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Powdermaker

Personal Background Edit

Hortense Powdermaker was born on December 24, 1900 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Powdermaker passed away rather abruptly in 1970.  Even though Powdermaker was never married or had any children she was known to have a large circle of friends.  Her fellow friends described her to be "highly sociable" and also "deeply humane in nature."  

Education Edit

After high school Hortense Powdermaker went on to college and ended up majoring in history. In 1921 she graduated with her B.A.  Her first job was working for the Amalgamated Clothing Workers.  Soon Hortense Powdermaker lost interest in her job because it was a desk job and she wanted to gain more hands on approach to her career. She had become dissatisfied with her desk job, so in her second career she worked on organizing workers groups and gained new experience in fieldwork. Powdermaker began to find dissatisfaction working at a desk job and asked to be moved onto a new position.  After working for a few years Hortense Powdermaker found work to be monotonous, so she decided to go back to school she went to the London School of Economics and Political Science.  She started taking classes in social anthropology and grew quite fond of the field.  Powdermaker’s fieldwork was influenced by Malinowski who was known to give his students guidelines one must use in the field. Powdermaker herself made a conclusion on how Malinowski conducted himself in his fieldwork.  Powdermaker says, “That the myths that developed around Malinowski as a fieldworker represent the ideals and high standards which he set for himself but did not always reach.” She felt that some of his students may have conducted themselves more closely to his disciplinary standards in the field, but regardless all should be grateful for the Malinowski’s rules for fieldwork.(1970:346) In 1925 she started working for him with her fellow students.  Powdermaker received her Ph.D. in anthropology in 1928.  She actually had no interest in pursuing a academic degree until Malinowski's persistence persuaded her to.

Most Influential Works Edit

Life in Lesu: The Study of a Melanesian Society in New Ireland.  Edit

After Hortense Powdermaker received her Ph.D. in anthropology she had a hard time being able to find funding for her research.  Even Malinowski who was her mentor and teacher was not willing to fund her research either.  However Powdermaker was able to obtain a grant from the Australian National Research Council. One of Powdermaker's first major works as anthropologist was her book written in 1933 titled Life in Lesu: The Study of a Melanesian Society in New Ireland.  It is seen to be one of the classic ethnographies of the 1930s. One of the books strengths is that it has a large ethnographic coverage area and  vivid descriptions.  According to Rosman and Rubel who are two anthropology professors from Barnard college, Hortense Powdermaker's fieldwork style and skills reflected her mentor Malinowski. (1991: 378) The books weakness was that Powdermaker's fieldwork  was not as contemporary as fellow anthropologists of the time. 


Even though Hortense Powdermaker was influenced greatly by Malinowski she was also influenced by Radcliffe-Brown.  She was able to spend a large amount of time with him when she was in Sydney, Australia on her way to Lesu.  Radcliffe- Brown was the Professor of Anthropology at the University of Sydney and also chairman of the Australian Research Council.  She made Radcliffe-Brown heavily involved with her fieldwork when she was in Sydney they had tea daily and she also sent him a set of her field notes. (Rosman and Rubel1991:377)Even though she found that Radcliffe-Brown's basic functionalist ideas created a equal balance in her fieldwork notes she never became a follower of Radcliffe-Brown.  Life in Lesu, is divided into chapters of a humans life cycle one of the main chapters is initiation rites another childhood. Rosman and Rubel sees this categorization as not effective because dividing everything into single analytical category is not appropriate.  For example sexuality should not be put into and condensed into just one chapter because it branches out into other aspects of life.(Rosman and Rubel 1991:379)  Though there seems to be some anthropologists who take a critical view on this work it is still influential in the field of anthropology.  Powdermaker studied a group of people about which very little of their lifestyles, culture, and society was known.

After Freedom: A Cultural Study in the Deep South Edit

While at Yale Hortense Powdermaker was introduced to Edward Sapir. Edward Sapir was a the American leader in structural linguistics. He helped her decide on her next fieldwork assignment.  He first  asked if she had any interest in studying American Indians, but her lack of interest in the topic was because of her European education caused her not to pursue the topic.  She also declined to study Hassidic Jews. Finally, Powdermaker decided to study in the deep south in Indianola, Mississippi.(Powdermaker 1966:131)  She concentrated on the antagonism going on between the whites and blacks in the community.  After Freedom: A Cultural Study in the Deep South was the second book Hortense Powdermaker  it was published in 1939. 


After Freedom was seen in the 1930s as a radical piece of work and was revolutionary at the time.  Hortense Powdermaker was one of a few anthropologist that did field research with African Americans.  She was also a white woman in a mostly male dominated field.  It is difficult to be critical of her work because of what dangers she put herself in to do much of her fieldwork. (Fraser 1991:405) After anthropology proved that there was no biological difference between races field work study of blacks seemed to diminish.  In the city Indianola, Mississippi most of her fieldwork research was done by long term observation. ( Fraser 1991:407) She also did not receive much recognition for her work unlike many other white male anthropologist and sociologists.  Hortense Powdermaker's book is a commentary on race, culture and history from a U.S. perspective.  Another key part of Powdermaker’s cultural study was her own contact with “Negros” in her own life.  She mentions that in her own home growing up she had a black seamstress and she had already made her opinion of her. (Powdermaker 1966:131)  Hortense Powdermaker work was seen as problematic because she went into her fieldwork without a blank slate she had her own personal ignorance already towards blacks.(Fraser 1991:406) 


Powdermaker felt that American "Negros" weren’t able to assimilate to the broader American society like their European counterparts.  Powdermaker argued African Americans cannot just forget about their past they used their slave experiences to create a new form of culture for themselves. (Fraser 1991:408) American Anthropologists didn’t know what to make of African American culture because it varied so differently from European American culture.  Many anthropologists tried to find out a cause for the differences.  Non-racist anthropologists at the time could only really try to prove two different things one was that African American culture varied very little from white culture norms.  The second was to discuss the survival of “Africanism” even after the oppression that slavery had caused.(Fraser 1991:407)  African Americans in the U.S. in Powdermaker's opinion used their slave past as their background not Africa.  Hortense Powdermaker felt that these things needed to be studied by an anthropological prospective.  Powdermaker’s book was a different perspectives offered at the time it is said by Gertrude Fraser an anthropology professor at Virginia University that this book and research would have been extremely different if it was done by an educated white male scholar instead of a female.(1991:404)  In After Freedom, Hortense Powdermaker was opening a door for anthropologists to also start studying outside of just culture and looking at social aspects and society. Powdermaker proved that one did not have to go outside the U.S. or Europe to some exotic location to conduct fieldwork. 

Hollywood, the Dream Factory: an Anthropologist Looks at the Movie- Makers Edit

After Hortense Powdermaker's fieldwork in Mississippi she wanted to study the effects movies had on society and how films were written had a large effect on the film.  So Hortense Powdermaker spent a whole year in Los Angeles studying the film making industry.  In 1950 Hollywood, the Dream Factory: Anthropologist Looks at the Movie-Makers was published.  Her book was seen as entirely different than anything else before no one before Powdermaker actually looked at how the filming process had large effect on the outcome and message of the picture. (Cherneff  1991: 431)She thought the media and the general radio, newspapers, and movies all had an effect on the audience's morals and culture. (Powdermaker 1950:11)


Hortense Powdermaker studied the social organization of film production and also saw that the cultural setting in which the film was made is an important phenomenon in Hollywood. Hortense Powdermaker said, "Since the people on screen seem so real and "natural" and the back- grounds and settings so honest, the human relationships portrayed must, the spectator feels. It must be true.  Its is this quality of realness which makes the escape into the world of movies so powerful, bringing with it conscious and unconscious absorption of the screen play's values and ideas."(Powdermaker 1950:14)  Movies are stories brought to the screen, but the individuals that create them are entrepuneurs who try to create films who will have a large fan base and create large box office profits. She also noticed a connection between two of her research topics. 


The whites who belonged to the community in Mississippi enjoyed movies greatly, but since they had not had much outside experience from their home communities they were not able to depict what was real and what was fictional in movies.(Powdermaker 1966:209)  This book was considered to be one of Hortense's most controversial works.  Many anthropologist's at the time were not fond of the book because of Powdermaker's newer research methods. Once again Powdermaker was broadening the field of anthropology by what she was studying. Contemporary anthropologists look at Hollywood, the Dream Factory in a positive light. The main controversy over the participant's in Hortense Powdermaker's fieldwork were able to read her book and see what she had said about them.(Cherneff 1991:433)  In most fieldwork cases the participants would never see the anthropologist's notes or findings. Powdermaker knew when she wrote her book she used a pseudonym.  Because she knew that some of the participants may read the finished book, so that is why the book has an overall vagueness in her descriptions.(Cherneff 1991:433)

Stranger and Friend: the Way of an Anthropologists Edit

In 1967 while teaching at Queens College, Stranger and Friend; the Way of an Anthropologist is Powdermaker's well-known autobiography.  According to Geer Powdermaker's teaching career was a large part of her life, but when she wrote the book she hardly mentioned her teaching career. (Geer 1966:896) In her book she discusses her early years as an anthropologist.  Also Hortense Powdermaker goes into great detail about her fieldwork studies and experiences.  Geer did not see Hortense Powdermaker's book as not a great autobiography, but as a well detailed field manual. In the first few chapters of the book that describe her personal background they are vague. (Geer 1966:896) She does though describe her four field studies in a large detail and gives a great tools that one could use as field strategies.  Hortense mentions that when she was doing her research in Mississippi she had to do certain social norms to fit in like only talk to black women and avoid men and she also had to be respectful to blacks even though white locals may not approve. (Geer 1966:895) These strategies she used were interesting and helpful to other anthropologist's. The over all topic of he book is mainly about Powdermaker's personal experience in the field and a detailed overview of her four major fieldwork studies.

Influence Edit

In 1991 The Journal of Anthropological Research created a memorial issue to honor Hortense Powdermaker.  The issue's title was The Legacy of Hortense Powdermaker. It features articles from her past students.  Powdermaker taught at Queens College for thirty years in that time frame she became a mentor to many of her students.  Her influence can be seen in these article, both personally and professionally.  Erika Bourguignon was one of Powdermaker's students during the WWII era.  She mentions in her article how even though many of the other professors at Queens College left to teach at more prestigious universities Powdermaker chose to stay, even though she too could have taught elsewhere.(Bourguignon 1991:418) Bourguignon's perspective of Powdermaker was that she was a modest person she very rarely mentioned her fieldwork and never asked her students to read her books.  Powdermaker designed her courses she taught at Queens College to be unrestricted; they lacked textbooks and there was no course overview or restrictions it was just the topics that Powdermaker thought were important to discuss.(Bourguinon 1991:420)


Another person who wrote in Hortense Powdermaker's memorial issue was Nancy Scheper- Hughes.  She was also another undergraduate student of Powdermaker, but instead of discussing Powdermaker the teacher she talked about the unpublished documents that Powdermaker left behind. She became Powdermaker's research assistant in 1969 which started a close friendship between the two.   These two women had a personal relationship together.  Scheper- Hughes says, it could be said "1969 -70 was transitional year for us both, and I dare to say that we helped each other along." (1991:458).  She saw Powdermaker as an amazing mentor, person, and anthropologist.  Nancy Scheper- Hughes spent the last years of Powdermaker's life with her even at seventy three years old Powdermaker was still able to act young at heart she was very much involved with the culture going on around her. (Scheper- Hughes 1991:459)

Annotations Edit

Bourguignon, Erika

1991. Hortense Powdermaker, the Teacher.Theme issue, The Legacy of Hortense Powdermaker, Journal of Anthropological Research(47):417-428.

Bourguignon describes her personal relationship she had with Hortense Powdermaker who was her professor at Queens College. She mentions Powdermaker's humbleness as a teacher her students were never made to read Powdermaker's published works or discussed her fieldwork. Bourguignon said that Powdermaker's courses and assignments were some of the most useful and highest level of learning she has ever had. She also discusses how what Hortense Powdermaker fieldwork strategies helped her when she conducted her own and how Powdermaker was her mentor.

Cherneff, Jill B. R.

1991. Dreams Are Made like This: Hortense Powdermaker and the Hollywood Film Industry, Theme issue, The Legacy of Hortense Powdermaker, Journal of Anthropological Research(47):429-440.

Cherneff goes into great detail about Hortense Powdermaker's book Hollywood Film Industry. She describes how Powdermaker gave a different insight into the film industry. Cherneff's article was not based critical analysis of Powdermaker's fieldwork, but as a significance that it has had on the anthropological field. It gave anthropologist a new area to study and opened up others new perspectives. Cherneff also discussed the outlook Powdermaker offered as a white female in a very male dominated field and how it gave a different view of the film industry.

Geer, Blanche

1966. Review of "Stranger and Friend: The Way of an Anthropologist." by Hortense Powdermaker, American Sociological Review:(31)6:895-896.

Geer's article is a review of Hortense Powdermaker's autobiography Stranger and Friend. She describes the book as less of an autobiography and more of a reanalysis of her past fieldwork projects. The fieldworks are retold in great analysis in one of Powdermaker's later books. Geer compliments Powdermaker in offering a great amount of detail in the fieldwork strategies she used.

Fraser, Gertrude

1991. Race, Class, and Difference in Hortense Powdermaker's "After Freedom: A Cultural Study in the Deep South." Theme issue, The Legacy of Hortense Powdermaker, Journal of Anthropological Research(47):403-416.

Fraser does a reexamination of Powdermaker's fieldwork and book called After Freedom. She gives a critical critique on Powdermaker because she was biased in the work she conducted in Mississippi. Fraser felt that Hortense Powdermaker came to Mississippi without a blank slate when it came to her opinion of African Americans. She still though gives Powdermaker much credit for her fieldwork she conducted because put herself in great risk to do it.

Rosman, Abraham and Rubel, Paula G.

1991. Powdermaker's Lesu. Theme issue, The Legacy of Hortense Powdermaker, Journal of Anthropological Research(47)4:377-388.

Rosman and Rubel give a more personal background on Powdermaker's first major published work and also information about her education. They describe the friendships and bonds she made with many in her field her main mentor was Malinowski, but also Sapir and Radcliffe-Brown offered great amounts of advice and help to Powdermaker. Rosman and Rubel take a more historical look at Life in Lesu because of the extreme details of Powdermaker's fieldwork made the book highly descriptive.

Scheper- Hughes, Nancy

1991. Hortense Powdermaker, the Berkeley Years (1967-1970): A Personal Reflection . Theme issue, The Legacy of Hortense Powdermaker, Journal of Anthropological Research(47):457-471.

Scheper- Hughes discusses in her article her personal relationship with Hortense Powdermaker and how she was her mentor. Besides discussing her personal relationship she had with Powdermaker she also describes many of the works Powdermaker left unpublished. Scheper- Hughes mentions the time she spent with Powdermaker before her abrupt death while they both worked at Berkley. Scheper- Hughes article gave a new insight into how Powdermaker was as a person not just an anthropologist.

Works Cited Edit

Bourguignon, Erika

1991. Hortense Powdermaker, the Teacher.Theme issue, The Legacy of Hortense Powdermaker, Journal of Anthropological Research(47):417-428.

Cherneff, Jill B. R.

1991. Dreams Are Made like This: Hortense Powdermaker and the Hollywood Film Industry, Theme issue, The Legacy of Hortense Powdermaker, Journal of Anthropological Research(47):429-440.

Geer, Blanche

1966. Review of "Stranger and Friend: The Way of an Anthropologist." by Hortense Powdermaker, American Sociological Review:(31)6:895-896.

Fraser, Gertrude

1991. Race, Class, and Difference in Hortense Powdermaker's "After: A Cultural Study in the Deep South." Theme issue, The Legacy of Hortense Powdermaker, Journal of Anthropological Research(47):403-416.

Rosman, Abraham and Rubel,Paula G.

1991. Powdermaker's Lesu. Theme issue, The Legacy of Hortense Powdermaker, Journal of Anthropological Research(47)4:377-388.

Scheper- Hughes, Nancy

1991. Hortense Powdermaker, the Berkeley Years (1967-1970): A Personal Reflection . Theme issue, The Legacy of Hortense Powdermaker, Journal of Anthropological Research(47):457-471.

Powdermaker, Hortense

1939. After Freedom: A Cultural Study in the Deep South. New York: Russell and Russell.

Powdermaker, Hortense

1950. Hollywood, the Dream Factory: An Anthropolgist Looks at Movie-Makers. Little, Brown.

Powdermaker, Hortense

1966. Stranger and Friend; the Way of an Anthropologist. New York: W. W. Norton.

Powdermaker, Hortense

1933. Life in Lesu: The Study of a Melanesian Society in New Ireland. New York: W. W. Norton.

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