George Peter Murdock (May 11, 1897 – March 29, 1985) was an American anthropologist who pioneered the cross-cultural analytical method. His work included preparation of cross-cultural data sets, in which he coded hundreds of cultures for a wide variety of variables. His intention was that these would provide the basis for cross-cultural studies by many researchers, as they have. Although his approach appeared somewhat mechanistic, it derived from his view of social science as a whole discipline. He communicated with researchers beyond the strict confines of anthropology, and his data sets were designed to be useful to those investigating many aspects of human society.
His particular area of interest, social organization, led him to study family and kinship structures and their role in the regulation of human behavior. He is notable for his finding that family structures, made up of parents and children, exist in all cultures. His research lent scientific credence to many who defended the family as it came under attack in the latter half of the twentieth century.
Murdock was born in Meriden, Connecticut, into the family of George Bronson Murdock and Harriett Elizabeth Graves. The family had farmed there for five generations. He spent many childhood hours working on the family farm, and acquired a wide knowledge of traditional, non-mechanized farming methods. He often mentioned, later in life, that these early experiences prepared him for his study in anthropology.
During World War I Murdock served as an army first lieutenant in field artillery. In 1919, he earned a B.A. in American history at Yale University, and then enrolled at Harvard Law School. There, he came under the influence of sociologist Albert Galloway Keller, and decided to drop out in his second year to take a trip around the world. This trip, combined with his interest in traditional material culture, prompted him to change his field of study to anthropology.
Murdock originally wanted to study at Columbia, but when Franz Boas denied him admission because of his “sociological” orientation, Murdock decided to stay at Yale. At the time, Yale's anthropology program still maintained something of the evolutionary tradition of William Graham Sumner, a quite different emphasis from the historical particularism promulgated by Boas at Columbia. In 1925 Murdock received his doctorate and continued at Yale as a faculty member and chair of the anthropology department.
In 1925 Murdock married Carmen Swanson, a graduate student of biochemistry, with whom he had one son.
Murdock’s dissertation, a criticism of Julius Lippert’s The Evolution of Culture, was published in 1931. He continued teaching at Yale, helping Edward Sapir to establish the anthropology department, and serving as its director from 1937 to 1943 and from 1953 to 1957. He completed several field studies during this period, the first in 1932 studying the Haida culture; and then in 1934 and 1935 he was among Tenino Indians. Those studies led to his first major comparative ethnographic publication, Our Primitive Contemporaries (1934). Murdock’s comparative approach fit perfectly into the interdisciplinary orientation of Yale’s Institute of Human Relations.
In 1937 he, together with psychologists Clark L. Hull and Neal Miller, sociologist John Dollard, and other representatives of different disciplines, initiated the Cross-Cultural Survey that used Edward Burnett Tylor's and Murdock’s comparative model to systematize the Summer-Keller comparative tradition.
Murdock continued to work on comparative ethnographies throughout the 1940s. His work was interrupted by the World War II. Believing that a cross-cultural approach would help the U.S. war effort, Murdock and a few colleagues enlisted in the navy, working out of an office at Columbia University. While his pre-war fieldwork had been among the Haida and other indigenous peoples of the Northwest North American coast, Murdock's interests were now focused on Micronesia, and he conducted fieldwork there episodically until the 1960s. In 1943, he arranged the Cross Cultural Survey of Micronesia, publishing a series of handbooks on the Marshall, Caroline, Marianas, Izu, Bonin, and Ryukyu islands.
Murdock and his fellow officers were then sent to the Pacific as military government officials, serving for nearly a year in the administration of occupied Okinawa. Their study on Micronesia turned into a huge project, with Murdock, from 1947 to 1948, leading a survey group of 42 anthropologists from twenty different institutions. In 1946 Murdock and his colleagues established the basis for the organization of the Human Relations Area Files, the system that became the foundation for all cross-cultural studies that followed.
In 1947 Murdock co-founded and served as the president of the Society for Applied Anthropology, and in 1949 he received the Viking Medal. In 1952 he was elected president of the American Ethnological Society, and in 1955 of the American Anthropological Association.
In 1960 Murdock moved to the University of Pittsburgh, where he occupied the Andrew Mellon Chair of Anthropology. There he established a new anthropology department and founded the journal Ethnology, which dealt with cross-cultural issues in ethnography. In 1964 he was elected to the National Academy of Sciences; he received the Herbert E. Gregory Medal in Tokyo in 1966, and the Wilbur Lucius Cross Medal in 1967. He published the first issue of his Ethnographic Atlas in 1967, and helped organize the Division of Behavioral Sciences of the National Research Council from 1964 to 1968.
In 1971 Murdock was instrumental in founding the Society for Cross-Cultural research, a scholarly society composed primarily of anthropologists and psychologists. Murdock and Douglas R. White opened Pittsburgh's Cross-Cultural Cumulative Coding Center, which compiled systematic sets of comparative data, used for interdisciplinary cross-cultural studies.
Murdock retired in 1973 and moved outside Philadelphia to live near his son. He died in his home in Devon, Pennsylvania in 1985.
Even in his earliest writings, Murdock's distinctive approach was apparent. He advocated an empirical approach to anthropology, through the compilation of data from independent cultures, and then testing hypotheses by subjecting the data to the appropriate statistical tests.
Murdock believed that the comparative analytical method was the key for studying culture. He rejected Boasian cultural relativism and historical particularism, which explored individual cultures in their historical context. Murdock was interested in making scientific generalizations about culture. Cross-cultural studies made this possible. He first identified key variables, and then made causal and functional relationships between them. In order to keep his method scientific, Murdock created databases for cross-cultural comparisons, coding them for statistical analysis. With this approach he was able to make global generalizations about cultures. In his most important book, Social Structure (1949), he was able to identify “natural laws” of social organization by means of cross-cultural statistical comparisons.
Murdock saw himself as a social scientist, rather than more narrowly as an anthropologist, and was in constant dialogue with researchers in other disciplines. He also believed that his cross-cultural data set needed to be available to researchers from different disciplines and also different institutions, not only Yale University. That was the reason he initiated the idea and established, first the Social Science Research Council, and then an inter-university organization, the Human Relations Area Files, with collections maintained at Yale University. His idea was to share his cross-cultural results with scientists from different fields.
In 1954 Murdock published a list of every known culture, the Outline of World Cultures. In 1957 he published his first cross-cultural data set, the World Ethnographic Sample, consisting of 565 cultures coded for 30 variables. His Ethnographic Atlas consisted of data set eventually containing almost 1,200 cultures coded for over one hundred variables. He also developed the Standard Cross-Cultural Sample, consisting of a carefully selected sets of 186 well-documented cultures that today are coded for two thousand variables.
Murdock was interested in social organization and the regulation of sexual behavior. He published several of his works on this topic, including Family Universals in 1947, Cultural Correlates of the Regulation of Premarital Sexual Behavior in 1964, and his masterwork Social Structure in 1949.
In Social Structure he described the family and kinship organization in the sample of 250 societies that he coded on features of kinship organization. His research is noteworthy in concluding that the family, made up of parents and children, exists as a central social structure in all cultures.
Murdock’s cross-cultural approach was sometimes criticized as being too mechanical, with a classification system that is, according to modern standards, outdated. Objections were also raised that his methodology was biased, because he used Western standards in comparative analysis.
Murdock was a pioneer of the comparative, cross-cultural method of cultural studies. He worked in the time of the proliferation of American anthropology as a scientific discipline, when the exact nature of anthropology’s subject matter was precisely defined. Specifically, he made significant contributions to the study of kinship and social organization.
Murdock compiled several databases that consisted of data from different cultures. The Standard Cross-Cultural Sample has been used in hundreds of published cross-cultural studies.
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