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George Peter Murdock
Social structure

New York, Macmillan Co, 1949, xx+387 pages



  1. The Nuclear Family
  2. Composite Forms of the Family
  3. Consanguineal Kin Groups
  4. The Clan
  5. The Community
  6. Analysis of Kinship
  7. Determinants of Kinship Terminology
  8. Evolution of Social Organization
  9. The Regulation of Sex
  10. Incest Taboos and Their Extensions
  11. Social Law of Sexual Choice

Appendix A: A Technique of Historical Reconstruction

A. L. Kroeber, R. Linton, R. H. Lowie, L. H. Morgan, A. R. Radcliffe-Brown, and W. H. R. Rivers
Whose creative efforts in the study of social organization are largely responsible for its present development

And to
J. Dollard, S. Freud, C. L. Hull, and A. G. Keller
Whose contributions to sociology and psychology
have immeasurably aided the present author
in furthering that development


This volume represents a synthesis of five distinct products of social science— one research technique and four systems of theory. It grows out of, depends upon, and reflects all five. It is the result of a conscious effort to focus several disciplines upon a single aspect of the social life of man— his family and kinship organization and their relation to the regulation of sex and marriage.
In intent, and hopefully in achievement, the work is not a contribu- tion to anthropology alone, nor to sociology or psychology, but to an integrated science of human behavior.

George Peter Murdock Social structure. 1949
George P. Murdock
Social structure

The research technique upon which the volume depends, and without which it would not have been undertaken, is that of the Cross-Cultural Survey. Initiated in 1937 as part of the integrated program of research in the social sciences conducted by the Institute of Human Relations at Yale University, the Cross-Cultural Survey has built up a complete file of geographical, social, and cultural information, extracted in full from the sources and classified by subject, on some 150 human societies, historical and contemporary as well as primitive. From these files it is possible to secure practically all the existing information on particular topics in any of the societies covered in an insignificant fraction of the time required for comparable library research.

The author began the present study in 1941 by formulating a schedule of the data needed on the family, on kinship, on kin and local groups, and on marriage and sex behavior, and by abstracting such data from the files of the Cross-Cultural Survey on- all societies for which sufficient information had been reported. In a very few weeks he was able in this way to assemble the relevant materials for 85 societies, which are indicated by asterisks in the bibliography.

This number, though large, still fell far short of the cases required for reliable statistical treatment, and the author set out to secure further information by the usual methods of library research. Eventually he secured data on 165 additional societies, making a total of 250 in all. The labor required to secure these additional cases was immense, consuming well over a year of research effort or more than ten times that spent in obtaining the original 85 cases. More- over, the results were both quantitatively and qualitatively inferior, since the author had to content himself in most instances with a single book or article in contrast to the complete source coverage for the cases derived from the Survey files. The informed reader who detects factual gaps or errors in our tabulated data will usually find, by referring to the bibliography, that they are due to the failure to use some recognized source. The author's only excuse for his incomplete coverage in the additional 165 societies is that he simply could not afford the extra years of research labor that would have been required to attain the degree of thoroughness achieved by the Cross-Cultural Survey. If the Survey ever reaches its goal of covering a representative ten per cent sample of all the cultures known to history, sociology, and ethnography, it should be possible to produce several studies like the present one, far more fully and accurately documented, in the time needed to compile and write this volume.

The use of statistics and of the postulational method of scientific inquiry has been contemplated from the beginning 1 as a major objective in the utilization of the accumulated materials of the Cross-Cultural Survey files. The present author has departed from plan mainly in abandoning the sampling technique in favor of using all available cases in areas such as South America and Eurasia ior which there are too few sufficiently documented cases to obtain an adequate sample. In other areas, too, he has occasionally chosen a society because a good source was readily accessible rather than because a sample was demanded. He has, however, sought consciously to avoid any appreciable over-representation of particular culture areas. In short, departures from, strict sampling, where they occur, reflect availability or non-availability of suitable sources and no other basis of selection. This explains why the sample includes 70 societies from native North America, 65 from Africa, 60 from Oceania, 34 from Eurasia, and 21 from South America rather than an approximately equal number from each of the five.

 To avoid any possible tendency to select societies which might support his hypotheses or to reject those which might contradict them, the author included all societies with sufficient information in the Cross-Cultural Survey files and adopted a standard policy for the additional cases. Having first determined that a particular society would meet the sampling criteria, he turned to the available sources and quickly flipped the pages. If there seemed at a glance to be data on kinship terminology, on sex and marriage, and on familial, kin, and local groups, he accepted the case before examining any of the information in detail, and resolved not to exclude it thereafter.

 This policy resulted in the inclusion of a number of societies for which the data are scanty and possibly unreliable. In nine instances— the Arawak, Fulani, Hiw, Huichol, Jivaro, Kamba, Mohave, Porno, and Sinhalese— the information proved so wholly inadequate in early tabulations that the resolution was abandoned and the cases excluded.

In at least nine other instances— the Getmatta; Hawaiians, Hupa, Mataco, Mikir, Nambikuara, Ruthenians, Twi, and Vai— similar inadequacies showed up later, but resolve stiffened and they were retained.

It would have been scientifically desirable to examine every negative or exceptional case to determine the countervailing factors apparently responsible for its failure to accord with theoretical expectations, since there can be no genuine exceptions to valid scientific principles. An attempt has been made to do so in Chapter 8 and occasionally elsewhere. To have followed this policy throughout, however, would have been impracticable in view of the fact that the 250 cases have been subjected to hundreds of different tabulations.

Although most sociologists and the functionalists among anthropologists fully recognize that the integrative tendency in the process of cultural change justifies the treatment of individual cultures as independent units for statistical purposes, many historical anthropologists and a few other social scientists still sus- pect that the fact of diffusion— the known dependence of most societies upon borrowing from others for a large proportion of their cultural elements— invalidates this statistical assumption: The author could doubtless argue his case at great length without convincing these skeptics. He therefore determined to face the issue squarely in an appendix, recalculating a series of tabulations using as units not individual tribes but culture areas and linguistic stocks, the two most widely recognized groupings of peoples with indisputable historical connections. Several trial calculations yielded results practically identical with those obtained with tribal units. This plan was abandoned, however, when a much more satisfactory method was discovered whereby our hypotheses could be validated by strictly historical means. This is done in Appendix A.

The fact that our historical test corroborates our statistical demonstration, coupled with the sampling method of selecting tribal units, with the confirmation from trial tests with other units, and with the specific disproof in Chapter 8 that historical connections significantly affect the forms of social organization, should shift the burden of proof squarely upon the skeptics. Unless they can specifically demonstrate, upon a scale at least comparable to that of the present work, that diffusion negates the tendency of cultures to undergo modification in the direction of the integration of their component elements, the assumption that historical contacts do not destroy the independent variability of cultural units stands immune to challenge.

As regards statistical operations, we have adopted two indices for each computation— Yule's Coefficient of Association ( Q ) for purposes of comparison and a Chi Square (x 2 ) index for showing the probability of the particular distribution occurring by chance. For advice on statistical methods, the author is greatly indebted to Dr. Irvin L. Child, Dr. Carl I. Hovland, Dr. Douglas H. Lawrence, Dr. Ben- net B. Murdock, Dr. Oystein Ore, Dr. Fred D. Sheffield, and Dr. John R. Wittenborn. It is scarcely necessary to state that there has been no rejection of tabulations yielding low or negative coefficients. In the very small number of cases in which a calculation has yielded a coefficient “with negative sign, analysis has revealed some defect in the hypothesis, which was then revised. The coefficients which test the corrected hypotheses in this volume are not infrequently too low to be statistically significant, but more important is the fact that out of hundreds of computations not a single one has turned out genuinely negative in sign. The chances of such an outcome, if -the theories tested were unsound in any substantial respect, are incredibly infinitesimal.

Without the Cross-Cultural Survey the present study could scarcely have beenmade, or its methods applied on so large a scale. The author consequently owes a deep debt of personal and professional gratitude to Dr. Mark A. May, Director of the Institute of Human Relations, for his unwavering support of the project. He is also greatly indebted to the Carnegie Corporation, and particularly to Charles Dollard, now its president, for financial aid to the Survey during a war emergency; to the Coordinator of Inter-American Affairs, and particularly to Dr. Willard Z. Park and his staff, for supporting an immense increment of materials from modern Latin American societies under a war project called the Strategic Index of the Americas; to the Navy Department, and particularly to Captain A. E. Hindmarsh, USN, and to Captain Harry L. Pence, USN, for making possible complete coverage during the war of the then Japanese-controlled islands of the Pacific. Appreciation for their assistance must also be acknowledged to Mrs. Aimee Alden, John M. Armstrong, Jr., Dr. Wendell C. Bennett, Ward H. Goodenough, Geoffrey Gorer, Mrs. Frances Campbell Harlow, Dr. Harry Hawthorn, Dr. Allan R. Holmberg, Dr. Donald Horton, Mrs. Lois Howard, Dr. Benjamin Keen, Dr. Raymond Kennedy, Dr. William Ewart Lawrence, Dr. Oscar Lewis, Professor Leonard Mason, Dr. Alfred Metraux, Dr. Alois M. Nagler, Dr. Benjamin Paul, Dr. Gitel Poznanski, Dr. John M. Roberts, Jr., Dr. Mary Rouse, Dr. Bernard Siegel, Dr. Leo W. Simmons, Mrs. Marion Lambert Vanderbilt, and the many other's who have been associated with the Cross-Cultural Survey in some of its aspects, but especially to Dr. Clellan S. Ford and Dr. John W. M. Whiting, who have been intimately connected with the project throughout its development.

Of the four systems of social science theory which have influenced this volume and are reflected in its results the first is that of sociology.
Here the author must repeat the acknowledgment 2 of his enormous intellectual indebtedness to Albert G. Keller, under whom he did his graduate work and with whom he was associated for many years as a junior colleague. From Professor Keller he acquired the conviction that the only road to genuine knowledge is the arduous path of science and the realization that social behavior in our own modern society can best be comprehended from a background of the comparative study of earlier and simpler peoples. Through Keller, too, he became aware of the major contributions of William Graham Sumner— the relativity of culture and the still incompletely appreciated fact of its affective basis and its permeation with sanction and moral values.

More important even than the above, however, was the discovery that culture is adaptive or “functional,” subserving the basic needs of its carriers and altering through time by a sort of mass trial-and-error in a process which is truly evolutionary, i.e., characterized by orderly adaptive change 3. This was Keller's own contribution— not inherited from Sumner— and of itself would justify for its author a place among the great social scientists of all time. So valid is this conception, and so vastly more sophisticated than the views of the nature of culture and cultural change held by anthropologists and other sociologists at the time, that it went almost completely unrecognized. Only in the last decade or two has this point of view gained general acceptance, largely through the “functionalism” of Malinowski and the more recent studies of “culture and personality,” yet even today Keller's priority is practically unknown. Most of what other anthropologists have subsequently learned from Malinowski had already become familiar to the present author through the influence of Keller. For these reasons he will be eternally thankful that he did his graduate work under Keller in sociology, though he might have received a technically more exacting training under Boas in anthropology.

Unfortunately, marked disadvantages accompanied these values, and made it necessary for the author to deviate from the Sumner- Keller tradition on important issues. A genuine respect for science seemed inconsistent with the intolerance of other approaches so often manifested by Professor Keller and his disciples, for work of obvious importance was being done by other sociologists and by psychologists and cultural anthropologists of several schools. Moreover, value judgments buttressed with cases too frequently masqueraded as science. Above all, The Science of Society ( New Haven, 1927) is so permeated with survivals of nineteenth century evolutionism, which historical anthropologists have long since disproved, that a very high degree of selectivity is required in accepting its conclusions, with the result that impatient, insufficiently skilled, or hypercritical scholars often prefer to reject it in toto. But however seriously discounted, the Sumner-Keller approach nevertheless remains perhaps the most influential single intellectual stimulus behind the present volume.

Among his other former sociological colleagues at Yale the author has profited particularly from professional and personal associations with E. Wight Bakke, Maurice R. Davie, Raymond Kennedy, James G. Leyburn, Stephen W. Reed, and Leo W. Simmons. Among sociologists in other institutions he has been especially influenced by the contributions to cultural theory of William F. Ogburn, by the rigorous scientific objectivity of George Lundberg, by the methodological versatility of Raymond V. Bowers, and by the contributions to social structure of Kingsley Davis, Robert Merton, and Talcott Parsons.

The second profound influence upon this work stems from the group of American historical anthropologists of whom Franz Boas was the pioneer and intellectual leader. The author must stress particularly his genuine indebtedness to this school and his sincere appreciation of its contributions, since he will find it necessary on occasion to take sharp issue with their conclusions. At the beginning of the twentieth century, thought and theory in anthropology and related social sciences were saturated with evolutionistic assumptions which barred the way to further scientific development. Boas and his disciples assumed as their principal function the riddance of this intellectual debris, and so skillfully and energetically did they pursue this task that by 1920 evolutionism in the social sciences was completely defunct. This feat was accomplished by concentration upon field research and by demonstration of the historical interrelatedness of the cultures in particular areas, such as the Plains and the Northwest Coast. In addition to revealing the fallacy of unilinear evolution, this activity established field research as the hallmark of professional anthropology— such early theorists as Bachofen, Durkheim, Frazer, Graebner, Lippert, Lubbock, Marett, McLennan, Schmidt, Sumner, Tylor, and Westermarck were not field workers— and thereby resulted in equipping anthropologists with that first-hand experience with alien cultures which is the best guarantee of realism in theoretical interpretations. The importance of these contributions can scarcely be overemphasized.

The school accomplished distressingly little, however, toward the advancement of cultural theory. Having exorcised the bogey of evolutionism, it could discover no promising new objectives. Boas himself, who has been extravagantly overrated by his disciples 4, was the most unsystematic of theorists, his numerous kernels of genuine insight being scattered amongst much pedantic chaff. He was not even a good field worker. 5 He nevertheless did convey to his students a genuine respect for ethnographic facts and for methodological rigor. In the hands of some of his followers, however, his approach degenerated into a sterile historicism consisting of rash inferences concerning prehistory from areal distributions. With others it became converted into an unreasoning opposition to all new trends in anthropology.

In Leslie Spier the virtues of the Boas approach find their purest distillation. Despite certain limitations in outlook, he is a sound and systematic ethnographer, he reaches historical conclusions with a caution and a respect for detail that evoke admiration, and he exhibits considerable capacity for theoretical formulations.
The author values his years of close association with Spier, and acknowledges a strong indebtedness to him for indoctrination into the tradition of American historical anthropology. Among other students of Boas, Robert H. Lowie has also done outstanding work, particularly in the field of social organization, and A. L. Kroeber appears to the author the leading anthropologist of his own and adjacent generations. Despite his defensiveness respecting the historical approach and his occasional rash use of its methods, Kroeber kept American anthropology alive through an ineffectual generation by his originality, his concern with vital issues, and his analytical insight. If a tree is to be judged by its fruits, Boas is justified by these three men, even though the whole weight of his personal influence after 1920 was directed toward stemming the natural development of a scientific anthropology.

From Clark Wissler, initially through his writings and subsequently through personal contact, the author first acquired an adequate appreciation of the relation of cultures to their geographic backgrounds and of the regional distribution of cultural elements, a contribution from American historical anthropology of fundamental importance. To Edward Sapir he is indebted for such linguistic knowledge as he possesses and for his initiation into fieldwork, and he readily acknowledges that the field of culture and personality owes its initial stimulus very largely to Sapir's extra- ordinary intuitive flair and verbal facility. It becomes increasingly apparent, however, that the permanent contributions of Sapir to cultural theory are relatively slight in comparison to those which he achieved in linguistic science. For Ralph Linton the author feels only the most profound respect. In him, the historical, functional, and psychological approaches are welded into a harmonious synthesis which typifies modern cultural anthropology at its best. In fields in which both he and the author possess professional competence, the latter has seldom been able to discover a significant difference of opinion on theoretical issues.

A decade ago the author might have been inclined to rank functional anthropology among the important influences upon his thinking. Not so today. Personal contact with Bronislaw Malinowski brought intellectual stimulation and some clarification respecting social institutions but no fundamental point of view not previously acquired from Keller. The work of Radcliffe-Brown on social organization appears exceedingly impressive upon superficial acquaintance and was, indeed, the factor which first induced the author to specialize in the field. On closer view, however, its virtues wane, and they fade into insubstantiality with intensive study. In the controversy between Kroeber and Radcliffe-Brown, for example, the expressed views of the latter seemed, and still seem, appreciably sounder, but in the actual analysis and interpretation of data the former has proved right and the latter wrong in nearly every instance.

The principal impact of functional anthropology appears to have been the revolution it has wrought in the younger generation of American anthropologists, who for the most part are no longer purely historical, or functional, or psychological, but who wield several instruments at the same time with an often extraordinary degree of skill. In the hands of these capable and catholic men lies the future of anthropology, and perhaps even that of social science in general. Among them the author acknowledges special intellectual indebtedness to H. G. Barnett, Fred Eggan, Clellan S. Ford, John P. Gillin, A. I. Hallowell, Allan R. Holmberg, Clyde Kluckhohn, W. E. Lawrence, Morris E. Opler, Alexander Spoehr, Julian H. Steward, W. Lloyd Warner, and John W. M. Whiting.

The third system of organized knowledge which has significantly influenced this volume is behavioristic psychology. Although the author had become acquainted with the work of Pavlov and Watson early in his career, and had reacted favorably, it was not until he met Clark L. Hull a decade ago and became familiar with the latter's work that he fully appreciated the soundness of the approach and recognized its extraordinary utility for cultural theory. Of all the systematic approaches to the study of human behavior known to the author, that of Hull exceeds all others in scientific rigor and objectivity, and it is the only one against which he can level no serious criticism. Without it, the main conclusions of the present work would have been virtually impossible. It appears capable of shedding more light upon cultural problems than any other product of psychological science. By contrast, the social psychologies, Gestalt, and even psychoanalysis seem comparatively slender. For making available to him this source of illumination the author is under the deepest debt to Professor Hull, as well as to John Dollard for introducing him to it. He is also greatly obligated to Carl I. Hovland, Donald G. Marquis, Mark A. May, Neal E. Miller, O. H. Mowrer, Robert Sears, and John Whiting for interpreting the principles of learning and behavior to him.

The fourth and final body of theory which has substantially influenced this volume is psychoanalysis. Recognition is fully and gladly accorded herewith to the genius of Freud, to the keenness of his insight into a previously obscure realm of phenomena, and to the extreme importance and essential soundness of his discoveries. Without disparagement of the above, and without denying the unquestionable value of Freudian therapeutic techniques, the author must nevertheless express his conviction that the theoretical system of psychoanalysis is in the highest degree obscure, that its hypotheses are frequently overlapping and even contradictory, and that it fulfills few of the requisites of a rigorous, testable, and progressive body of scientific knowledge. In his opinion, therefore, it is probably destined to disappear as a separate theoretical discipline as its findings are gradually incorporated into some more rigorous scientific system such as that of behavioristic psychology. Considerable progress has already been made in this direction, but the absorption is still very far from complete. The author has therefore been compelled to use unassimilated Freudian theory in two sections of this book, namely, in the interpretation of avoidance and joking relationships in Chapter 9 and in the analysis of incest prohibitions in Chapter 10.

For introducing him to this exceedingly significant though somewhat unsatisfactory scientific approach the author is deeply indebted to John Dollard. He is equally obligated to Earl F. Zinn for guiding him through fifteen months of analysis and for prior and subsequent exposition of Freudian principles. Neal Miller, Hobart Mowrer, and John Whiting have also participated in his education, and he has derived benefit from Erich Fromm, Karen Horney, and Abram Kardiner in the attempt to apply psychoanalytic principles to cultural materials.

In conclusion, a fitting tribute should be paid to the Institute of Human Relations and to its director, Dr. Mark A. May, for the enlightened policy of bringing these several disciplines and techniques together with the aim of developing a coordinated and interdisciplinary science of human behavior.

New Haven, Connecticut
September, 1948

George Peter Murdock

1. See G. P. Murdock, “The Cross-Cultural Survey,” American Sociological Review, V ( 1940), 369-70.
2. See G. P. Murdock, Studies in the Science of Society (New Haven, 1937), pp. vii-xx.
3. See A. G. Keller, Societal Evolution (New York, 1915).
4. Cf. R. H. Lowie, History of Ethnological Theory (New York, 1937), pp. 128-155.
5. Despite Boas' “five-foot shelf of monographs on the Kwakiutl, this tribe falls into the quartile of those whose social structure and related practices are least adequately described among the 250 covered in the present study.