George W. Stocking Jr., historian of social anthropology, 1928–2013

George W. Stocking Jr., a groundbreaking historian of the social sciences, focused anthropology’s culturally observant eye back on its own past, tracing the field’s development on two continents. Stocking, the Stein-Freiler Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus of Anthropology and in the Committee on the Conceptual and Historical Studies of Science, died July 13 in Chicago.

Considered the foremost historian of American sociocultural and British social anthropology, Stocking wrote Victorian Anthropology (1987), The Ethnographer's Magic and Other Essays in the History of Anthropology (1992), After Tylor (1995) and was the author or editor of numerous other books. In the early 1980s, he founded the book series History of Anthropology and served as its editor for 18 years. The ultimate 2010 volume consisted of Stocking’s autobiography, Glimpses into my Own Black Box: An Exercise in Self-Deconstruction.

Michael Silverstein, the Charles F. Grey Distinguished Service Professor of Anthropology, Linguistics, and Psychology and in the Committee on Interdisciplinary Studies in the Humanities, said Stocking solidified the history of anthropology as an academic discipline. 

“George in a very real sense created this field by professionalizing it,” Silverstein said. He said Stocking’s work guided scholars in how the field has come to understand culture and cultures, and in how to assess the influence of internal and external factors on the field since its inception.

In addition to being one of the field’s early founders, Stocking was perhaps its most influential writer, said Robert J. Richards, PhD’78, director of the Morris Fishbein Center for the History of Science and Medicine and the Morris Fishbein Distinguished Service Professor of the History of Science and Medicine in the departments of History, Philosophy and Psychology.

“He wrote a different kind of essay,” Richards added, “a more penetrating one that put the development of ideas within a historical context that often was missing from similar efforts.” Richards said Stocking also shifted anthropology’s strict emphasis on British structural-functionalism more toward symbolic analysis and historicism—particularly through his interpretation of the work of Franz Boas, the turn-of-the-century anthropologist considered the founder of American anthropology.

Stocking also was devoted to teaching and enriching student life on campus. He was a 1994 recipient of the University’s student-nominated Llewellyn John and Harriet Manchester Quantrell Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching, and a 2011 recipient of the Norman Maclean Faculty Award. The latter was given by the University’s Alumni Board of Governors for his “influence and encouragement of decades of students, his tireless efforts in advancing their careers, and for creating and supporting a community among them.” Stocking also received the Huxley Medal of the Royal Anthropological Institute in 1993 and the Franz Boas Award from the American Anthropological Association in 1998.

Richards, a former student of Stocking’s, said he was not surprised when his former professor was honored with the Quantrell and Maclean awards. “George had a crusty layer that for some was a bit forbidding, but once you got to know him you found a marshmallow under that crusty layer. He was extremely helpful to students and many, many students just simply adored him for that.”

Matti Bunzl, PhD’98, another former student, now a professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign who assigns several of his mentor’s essays to his history of anthropology class, said Stocking taught him “everything I know about the life of a scholar…. I will try to continue to live up to his example, knowing full-well that that’s an impossible task.”

Stocking was born in Berlin in 1928 to Dorothea Reichhard and George W. Stocking Sr., a University of Texas economics professor doing research overseas, and later a member of Franklin Roosevelt’s Brain Trust. Stocking Jr. attended Harvard College, where he became involved in socialist causes. Shortly after graduating in 1949, he married Wilhelmina Davis and became active in the Communist Party. The couple worked on organized labor issues and had five children before they divorced in 1965. After growing disillusioned with the Communist movement, Stocking entered the University of Pennsylvania’s American Civilization program and received his PhD in 1960. He began teaching at Berkeley, earning tenure in 1966, but a National Science Foundation anthropology fellowship brought Stocking back to the University of Pennsylvania and then to the University of Chicago during 1967 to 1968, where he accepted joint appointments in anthropology and history in 1968.

That same year, Stocking married Carol Bowman, PhD’78. In 1981, he became director of the Fishbein Center, through which he organized several international meetings and worked in collaboration with members of the Committee on Conceptual and Historical Studies of Science. Stocking retired in 2000, after which he continued to teach and indulge in his wide-ranging hobbies.

“He was an enthusiastic runner and ran in a local race with his last class in 2000,” Carol Stocking said, adding that he also enjoyed gardening, cooking and needlepoint. “George was a big Bears and Bulls fan, and during games on TV he needle-pointed Christmas stockings for his children and grandchildren. He designed each stocking to reflect the interests and hobbies of the person,” she said.

In addition to his wife, Carol, Stocking’s survivors include daughters Susan Baltrushes of Malibu, Calif., Rebecca Reidy of Boston, Mass., Rachel Stocking of Carbondale, Ill., Melissa Stocking of Pomona, Calif.; and son Thomas Stocking of San Raphael, Calif.; along with 10 grandchildren and three great-grandchildren. A memorial service is being planned for the fall.