Hortense Powdermaker and the Mechanized Mind: The Problem of Method and the Prizing of Know-How

An establishment anthropologist, and a renegade–Hortense Powdermaker (bio1, bio2, bio3, bio4, bio5) worked on some unique projects that differed from the anthropological standard of her time (especially given her training by Malinowski, and the dominant influences of Radcliffe-Brown and Evans-Pritchard), and that differ from some of the standards even of our time, though her work has helped to change those standards. She was arguably the first to use anthropological methods to study people and institutions at home, and the first to study the mass media. She did not escape the straight-jacket of wishing her work to be objective, if you believe some of the biographic statements written by others removed in time, and her work probably excels for not pretending to reproduce the arid and mechanical fetishism of objectivity. Powdermaker as renegade, activist, and critical researcher has been a source of inspiration for others, like Nancy Scheper-Hughes.

In Hollywood, The Dream Factory, Powdermaker makes the following comments on the concern for method in the social sciences, linking it to the supremacy of the technological and the prizing of know-how, spanning mass media and academic knowledge production:

The way in which Hollywood has mechanized creativity and taken away most of its human characteristics again exaggerates the prevailing culture pattern, which gives little prestige to creativity not technological. This, of course, does not apply to the genius: an Einstein, Picasso, or a Rachmaninoff is given due honor. But we do little to bring out the creativity which lies in all human beings. Most people-just the everyday garden variety, not the geniuses-have far more potentialities for being creative than they use. But very few of them have the courage or desire to carry through their own ideas, big or little, because they have been conditioned to think routinely and follow the crowd. Our society tends, particularly today, to prize uniformity in thinking more than originalityThe concern with the ‘know-how’ rather than the ‘why,’ with technology rather than meaning, permeates much of the thinking even in the social sciences when method becomes more important than problems. The use of the most exact scientific methods on a sterile and meaningless problem is not too different from the employment of the most technically advanced camera work to produce a banal movie. It is the same when our educational system stresses the accumulation of facts rather than the meaningful relationship between them, and the taking of so many courses that there is little time for thoughtful reflection. The radio with its ‘Information, Please’ and other quiz programs continues the emphasis. It is not that factual knowledge or scientific methods are unimportant, but rather that they are of use only in the larger context of problems and meanings. Hollywood expands these two features of our society to such an extent that it discourages and sometimes even forbids creativity in the very people whom it presumably pays to be creative.” (p. 318)

9 thoughts on “Hortense Powdermaker and the Mechanized Mind: The Problem of Method and the Prizing of Know-How

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  2. John Allison

    I like the way things have moved toward considering what it is that is out of whack in our society; and contemplating, planning how it might be remedied.
    Boggled by the reality i have encountered, I don’t really have solutions; but questions.
    My big Ah-Hah this past year has been the revelation of just how big the military shadow government is, and how it is part of another, a much longer history than the USA as a nation. Powdermaker saw the Hollywood/media role in the problem, but – at least in this quote – doesn’t link it to the military.
    I am for a larger – if loose – conspiracy theory. I do think that much of what we complain of here is the result of conscious social planning/engineering that comes from a relatively miniscule population within – well sort of within – our society. They are the ones who coin the buzz-words that Sarah Palin and her Ilk mouth. They tend to want “less government interference” – meaning less citizen interference – in the affairs of business and the military.
    That small elite group gets some notice when they mostly all show up at some remote sylvan retreat for a good time together hidden away from the press; when the rich civilians and the leading soldiers get together.
    And, I’d say that what Powdermaker is complaining about in Hollywood is a part of an ideological value formation design that now is tightly represented on TV and in our public schools – a concensus that “America” is the images promoted for its citizens by these people and their public information officers like Sarah Palin.
    The problem is that the training is very deep in the great majority of our population and we have little concensus on snything else; philosophical questions not being a major consideration in preparing human resources for jobs and to be “good citizens”.
    So, even if you could somehow remove that small group that holds the real financial and military power, you will still be faced with their military and civilian army of True Believers.
    That’s what boggles me: THEY have done such a good job in forming us.
    Can we deconstruct this Master’s house?

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  4. Maximilian Forte

    I liked all of the questions and points you raise, but especially these: “They tend to want ‘less government interference’ – meaning less citizen interference – in the affairs of business and the military”–that really is the case, their central platform seems to be deregulation and privatization, which only results in greater freedom for owners and investors. Those who work as wage-dependent employees in corporate firms are still subject to the regulation and restrictions of the corporation, and without regulation of corporations everyone else, whether they work for corporations or not, becomes subject to the interference by corporations in politics, the economy, and the environment. Palin and her kind would like us to believe that trading one abusive master for another–and they are both proven monsters–will somehow move us forward.

    Powdermaker could have written more about the relationship between Hollywood and the military, even at her time (late 1940s), but the relationship then was still relatively nascent compared to now (I think…I am still researching this myself).

  5. Tom Marvin

    Which is to say, in a fine way, that even a medium such as film succumbs to the financial bottomline frenzy. Products with known market maximizations are just too attractive to investors. It is amazing that we get as much art as we do out of that business. This observation can be rotated 90 degrees to yield its value another way: That profits can be made with the [beyond technological] art that does come from Hollywood seems to reinforce the theory given above [HP] that the public is indeed not tone-deaf.

    1. Maximilian Forte

      I had similar thoughts, related to movie productions in line with a recent post about bleakness. Indeed there have been unique and astounding exceptions, as if some people within that industry recognize the degree to which they are caged and manage to muster the right resources and chances into the constellation needed to make that once-in-a-lifetime production, the only one which they are likely to look back at with some pride and a sense of personal vindication: I made art and not just stuff to pay the bills.

      Powdermaker makes some severe judgments of the movie audience, when her fieldwork was on the production side, just as severe as those made by Horkheimer and Adorno in their “culture industry” paper. If people were such pathetically hopeless creatures, the revolutionaries would be left without prospects for a revolution, with a worthless theory on their hands, and without the means of explaining Mexico in 1910, Russia in 1917, China in 1949, Cuba in 1959, and so on, or how it is that they, as theorists, are above the “totalitarian” media system from which “none can escape.”

    2. Marc Tyrrell

      Tom, I’m not sure if “financial bottomline frenzy” is really appropos here. Sure, a lot of “Art production” is driven by bottom line considerations; hey, even artists have to eat!

      That said, of course investors are going to try and maximize their profits; they would be idiots not to, and I mean that in a Darwinian sense. Don’t forget, though, that artists maximize their investments as well, and the ROI calculations are very similar even if the specific role of money is different (it’s usually not the major end state).

      Where the HP quote Max tossed up really hit me was in this comment:

      Our society tends, particularly today, to prize uniformity in thinking more than originality.

      It’s not something I hadn’t read before, but it resonated strongly with its corollary: our society tends to prize risk-aversion in thinking and acting rather than originality. I’m specifically thinking about singing right now (okay, Max, I KNOW I’m biased since I’m a singer).

      Think, for the moment, how many people, when you ask them, say “Oh, I can’t sing!”. And, by some professional standards, they can’t. But that is by professional standards: they can sing, but they have been conditioned by the music industry to be afraid to do so. This, to my mind, is more insidious than a “bottom line” system focused on maximizing profit.

      Just something to think about….

      1. Marc Tyrrell

        LOL – Okay, then save May 7th [GRIN]. We’ll be singing at Redpath Hall at 7:30 in Montreal. Know any Irish pubs around there where we can test my hypothesis [GRIN]?

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