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George Peter ("Pete") Murdock (May 11, 1897 – March 29, 1985) was a notable American anthropologist. He is remembered for his empirical approach to ethnological studies and his landmark works on Old World populations.

Early life

Born in Meriden, Connecticut to a family that had farmed there for five generations, Murdock spent many childhood hours working on the family farm and acquired a wide knowledge of traditional, non-mechanized, farming methods. He graduated from Phillips Academy, Andover, in 1915 and earned an A.B. in American History at Yale University. He then attended Harvard Law School, but quit in his second year and took a long trip around the world. This trip, combined with his interest in traditional material culture, and perhaps a bit of inspiration from the popular Yale teacher A.G. Keller, prompted Murdock to study Anthropology at Yale. 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 Franz Boas at Columbia. In 1925, he received his doctorate and continued at Yale as a faculty member and chair of the Anthropology department (Whiting 1986: 682–683).

Even in his earliest writings, Murdock's distinctive approach is apparent. He advocates 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. He also sees himself as a social scientist rather than more narrowly as an anthropologist, and is in constant dialogue with researchers in other disciplines. At Yale, he assembled a team of colleagues and employees in an effort to create a cross-cultural data set (Whiting 1986: 683–684).

Believing that a cross-cultural approach would help the U.S. war effort during World War II, Murdock and a few colleagues enlisted in the Navy and wrote handbooks on the cultures of Micronesia, working out of an office at Columbia University. After completing the handbooks, Murdock and his fellow officers were sent to the Pacific as military government officials, serving for nearly a year in the administration of occupied Okinawa. 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 (Whiting 1986: 684).


Murdock joined the faculty of Yale University in 1928 (his PhD from Yale was in the field of Sociology, as Yale at that time did not yet have a Department of Anthropology). He served as chairman of the Department of Anthropology from 1938 to 1960. At that time, he hit the then mandatory retirement age at Yale. However, he was offered the chair of Andrew Mellon Professor of Social Anthropology at the University of Pittsburgh. Leaving his long-time residence at 960 Ridge Road in Hamden, Connecticut, Murdock moved with his wife to 4150 Bigelow Boulevard in Pittsburgh. He taught at Pitt until his retirement in 1973, at which point he moved to the Philadelphia area to be close to his son.

Carmen and Pete had one child, Robert Douglas Murdock. He was born in 1929 and died in 2011 (obituary, Philadelphia Inquirer, July 28, 2011).

According to David H. Price, in a chapter entitled “Hoover’s Informer”, devoted to Murdock during McCarthyism, Murdock had secretly informed on AAA colleagues to J. Edgar Hoover, even though he later served as chair of the American Anthropological Association’s (AAA’s) Committee on Scientific Freedom, established to defend anthropologists from unfair attacks. In fairness to Murdock, it must be added that he was not the only person in his field or at his university to cooperate with intelligence agencies. For much of the 20th century, agencies such as the CIA and the FBI enjoyed a close relationship with American universities. Yale University was especially known (later) as a breeding ground for employees of the agencies. Researchers in anthropology and foreign relations were often debriefed after foreign field trips (see: Robin W. Winks, Cloak and Gown: Scholars in the Secret War, 1939–1961. New York: William Morrow, 1987).

In 1948, Murdock decided that his cross-cultural data set would be more valuable were it available to researchers at schools other than Yale. He approached the Social Science Research Council and obtained the funding to establish an inter-university organization, the Human Relations Area Files, with collections maintained at Yale University (Whiting 1986: 684).

Major works

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. In 1959, despite having no professional experience in Africa, Murdock published Africa: Its peoples and their culture history, which both constitutes a very useful reference book on African ethnic groups and also broke new ground in the analysis of prehistory, especially the domestication of plants.

University of Pittsburgh

In 1960, Murdock moved to the University of Pittsburgh, where he occupied the Andrew Mellon Chair of Anthropology. In 1971, he was instrumental in founding the Society For Cross-Cultural Research, a scholarly society composed primarily of anthropologists and psychologists (Whiting 1986: 685). Between 1962 and 1967, he published installments of his Ethnographic Atlas in the journal Ethnology --a data set eventually containing almost 1,200 cultures coded for over 100 variables. In 1969, together with Douglas R. White, he developed the Standard Cross-Cultural Sample, consisting of a carefully selected set of 186 well-documented cultures that today are coded for about 2000 variables (Whiting 1986: 685).


In 1962, Murdock founded Ethnology An International Journal of Cultural and Social Anthropology, published by the University of Pittsburgh. This publication continues in its 45th volume as one of the pre-eminent anthropology journals in the world.


Murdock is known most of all for his main sequence theory whose gist was spelled out by him initially as follows: "When any social system which has attained equilibrium begins to change, such change regularly begins with modification of the rule of residence. Alteration in residence rules is followed by development or change in form of descent consistent with residence rules. Finally adaptive changes in kinship terminology follow (Murdock 1949:221-222)."

See also

  • List of cultures in the standard cross cultural sample


  • Murdock, George Peter (1949). Social Structure, New York: The MacMillan Company.
  • Murdock, G.P. 1959. Africa: Its peoples and their culture history. New York: McGraw-Hill.
  • Murdock, G. P. 1967. Ethnographic Atlas: A Summary. Pittsburgh: The University of Pittsburgh Press.
  • (1970). Kin Term Patterns and their Distribution. Ethnology 9 (2): 165–207.
  • Murdock, G. P. 1981. Atlas of World Cultures. Pittsburgh: The University of Pittsburgh Press.
  • Murdock, G. P. 1985. Kin Term Patterns and their Distribution. World Cultures 1(4): stds25.dat, stds25.cod.
  • (1970). Subsistence Economy and Supportive Practices: Cross-Cultural Codes 1. Ethnology 9 (3): 302–30.
  • (1973). Measurement of Cultural Complexity. Ethnology 12 (4): 379–92.
  • Murdock, G. P., R. Textor, H. Barry III, D. R. White, J. P. Gray, and W. Divale. 1999–2000. Ethnographic Atlas. World Cultures 10(1): 24–136, at01–09.sav; 11(1): ea10.sav (the third electronic version) [1].
  • (1969). Standard Cross-Cultural Sample. Ethnology 8 (4): 329–69.
  • (1972). Settlement Patterns and Community Organization: Cross-Cultural Codes 3. Ethnology 11 (3): 254–95.
  • Murdock, G.P, C.S. Ford, A.E. Hudson, R. Kennedy, L. W. Simmons, and J. W. M. Whiting, Outline of Cultural Materials, New Haven: Institute of Human Relations, 1938.


  • Murdock, G. P.. (book) The Evolution of Culture by Julius Lippert (New York: Macmillan, 1931) (translator and editor)
  • --------. "Ethnocentrism," Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences, vol. 5, pp. 613–614 (New York, 1931)
  • --------. "The Science of Culture," American Anthropologist, n.s., 34: 200–215 (1932)
  • --------. "Lippert, Julius," Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences, vol. 9, pp. 490–491 (1933)
  • --------. "The Organization of Inca Society," Scientific Monthly, 38: 231–239 (1934)
  • --------. (book) Our Primitive Contemporaries (New York: Macmillan, 1934)
  • --------. "Kinship and Social Behavior among the Haida," American Anthropologist, n.s., 36: 355–385 (1934)
  • --------. "A Racial Primer," Bulletin of the Associates in the Science of Society, 4.4: 1–3 (1935)
  • --------. "The Witoto Kinship System," American Anthropologist, n.s., 38: 525–527 (1936)
  • --------. "Rank and Potlatch among the Haida," Yale University Publications in Anthropology, no. 13, pp. 1–20 (1936)
  • --------. (book) Studies in the Science of Society (New Haven: Yale, 1937) (editor)
  • --------. "Correlations of Matrilineal and Patrilineal Institutions. In G. P. Murdock (ed.) Studies in the Science of Society, New Haven: Yale, 1937.
  • --------. "Comparative Data on the Division of Labor by Sex," Social Forces, 15: 551–553 (1937)
  • --------. "Anthropological Glossary," Southwestern Monuments, pp. 77–88, 268–274 (1938)
  • --------. "Notes on the Tenino, Molala, and Paiute of Oregon," American Anthropologist, n.s., 40: 395–402 (1938)
  • --------. "Guia para la investigacion etnologica, trans. by Radames A. Altieri, Universidad Nacional de Tucuman, Notas del Instituto de Antropologia, I, ii, 21–131, Tucuman, 1939 (coauthor with C.S. Ford, A. E. Hudson, R. Kennedy, L. W. Simmons, and J. W. M. Whiting)
  • --------. "The Cross-Cultural Survey," American Sociological Review, 5: 361–370, 1940
  • --------. "Double Descent," American Anthropologist, 42:555–561, 1940.
  • --------. "Ethnographic Bibliography of North America," Yale Anthropological Studies, I, pp. 1–169, 1941
  • --------. "Anthropology and Human Relations," Sociometry, 4: 140–149, 1941.
  • --------. "Bronislaw Malinowski," Yale Law Journal

, 51: 1235–1236, 1942.

  • --------. "The Yale Survey of South American Ethnology," Proceedings of the Eighth American Scientific Congress, 1940, 2: 199–202. Washington, 1942.
  • --------. "Marshall Islands," Navy Department (OPNAV 50E), Military Government Handbook, no. 1, pp. 1–113. Washington, 1943 (coauthor with C. S. Ford and J. W. M. Whiting)
  • --------. "Bronislaw Malinowski," American Anthropologist, n.s., 45: 441–451, 1943.
  • --------. "East Caroline Islands," Navy Department (OPNAV 50E), Civil Affairs Handbook, no. 5, pp. 1–213. Washington, 1944. (coauthor with C. S. Ford and J. W. M. Whiting)
  • --------. "West Caroline Islands," Navy Department (OPNAV 50E), Civil Affairs Handbook, no. 7, pp. 1–222, Washington, 1944. (coauthor with C.S. Ford and J. W. M. Whiting)
  • --------. "Mandated Marianas Islands," Navy Department (OPNAV 50E), Civil Affairs Handbook, no. 8, pp. 1–205, Washington, 1944. (coauthor with C.S. Ford and J.W.M. Whiting)
  • --------. "Marshall Islands Statistical Supplement," Navy Department (OPNAV 50E), Civil Affairs Handbook, no. 1S, pp. 1–38, Washington, 1944 (coauthor with C.S. Ford and J. W. M. Whiting)
  • --------. "Izu and Bonin Islands," Navy Department (OPNAV 50E), Civil Affairs Handbook, no. 9, pp. 1–188. Washington, 1944 (coauthor with C.S. Ford and J.W. M. Whiting)
  • --------. "Ryukyu (Loochoo) Islands," Navy Department (OPNAV 13), Civil Affairs Handbook, no. 31, pp. 1–334. Washington, 1944. (coauthor with C. S. Ford and J. W. M. Whiting)
  • --------. "The Common Denominator of Cultures," in Ralph Linton (ed.), The Science of Man in the World Crisis," New York: Columbia, 1945, pp. 123–142.
  • --------. "Neustros contemporaneos primitivos" (Spanish translation of Our Primitive Contemporaries), trans. by Teodoro Ortiz. Mexico: Fondo de Cultura Economica, 1945.
  • --------. Outline of Cultural Materials, rev. ed. Yale Anthropological Studies, II, pp, 1–56. New Haven, 1945 (coauthor with C. S. Ford, A. E. Hudson, R. Kennedy, L. W. Simmons, and J. W. M. Whiting)
  • --------. "Bifurcate Merging: A Test of Five Theories," American Anthropologist, n.s. 49: 56–68, 1947.
  • --------. "Family Universals," Marriage and Family Living, 9:39, 1947.


  • "George Peter Murdock, cultural anthropologist" (obituary) The Philadelphia Inquirer, April 2, 1985, page 7B

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