George Peter Murdock was an American anthropologist, with strong roots in Yale University sociology, whose major contribution was the testing of propositions with ethnographic data drawn from large samples of societies representing all levels of sociopolitical complexity. He achieved this through a series of cross-cultural studies that focused on various aspects of social organization, including descent systems and kinship terminology. This work reached its culmination in Social Structure (1949), a study that is probably the most outstanding book in anthropology of the 20th century. This book, which is still being cited today, established Murdock as the leading student of social organization in America. During the 1950s and 1960s, social organization research dominated both American and British anthropology.
Through a series of studies that spanned nearly his entire career, Murdock developed the database that made modern cross-cultural research possible. William G. Sumner of Yale during the late 19th century compiled files of ethnographic information on societies that he used in his comparative studies. (Sumner’s files are housed at the Human Relations Area Files [HRAF] headquarters in New Haven, Connecticut.) Murdock approached the data in the same manner when he wrote Our Primitive Contemporaries (1934), a textbook that provided ethnographic accounts of 18 societies arranged from the simplest to the most complex. By 1937, Murdock had founded the Cross-Cultural Survey, a compilation of published ethnographic materials on 90 cultures. To produce comparability of cultures, an Outline of Cultural Materials (1938) was developed to sort the passages that had been directly copied from ethnographies. Ten years later, Murdock invited other universities to join a consortium, leading to the founding of the HRAF in 1949. To assist in the development of the database, a listing of all known cultures, The Outline of World Cultures (1954), was published. The next major step was publication of the codes of data that Murdock had used in his cross-cultural studies. His first endeavor was the World Ethnographic Sample (1957), which consisted of 565 cultures coded for 30 variables. This was followed by the Ethnographic Atlas, a series of installments of codes that appeared in the journal Ethnology, founded by Murdock in 1962. These were eventually published together as the Ethnographic Atlas (1967). His collected papers appeared in Culture and Society (1965). The Atlas of World Cultures (1981), Murdock’s last publication, produced codes for 563 cultures. In 1968, he created the Cross-Cultural Cumulative Coding Center (known as “The 5 Cs”), which produced codes for a 186-culture sample known as the Standard Cross-Cultural Sample.
George Peter Murdock was born May 11,1897, on a farm near Meriden, Connecticut, the firstborn child of George Murdock and Harriet Graves. The young Murdock grew up on the farm, attended local grammar and high schools and then Phillips Academy, Andover, and finally Yale, where he received both the A.B. (1919) and Ph.D. (1925) degrees. While a freshman, he enlisted in the Connecticut National Guard, later becoming a second lieutenant of field artillery. World War I ended before he could be sent to Europe. He attended Harvard Law School but left during the second year. Then he spent a year traveling the world, by the end of which he decided to do anthropology. Franz Boas refused to admit him to Columbia University in 1922 because Murdock was a dilettante, but Albert Keller, a former professor, admitted him as a candidate for the Ph.D. degree in a combined anthropology-sociology program. His dissertation was a translation from German of Julius Lippert’s The Evolution of Culture (1931). In 1925, Murdock married Carmen Swanson. For 2 years he taught sociology and anthropology at the University of Maryland, and in 1928 he returned to Yale University as an assistant professor in sociology. When a new Department of Anthropology was established in 1931 under Edward Sapir, a famous linguist, Murdock received a joint appointment. He carried out field research with the Haida of the Northwest Coast during the summer of 1932 and with the Tenino of Oregon during the summers of 1934 and 1935. Although his time in the field barely exceeded a year, he urged his students and colleagues to conduct intensive fieldwork. He was appointed chairman of the Department of Anthropology in 1938, and he became a full professor a year later. In World War II, Murdock served as a lieutenant commander (1943-1945) and a commander (1945-1946) in the U.S. Naval Reserve. In 1947, he led a team of field researchers to the island of Truk in Micronesia. In 1960, Murdock became the Andrew W. Mellon Professor of Anthropology at the University of Pittsburgh. In 1972, he was instrumental in founding the Society for Cross-Cultural Research, a professional association that draws its membership explicitly from anthropology, psychology, and the other social sciences. He retired in 1973 at 75 years of age. He and his wife moved to Wynnwood in eastern Pennsylvania to be near his son. After his wife died, he moved to a retirement home. Murdock died March 29, 1985, in Devon, Pennsylvania, at 87 years of age.
- Goodenough, W. H. (Ed.). (1964). Explorations in cultural anthropology: Essays in honor of George Peter Murdock. New York: McGraw-Hill.
- Goodenough, W. H. (1988). George Peter Murdock’s contributions to anthropology: An overview. Behavior Science Notes, 22, 1-9.
- Murdock, G. P. (1949). Social structure. New York: Macmillan.
- Murdock, G. P. (1957). World ethnographic sample. American Anthropologist, 59, 664-687.
- Murdock, G. P. (1959). Africa: Its peoples and their culture history. New York: McGraw-Hill.
- Murdock, G. P. (1965). Culture and society. Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press.
- Murdock, G. P. (1967). Ethnographic atlas. Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press.
- Murdock, G. P. (1981). The atlas of world cultures. Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press.
- Spoehr, A. (1985). George Peter Murdock (1897-1985). Ethnology, 26, 307-317.
- Whiting, J. W. M. (1988). George Peter Murdock (1897-1985). American Anthropologist, 88, 682-686.