Powdermaker in 1950
|Born||December 24, 1896
|Died||June 15, 1970
|Academic advisors||Bronisław Malinowski|
|Part of a series on the|
|Anthropology of art,
media, music, dance
|Social and cultural anthropology|
Hortense Powdermaker (December 24, 1896 – June 15, 1970) was an anthropologist best known for her ethnographic studies of African Americans in rural America and of Hollywood. Born to a Jewish family, Powdermaker spent her childhood in Reading, Pennsylvania, and in Baltimore, Maryland. She studied history and the humanities at Goucher College. After she graduated in 1921 she took an unusual career path for most Goucher graduates, becoming a labor organizer for the Amalgamated Clothing Workers. After becoming dissatisfied with the prospects of the U.S. labor movement amid the repression of the Palmer Raids, she took courses at the London School of Economics, then became a graduate student under anthropologist Bronisław Malinowski, who convinced her to embark on a course of doctoral studies. While at the LSE, Powdermaker also worked under and was influenced by other well-known anthropologists such as A. R. Radcliffe-Brown, E. E. Evans-Pritchard and Raymond Firth.
Powdermaker completed her PhD on "leadership in primitive society" in 1928. Like her contemporaries, Powdermaker sought to identify her anthropological work with a "primitive" people and conducted fieldwork among the Lesu of New Ireland in present-day Papua New Guinea (Life in Lesu: The Study of a Melanesian Society in New Ireland. Williams & Norgate, London 1933).
After returning to the United States, Powdermaker was given an appointment at the new, Rockefeller Foundation supported, Yale Institute of Human Relations. Director Edward Sapir encouraged her to apply ethnographic field methods to the study of communities in her own society. Powdermaker conducted anthropological fieldwork in an African American community in Indianola, Mississippi (After Freedom: A Cultural Study In the Deep South. Viking, New York 1939) and in Hollywood, the Dream Factory (1950), the first and still the only substantial anthropological study of the film industry. She then worked documenting the mining industry and the consumption of American media in Northern Rhodesia (Copper Town: Changing Africa 1962).
Her final book, Stranger and Friend: The Way of an Anthropologist (1966), was a personal account of her anthropological career, from the beginning as a labor movement leader to her last field work in an African copper mining community. In 1968, Hortense Powdermaker retired from Queens College, where she had founded the department of anthropology and sociology, and moved to Berkeley, where she remained engaged in ethnographic fieldwork. She died two years later of a heart attack. The building on the Queens College campus that houses the anthropology and sociology departments (along with other social science disciplines) is named in her honor.
Powdermaker wrote many books and articles over her lifetime, however there are a few that stand out more than others. Her ethnographies on Northern Rhodesians, Hollywood, and Indianola and her comparison of these and one another ethnography are still recognized today as important works.
Her study After Freedom of Indianola, Mississippi, was important as it was one of the first studies of modern American culture by an anthropologist, as well as one of the first studies of an interracial community. This study was conducted from 1932 to 1934 and is of particular importance mainly because she successfully completed participant observation in both White and Black communities, despite the danger of doing so. Her groundbreaking theory which arose from this study was her explanation of the psychological adaptation undergone by Blacks and Whites due to their interracial environment.
Most people, outside of the field of anthropology, who know of Powdermaker, know her from her study of Hollywood. Hollywood, the Dream Factory, published in 1950 is known today as the only serious anthropological study of Hollywood.
In order to write Copper Town, Powdermaker had to overcome some difficulties. It has been criticized by many social anthropologists who did not like her use of psychological concept as well as her lack of “linguistic preparation”. Nevertheless, it is an important work when looking at the effects of the cinema on African culture as she presents an anthropological perspective.
Stranger and Friend, published in 1966, was a comparison of her four ethnographic studies and provides an insight into her own understanding of her works. This book is also held highly in the anthropological community due to its “insight into the anthropological enterprise”.
Copper Town: Changing Africa
This work was published in 1962 in the United States. This book discusses the direct implication that the cinema, or the “bioscope” as it was called by Northern Rhodesians, had on the people who went to it. The cinema was introduce to Africa by colonial governments in the mid twentieth century and was perceived to have different influences on the African population depending on the group writing about it. There were many studies on the effects of the cinema on African people, and Powdermaker was one among many who published works about it. Copper Town: Changing Africa was an ethnographic study of the effects on Northern Rhodesia specifically. One of the main points of her work was to explain the confusion many Africans experienced when viewing Western films. One of these was understanding the concept of acting. Some who attended were confused by the concept of a film being fictional. Powdermaker describes that the concept of acting was not understood for the most part, and as a result whenever an actor “died” in one film and reappeared in another, the lack of continuity was upsetting. This was part of a deeper issue of censorship in African film. Colonial governments at the time were beginning to censor the films Africans were seeing in the cinema out of fear that certain contents would inspire Africans to challenge the colonial governments. Powdermaker looks into the content of the films and explains how some of the content was often critiqued by Africans as the difference in culture and misunderstandings of this difference led to a lack of respect for European officials. For example, such things as kissing and the use of guns. These issues created a lack of respect amongst Africans towards the White officials due to differences in culture. This conflict, in turn, threatened the Colonial order who then began censoring the films as a means of keeping Africans from rising against them. One of the main conclusions that Powdermaker draws from this conflict of culture between colonial governments and African people is that as long as the European and African relationship was non existent “the resulting ignorance [was] bound to distort communication from movies” 
- Fifty Key Anthropologists Edited by Robert Gordon, Andrew P. Lyons, and Harriet D. Lyons
- Jill B. R. Cherneff, Eve Hochwald (2006), Visionary Observers: Anthropological Inquiry And Education, University of Nebraska Press, ISBN 978-0-8032-6464-9, ISBN 080326464X
- Queens College - CUNY
- Gacs, Ute, Aisha Khan, Jerrie McIntyre, Ruth Weinburg ed. Anthropologists: Selected Biographies. Library of Congress: United States, 1989, p. 293
- Gacs, Ute, Aisha Khan, Jerrie McIntyre, Ruth Weinburg ed. Anthropologists: Selected Biographies. Library of Congress: United States, 1989, p. 295
- Gacs, Ute, Aisha Khan, Jerrie McIntyre, Ruth Weinburg ed. Anthropologists: Selected Biographies. Library of Congress: United States, 1989, p. 294.
- Gacs, Ute, Aisha Khan, Jerrie McIntyre, Ruth Weinburg ed. Anthropologists: Selected Biographies. Library of Congress: United States, 1989, p. 299
- Powdermaker, Hortense. Copper Town: Changing Africa. Harper & Row Publishers Incorporated: New York, 1962, p. 263.
- Charles Ambler, "Popular Films and Colonial Audiences: The Movies in Northern Rhodesia," The American Historical Review, February 2001 <http://www.historycooperative.org/journals/ahr/106.1/ah000081.html> 14 Feb. 2011
- Powdermaker, Hortense. Copper Town: Changing Africa. Harper & Row Publishers Incorporated: New York, 1962, p. 267
- Harloff, A.J.W. Pernicious Influence of Picture Shows on Oriental Peoples. 1934, p. 313.
- Powdermaker, Hortense. Copper Town: Changing Africa. Harper & Row Publishers Incorporated: New York, 1962, p. 272