G. William Skinner was born in Oakland, California, in 1925. From 1942-43, he attended
Deeps Springs College (California), then joined the Navy V-12 Program at Missouri Valley
College for two years before completing 18 months of instruction in Chinese at the U.S. Navy
Oriental Language School at the University of Colorado. He then completed his Bachelor's
degree at Cornell University (1946-47) with Distinction in Far Eastern Studies.
Skinner then went on to pursue doctoral studies in anthropology at Cornell University, with
an interest in market towns and their regions in China. He began fieldwork at Gaodianzi,
near Chengdu, Sichuan Province, in 1949, but this was disrupted when the Communists won the
civil war in China. Skinner was forced to leave his fieldsite in January, 1950, and was
confined to Chengdu until August, when he was allowed to leave China.
With the closing of China, Skinner shifted his attention to Chinese communities in
Southeast Asia, with an initial field survey conducted in 1950. This was followed by a
doctoral project on the Chinese of Thailand, completed in 1954 while he was also Field
Director of the Cornell Southeast Asia Program in Bangkok (1951-55). Subsequently, he joined
the Cornell Modern Indonesia Project as a Research Associate, and was in Indonesia from
1956-58 to conduct research on the Chinese of Indonesia and oversee related projects.
From 1958-60, Skinner was Assistant Professor of Sociology at Columbia University, before
returning to Cornell as Associate Professor of Anthropology (1960-62) and then Professor of
Anthropology (1962-65). It was during this time (1964-65) that he published his much
celebrated "Marketing and Social Structure in Rural China" as three articles in successive
issues of the Journal of Asian Studies, which established him as a preeminent scholar of
Subsequently, Skinner was appointed Professor of Anthropology at Stanford University
(1965-89) and the University of California, Davis (1990-2005). He was also President of the
Association of Asian Studies in 1983. Besides being noted as an eminent anthropologist of
China, Skinner was best known for his work on the dynamics of social structure and space,
which he applied to the study of China, Japan and France using geographic information system
techniques. His work on hierarchical regional systems was also instrumental in the shaping
of the China Historical Geographic Information System, which provides a database of
populated places and historical administrative units throughout Chinese history.
The Skinner papers deposited with Cornell University mainly come from the Southeast Asia
phase of his career. These include research materials collected for his seminal works on the
Chinese of Thailand and Indonesia. These materials not only informed Skinner's understanding
of Chinese culture and kinship dynamics, but also demonstrated his early interest in mapping
sociological data onto geographical frameworks.