Hortense Powdermaker was born into a middle-class, German-Jewish family on December 24, 1896 in Philadelphia, the second of four children of Louis and Minnie (Jacoby) Powdermaker. The family later moved to Baltimore where Powdermaker attended high school and Goucher College, receiving her B.A. in history in 1919.
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, were 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 (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, New York City, as an instructor in Social Sciences; she rose to full professor and established its Department of Anthropology-Sociology. For the next thirty years, she was an enthusiastic and popular teacher; 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, 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 on “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, Hortense. Stranger and Friend: The Way of an Anthropologist. New York: W.W. Norton, 1966.
Silverman, Sydel. “Hortense Powdermaker, 1896-1970.” Women Anthropologists: A Biographical Dictionary. Eds. Gracs, Ute, et al. New York: Greenwood Press, 1988. 291-96.
Wolf, Eric R. “Hortense Powdermaker.” American Anthropologist 73(1971):783-86.
1896 Born December 24 in Philadelphia
1919 Bachelor of Arts, Goucher College Early
1920s Labor organizer for the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America
1925 First course in anthropology, London School of Economics
1928 Ph.D. in Anthropology, University of London
1929-1930 Field work in Lesu, New Ireland, Papua New Guinea
1930-1937 Affiliation with the Institute of Human Relations, Yale University
1932-1934 Field work in Indianola, Mississippi
1933 Publication of Life in Lesu
1937 Joined faculty of newly founded Queens College, New York City
1939 Publication of After Freedom
1944 Publication of Probing Our Prejudices, a book for high school students
1946-1947 Field work in Hollywood
1950 Publication of Hollywood, the Dream Factory
1953-1954 Field work in Luanshya, Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia)
1957 Honorary Doctor of Science degree, Goucher College
1962 Publication of Copper Town
1965 Distinguished Teacher Award, Queens College Alumni Association
1966 Publication of Stranger and Friend
1968 Retirement from Queens College; Move to Berkeley, California
1970 Died suddenly June 16 from a heart attack in Berkeley
1977 Powdermaker Hall at Queens College established
1933 Life in Lesu: The Study of a Melanesaian Society in New Ireland. New York: W. W. Norton; London: Williams and Norgate.
1939 After Freedom: A Cultural Study in the Deep South. New York: Viking. (Reprinted 1968, New York: Atheneum Press).
1944 Probing Our Prejudices. New York: Harper and Brothers.
1950 Hollywood, the Dream Factory: An Anthropologist Studies the Movie Makers. Boston: Little, Brown and Company.
1962 Copper Town: Changing Africa, the Human Situation on the Rhodesian Copperbelt. New York: Harper and Row.
1966 Stranger and Friend: The Way of an Anthropologist. New York: W. W. Norton & Company.
Articles and essays
1928 "Leadership Among the Aborigines of Central and Southern Australia." Economica 233:168-90.
1931 "Preliminary Report on Research in New Ireland." Oceania 3:1-12.
1934 "At Home on the Equator." The Atlantic Monthly 153:195-204.
1943 "The Channeling of Negro Aggression by the Cultural Process. American Journal of Sociology 48:122-30. (Reprinted 1953 in Personality in Nature, Society and Culture. Clyde Kluckhohn and Henry A. Murray, eds. Pp. 597-608. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.).
1945 "An Anthropologist Looks at the Race Problem." Social Action 11:5-13.
1955 "Communication and Social Change, Based on a Field Study in Northern Rhodesia." Transactions of the New York Academy of Sciences (Series 2) 17:430-40.
1968 "Field Work." In International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. David L. Sills, ed. Vol. 5, Pp. 418-24. New York: Macmillan and Free Press.
The collection contains personal papers of Hortense Powdermaker related to her anthropological research and field work in Lesu, New Ireland (Papua New Guinea) in 1929, in Indianola, Mississippi in 1932-1934, and in Luanshya, Zambia (formerly Northern Rhodesia) in 1953-1954. The materials include: for Lesu - a general research outline and English-Melanesian vocabulary lists; for Indianola - an unpublished typed manuscript of a book based on her field work and field notes on religion; and for Luanshya - unpublished survey results on African attitudes towards the media, survey-related correspondence, interview field notes and conversation transcripts. The collection also includes the typed manuscript, galley proofs and page proofs of her final book, Stranger and Friend: The Way of An Anthropologist.
The collection is arranged by subject and chronologically in two series:
Series I: Research and Field Work Materials, circa 1929-1954
Subseries 1: Lesu (New Ireland, Papua New Guinea), circa 1929-1930
Subseries 2: Indianola, Mississippi, circa 1932-1938
Subseries 3: Luanshya, Zambia (Northern Rhodesia), 1953-1954
Conditions Governing Access
Collection is open for research. Staff may restrict access at its discretion on the basis of physical condition. Due to the fragile nature of some originals, preservation copies are available for researcher use.
The Hortense Powdermaker Papers archive is physically owned by the Queens College Libraries. Literary rights, including copyright, belong to the authors or their legal heirs and assignees. The collection is subject to all copyright laws. Queens College assumes no responsibility for the infringement of copyrights held by the original authors, creators, or producers of materials.
African Americans--Mississippi--Social conditions
African Americans--Social conditions
Ethnology--Papua New Guinea--New Ireland
Lesu, New Ireland (Papua New Guinea)--Social Conditions
Luanshya (Zambia)--Social conditions
Powdermaker, Hortense, 1903-1970
Race Relations--Southern States
At Queens College, City University of New York: Queens College Photo Archive and The Queens College Institutional Archives - Anthropology Department.
At Stony Brook University: The Oakley C. Johnson Collection.
At the University of Chicago: The Dorothy Eggan Papers.
Item, date (if known), box, folder, Hortense Powdermaker Papers, Department of Special Collections and Archives, Queens College, City University of New York.
Donated to Queens College by Hortense Powdermaker in 1966 and reprocessed by the Department of Special Collections and Archives in 2013.