George Murdock's Sociology Theories on Family & Culture

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  • 0:02 George Murdock's Personal Life
  • 1:14 Scientific Career
  • 3:39 Functionalist…
  • 4:31 Major Contribution to…
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Diane Davis
Study the life of George Peter Murdock, a major contributor to the field of anthropology in the middle years of the twentieth century. He laid the foundation for systematic cross-cultural research about human society and culture. Explore his life and his work and test yourself with a quiz.

George Murdock's Personal Life

George Peter Murdock, born in Meriden, Connecticut, grew up the eldest of three children. His parents were democratic, individualistic, and agnostic, values that they instilled in their children. Murdock's parents believed that education and knowledge would lead to fulfillment in their children's lives, and so they sent their oldest son to a prestigious academy and then Yale University.

Murdock graduated from Yale with honors in 1919. After graduation, he traveled around the world and developed an interest in anthropology. Upon his return from his world travels, he entered Yale's graduate school where he majored in anthropology and sociology. He received his Ph.D. in 1925. In 1938, he became the chairman of the anthropology department at Yale, where he remained for 21 years. He married and had one son. In 1960, he became the Andrew Mellon Professor of social anthropology at the University of Pittsburgh until he retired in 1973 at the age of 75.

george murdock

Scientific Career

As a boy, he loved geography, so as an adult, he worked in ethnography, which is a branch of anthropology that deals with empirical data on societies and cultures. Murdock thought that in order to properly study societies and cultures, there needed to be a systematic, comparative, and cross-cultural approach. A cross-cultural approach uses data from many societies to look at human behavior across societies and cultures. Up until George Murdock, anthropologists would gather enormous amounts of data on individual societies and make generalized statements about social evolution.

George Murdock's first major work, published in 1934, was Our Primitive Contemporaries, a book of ethnographic summaries that was often used in classrooms. Murdock wrote about 18 different societies that were representative of different cultures throughout the world. He meant for the book to be used as a teaching tool from which students could learn how to evaluate generalizations made about societies.

Murdock created a list of information that one should gather in creating ethnographies, and this work became the basis for his 1938 work Outline of Culturen This soon became the standard for ethnographers around the world. In the mid-30s, Murdock had set up the Cross-Cultural Survey at Yale's Institute for Human Relations, and the scientists who worked there adopted his method and firm belief in discovering theories based on organized data from many societies. This project developed into the larger Human Relations Area Files (HRAF), an attempt to make an accessible data archive of human societies.

Despite their differences, researchers have found that all societies have certain common practices and beliefs, or cultural universals. George Murdock's list of cultural universals included athletic sports, cooking, funeral ceremonies, medicine and sexual restrictions. Cultural universals aren't necessarily the same everywhere - what Murdock was pointing out is that each culture has its own way of cooking, burying, celebrating, procreating, etc.

Functionalist Perspective on Gender

In sociology, functionalism refers to a way in which sociologists create theories about the world by looking at society as a complex system with parts that work together towards the goal of stability. It's kind of like how the organs of the body all work together. Murdock agreed with the functionalist approach, and in particular, how it explains socially-constructed gender roles.

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