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November 17, 2008 in The China Beat


Copyright November 17, 2008 Daniel Little. Used by permission.


G. William Skinner was one of the most innovative social scientists to have turned his attention to China in the past thirty years. Bill passed away on October 25, 2008, but his influence on how we think about China will survive him for a long, long time. (See this list of Skinner’s publications to get an impression of the depth and scope of his contributions.) Bill was a generous and open scholar, and many scholars working in the field today owe him a permanent debt of gratitude for his advice and support in the past several decades. (See this Chinese obituary documenting Skinner’s significance for Chinese scholars.)

Bill was a particularly fertile thinker when it came to using analytical and spatial models to explicate social reality in China (and occasionally Japan or France). (His work on Japanese demographic behavior is a great example; he devised an analytical framework for permitting inferences about family planning choices within Japanese peasant families demonstrating very specific preferences about birth order depending on the age and wealth of the parents. See “Conjugal Power in Tokugawa Japanese Families” in Sex and Gender Hierarchies, edited by B. D. Miller (Cambridge University Press, 1989).) Skinner was insistent that social data need to be analyzed in spatial terms; he believed that many social patterns will be best understood when they are placed in their geographical context. And the reason for this is straightforward: human social activity itself is structured in space, through transport systems, habitation patterns, the circuits of merchants and necromancers, and the waterways that integrate social and economic systems in pre-modern societies. He also believed that identifying the right level of geographical aggregation is an important and substantive task; for example, he argued against the idea of making economic comparisons across provinces in China, on the basis that provincial boundaries emerged as a result of a series of administrative accidents rather than defining “natural” boundaries of human activity.