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Hortense Powdermaker (Philadelphia, USA, 1900 – Berkeley, USA, 1970) was an American anthropologist who made great contributions to the study of the relationship between culture and media. She developed the importance of ethnography in the analysis of mass communication and how audiences identify with Hollywood cinema.
A graduate in history and humanities from Goucher College (1921), she moved to London to study at the London School of Economics, where she later pursued a PhD on leadership in primitive society. Initially, her work was mainly based on the study of the ethnographic reality of African-Americans in America, which gave a humanistic and social prism to her research. She trained with the anthropologist Edward Sapir and the functionalists Bronisław Malinowski and Radclife Brown. She was the first woman to research alone in the South Pacific and has been considered an eclectic, dynamic researcher ahead of her time. From 1938, she worked at Queens College (New York), where she began to focus more on the study of communication. Her contribution to the analysis of cinema was substantial, especially through her book Hollywood, the Dream Factory, published in 1950, an anthropological approach to the film industry where she explores the dynamics of power, cultural production and representations. Since then, Powdermaker approached the field of communication and media studies.
Her interdisciplinary approach to understanding mass communication made her a famed critic of the functionalist conceptual imperialism that in the 1950s (not before) was beginning to take hold. She developed an ambitious research agenda, with questions related to race, racism, power, conflict or depersonalization and interested in the cultural forms of societies. Her work on American media consumption in Northern Rhodesia, for example, served to shed light on the hegemony of American production in ethnic African territories. Her academic experiences were sufficiently oppressive for her to end up in depression, partly brought on by the isolation she experienced as a researcher at the university. In 1968, she moved to Berkeley, where she continued to develop a unique perspective on ethnography and media until her death two years later in 1970.
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