Hortense Powdermaker Papers
Scope and Content Note
- circa 1929-1966
- Powdermaker, Hortense (Person)
At Goucher, Powdermaker became interested in socialism and the labor movement. After graduation, she joined the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America, first as an assistant at its New York headquarters and then as a union organizer in Cleveland and Rochester. The 1920s, however, was a difficult period for the labor movement. In 1925, Powdermaker resigned her union position and traveled to England.
At the London School of Economics, Powdermaker registered for a course in social anthropology taught by Bronislaw Malinowski, a dynamic teacher and founder of the functional school of anthropology whose ideas about the psychological aspects of anthropology would profoundly influence her. In 1928, Powdermaker earned her Ph.D. in anthropology from the University of London for a study of leadership in primitive societies.
In 1929, Powdermaker obtained a grant from the Australian National Research Council to conduct her own field work and became the first woman anthropologist to live alone among the Melanesians of New Ireland in Papua New Guinea. Her ten months of field work in a small isolated village, Lesu, provided the material for her first book, Life in Lesu, a classic ethnological study of a Stone Age society published in 1933.
Returning to the United States in 1930, Powdermaker began her association with the Institute of Human Relations at Yale University where she met Edward Sapir, a respected anthropologist who also encouraged her psychological approach to anthropology. In 1932, Powdermaker secured a fellowship from the Social Science Research Council to conduct an anthropological study of a small southern town, becoming the first anthropologist to study a contemporary community in the United States. For nine months in 1932-1933 and the summer of 1934, Powdermaker lived in Indianola, Mississippi, examining its Black and white communities and their interactions. Her book, After Freedom, published in 1939, is still notable for its insightful analysis of race relations and of the impact of psychological adaptations to segregation.
In 1937, Powdermaker joined the faculty of newly founded Queens College as an instructor of social sciences. She rose to full professor and established its Department of Anthropology and Sociology. For the next 30 years, she was an enthusiastic and popular teacher and many of her students would themselves enjoy notable careers as anthropologists. In 1965, the Alumni Association of Queens College publicly recognized her many accomplishments as a teacher and scholar, presenting Powdermaker with the Distinguished Teacher Award.
In addition to teaching, Powdermaker continued to pursue her research interests, conduct field work, and publish. In 1943, she published an influential article, “The Channeling of Negro Aggression by the Cultural Process,” in the American Journal of Sociology and, in 1944, authored a book for high school students, Probing Our Prejudices, exploring the causes of racism and prejudice. During her sabbatical in 1946-1947, Powdermaker went to Hollywood to study how its social structure and processes influenced the content and meaning of movies. Although criticized by some, including Powdermaker herself, Hollywood: The Dream Factory, published in 1950, is among her best-known books and it remains the only serious anthropological study of Hollywood.
In 1953-1954, a Guggenheim fellowship allowed Powdermaker to study the effects of western mass media and urbanization on African tribal life in Luanshya, a mining town in the Copperbelt region of northern Rhodesia (now Zambia). Copper Town, published in 1962, utilizes both anthropological and psychological theory to analyze societal change.
Powdermaker’s influential final book, Stranger and Friend: The Way of an Anthropologist, was published in 1966. Stranger and Friend is a candid examination of her field work experiences, the participant-observation method, and the appropriate role of the anthropologist and social scientist. Powdermaker was asked to contribute the section “Field Work” in the International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences in 1968, an acknowledgement of her expertise in this area.
In 1968, Powdermaker retired from Queens College and moved to Berkeley, California. As a research associate at the University of California at Berkeley, she was undertaking a study of youth culture until her sudden death from a heart attack at age 73 on June 16, 1970. In 1977, the Social Sciences Building at Queens College was renamed Powdermaker Hall to honor her distinguished career as an educator and anthropologist.
Powdermaker was a member of numerous professional organizations, serving as vice president and chairman of the New York Academy of Sciences, Anthropology Section (1944-1946), and as vice president (1945-1946) and president (1946-1947) of the American Ethnological Society. She was also a member of the American Sociological Society and a fellow of the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland. Goucher College awarded her an honorary doctorate in 1957.
Powdermaker, H. (1966). Stranger and friend: The way of an anthropologist. W.W. Norton.
Silverman, S. (1988). Hortense Powdermaker, 1896-1970. In U. Gacs, A. Khan, J. McIntyre, & R. Weinberg (Eds.), Women anthropologists: A biographical dictionary (pp. 291-296). Greenwood Press.
Wolf, E. (1971). Hortense Powdermaker. American Anthropologist 73, 783-86.
2 Linear Feet (3 flat document boxes, 1 large flat document box)
Language of Materials
Series I: Research and Field Work Materials, circa 1929-1954
Series II: Stranger and Friend, 1965-1966
- Hortense Powdermaker Papers
- Deborah Marks
- Spring 2013
- Description rules
- Describing Archives: A Content Standard
- Language of description
- Script of description
- Code for undetermined script
- Language of description note
Part of the Queens College (New York, N.Y.) Department of Special Collections and Archives Repository
Queens College Libraries, CUNY
Benjamin Rosenthal Library RO317
65-30 Kissena Boulevard
Flushing 11367 USA us