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About George William Skinner
George William Skinner (simplified Chinese: 施坚雅; traditional Chinese: 施堅雅; February 14, 1925 – October 26, 2008) was a leading American anthropologist and scholar of China. Skinner was a leading proponent of the spatial approach to Chinese history, as explained in his Presidential Address to the Association for Asian Studies in 1984. He often referred to his approach as "regional analysis," and taught the use of maps as a key class of data in ethnography.
Skinner was born on February 14, 1925, in Oakland, California. His father, John James Skinner was a pharmacologist and his mother, Eunice Engle Skinner, taught music and became the director of music education for the Berkeley school system. Skinner spent two years at Deep Springs College, a small college founded to educate small cohorts of young men into the life of the mind in a self-sufficient, disciplined manner. After Deep Springs, he joined the Navy V-12 Program in 1943, then attended the U.S. Navy Oriental Language School for 18 months at the University of Colorado, Boulder, where he studied Chinese. In 1946, Skinner headed for Cornell University to complete his B.A. degree. He graduated in the following year with his B.A. (with distinction) in Far Eastern studies, and remained there for his Ph.D. in anthropology (1954) under the supervision of Lauriston Sharp.
Skinner’s first job was as instructor in sociology at Cornell in 1949. Between 1951 and 1955, he was field director of the Cornell Southeast Asia Program, then a research associate at Cornell. He became assistant professor of anthropology at Columbia University in 1958. Two years later, Skinner was hired back at Cornell as associate professor and then promoted to full professor in 1962 — an unusually fast track to that status. In 1965, he left for Stanford University, moving again in 1990 to the University of California, Davis, which had hired his wife, China historian Susan L. Mann. Skinner retired from teaching in 2005 but maintained an active research program until his death three years later.
Perhaps his best-known influence on Chinese Studies was his delineation of the Physiographic macroregions of China. He made fascinating discoveries about local organization in China as well, including an extension of central place theory to explain how a hierarchically organized urban system could evolve under conditions of increased population density. In later years he was instrumental in the establishment of the China Historical Geographic Information Systems project at Harvard and Fudan Universities. His papers and maps are archived in the library collections of Harvard, Cornell, the University of Washington, and Fudan University.