a small grant from the Australian National Research Council arranged by Malinowski, she went to New Ireland for ten months of fieldwork in the village of Lesu. This was a general ethnographic study guided by a functionalist orientation and covering the full range of cultural topics. Her relations with the people were evidently easy, and the fieldwork went smoothly. Although she suffered loneliness, she found it an advantage to work as a woman alone; it forced her into closer contact with the natives, and she had access to both women and men.

At the end of the Lesu fieldwork, Powdermaker returned to the United States. Through a chain of introductions initiated by Malinowski and Radcliffe-Brown, she obtained both a fellowship from the National Research Council to write up her material and an affiliation with the Institute of Human Relations at Yale. There, she met Edward Sapir, whose friendship was important to her; she credits Sapir with nurturing her interests in psychology. After Life in Lesu (Powdermaker 1933) was completed, Powdermaker hit upon the idea of trying to study a segment of her own society with the methods developed for fieldwork among non-industrial societies. With a long-standing interest in American blacks and with the model of the Lynds' Middletown before her, she decided on a community study in the Deep South. Sapir supported the plan and helped her obtain a fellowship from the Social Science Research Council. In 1932-33 and the summer of 1934, she conducted fieldwork in Indianola, Mississippi-probably the first study of a modern American community by an anthropologist.

Powdermaker felt it was necessary to include both the white and black sectors in Indianola and to function as a participant observer in both. Her success in doing so under dangerous circumstances (which she felt was possible only be-


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cause she was a woman and therefore non-threatening), and her analysis of black-white interaction, are landmark achievements for the time. After Freedom (Powdermaker 1939) emphasizes black society but covers, in the functionalist tradition, all aspects of community life. While she made explicit use of acculturation theory, the most influential contribution of the study was her treatment of the psychological adaptation of both blacks and whites to the interracial situation. (Powdermaker 1943b).

In 1938 Powdermaker joined the faculty of the newly established Queens College in New York City, becoming the founder of its Department of Anthropology and Sociology. During World War 11 she also taught at Yale in an army training program focusing on the Pacific; and in this period she wrote extensively on racial problems, including a book for high school students on prejudice (1944a). With the end of the war, she decided to indulge her interest in movies (both an avocation and a topic that had proved significant in the Mississippi study) with a research project that was thoroughly novel for anthropology. Initially she planned to do a content analysis of movies, but at the suggestion of Paul Fejos of the Viking Fund, who offered her support, she incorporated fieldwork in Hollywood into the study. The work was carried out in 1946-47, during which time she also served as a part-time visiting professor at the University of California, Los Angeles.

The hypothesis underlying the Hollywood study was that the social system in which movies are made significantly influences their content and meaning. In carrying out the study, Powdermaker focused on the process through which a film is made and the social interactions entailed in each step of the process. She worked primarily through interviews, supplemented by material from the files of the Screen Writers Guild and the Producers' Association. Later she was extremely critical of the study and felt it was limited by her own psychological inability to remain detached, as well as the difficulty of gaining access to the "front office" studio powers. Despite her limited success in penetrating the seats of power in Hollywood, Powdermaker was ahead of her time in recognizing the need to consider all sectors of the movie industry and to ' I study up. " Hollywood,the Dream Factory (1950) remains the only serious anthropological study of this key American institution, and it is the book for which Powdermaker is best known to non-anthropologists.

After Hollywood Powdermaker continued her concern with the mass media in her teaching and writing (Powdermaker 1953) and with a sabbatical ahead of her in 1953-54, decided to carry these interests forward in sub-Saharan Africa, where she had long wanted to do fieldwork. Her plan was to look at choices of leisure activities as an index to changing values and needs. Receiving a Guggenheim fellowship, she made arrangements to work in Uganda, where her friend and L.S.E. classmate Audrey Richards* was based. Shortly before she left for the field, Richards advised against going to Uganda and suggested Northern Rhodesia instead. Although she had neither special background in this area nor


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knowledge of the Bemba language, Powdermaker's eagerness to work in Africa and what she has described as her "natural optimism" made her determined to go.

While seeking a fieldwork locale in Northern Rhodesia, Powdermaker met A. L. Epstein, who was studying the mining town of Luanshya in the Copperbelt and who invited her to base herself there and share his house. Finding work through an interpreter unsatisfactory, she followed the practice of other anthropologists in the area and hired native assistants; one young man in particular became a kind of alter ego, and she relied on him heavily. Of necessity the study was based primarily on indirect sources of information-surveys and interviews conducted by assistants, essays by students, conversations recorded by her main informant, and the like. As in the Hollywood study, she encountered circumstantial and personal limits on participant observation, but she felt these were unrelated to her status as a woman. In general, she considered the age and psychological involvement of the anthropologist to be more important factors in fieldwork than gender.

Powdermaker found the Copper Town book (Powdermaker 1962) difficult to write. Eventually she drew her theoretical inspiration from the book of Erik Erikson and developed an approach that joined anthropoloRical theories of cultural change with psychological theories of individual change. Powdermaker's continuing concern with self-awareness (which earlier had led her to psychoanalysis) and her interest in field methods came together in her final major work Stranger and Friend, (Powdermaker 1966), in which she compared and evaluated her four very different fieldwork experiences. This book is the prime source for her own views of her life and work. She retired from Queens College in 1968 and moved to Berkeley, where-as always, vitally interested in the life surrounding her-she began a study of youth culture. She remained actively engaged in work and in her relationships with friends until her sudden death of a heart attack at seventy-three.

Powdermaker accumulated many honors, among them the presidency of the American Ethnological Society and an honorary doctorate from Goucher College. The honor she valued most was the Distinguished Teacher Award from the Alumni Association of Queens College. At the same time, she felt that she did not enjoy the eminence that her achievements might have brought her had she been a man-a judgment in which the author of her obituary concurs (Wolf 1971).

Hortense Powdermaker was a sociable, deeply humane person, with a wide circle of friends outside of anthropology as well as within the field, both generous and demanding in personal relationships. While she had close women friends, her relations with male colleagues and students were easier than with females. Although she never married, she had a number of romantic involvements with men. She regretted not having experienced motherhood, for which she compensated in part by becoming foster mother to Won Mo Kim, a young Korean violinist.


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Powdermaker's anthropology covers an unusually wide range of interests, and the assessments of it range widely as well. The Lesu study is now a standard source on Melanesia, although generally considered to be theoretically unremarkable. Her pioneering work in Mississippi has stood the test of time well and has achieved the status of a classic. One of the first efforts to extend anthropology to American society and the first to encompass an interracial situation, it describes social processes that came to national attention twenty years later with the civil rights movement. Her most criticized book, the Hollywood study, evoked harsh response perhaps precisely because of its accuracy and daring. In a retrospective assessment, her student Eric Wolf evaluates it much more positively than she herself did (see Wolf 1971). Copper Town received mixed reviews, with negative responses particularly from social anthropologists skeptical of her use of psychological concepts; and the book betrays the problems of field research undertaken with inadequate areal and linguistic preparation. Stranger and Friend, on the oth6r hand, was hailed for its candor and insight into the anthropological enterprise. Beyond dispute, however, is that courage, conviction, and an unquenchable zest for new horizons marked the work and the life of Hortense Powdermaker..


from Women Anthropolgists: Selected Biographies. Edited by U. Gacs, A. Khan, J McIntyre and R Weinberg. University of Illinois Press. Used by permission of the author.