Australian Dictionary of Biography

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William Lloyd Warner (1898–1970)

by D. J. Mulvaney

This article was published:

William Lloyd Warner (1898-1970), anthropologist and sociologist, was born on 25 October 1898 at Colton, California, United States of America, son of William Taylor Warner and his wife Belle, née Carter. After serving in the infantry as a private in World War I, he graduated in anthropology (A.B., 1925) from the University of California, Berkeley. Warner was fortunate in his close association with luminary anthropologists and proved eclectic in adapting their diverse methodologies. Taught by R. H. Lowie and A. L. Kroeber, he was also stimulated by B. K. Malinowski who visited Berkeley and recommended a Rockefeller Foundation fellowship for Warner at the University of Sydney's new anthropology department under A. R. Radcliffe-Brown; on the latter's advice, the Australian National Research Council extended the fellowship for two years.

In 1927-29 Warner worked in north-east Arnhem Land, based at Milingimbi Methodist Mission. His major research included investigations into Aboriginal social structure, group and individual inter-relations, including economics, physical conflict and ceremonial life. In addition, he documented material culture, excavated middens and made the first serious assessment of the influence of Macassan trepangers on Aboriginal society. His anthropometric measurements of 307 Aborigines were later analysed by W. W. Howells. Warner became celebrated for his exposition of the system of kinship and marriage among the various clans of his so-called Murngin people. His findings stimulated the 'Murngin controversy', a voluminous dialogue to which distinguished anthropologists still contribute. He analysed his data in Sydney during 1929 and several original articles followed. Considering Warner to be 'exceptionally able' and his work 'as good as any piece of research' conducted in Australia, Radcliffe-Brown predicted that he 'will do brilliant scientific work'.

After leaving Australia in 1929, Warner taught anthropology, sociology and social ethics at Harvard University until 1935. A Black Civilization: A Social Study of an Australian Tribe (New York, 1937, 1948, 1964) elaborated his field-work, often incorporating earlier publications verbatim. Outstanding for its scope and detail, its status is that of an anthropological classic. Associate professor (1935-41) and professor (1941-59) of sociology at the University of Chicago, and thereafter professor of social research at Michigan State University, Warner applied the anthropological techniques he had used for studying small-scale Aboriginal societies to contemporary industrial cities. Influenced by G. E. Mayo, he pioneered the study of American social classes. His extensive publications included the collaborative Yankee City series (five volumes) and Democracy in Jonesville (New York, 1949). Warner founded Social Research Inc., a motivational research firm, in 1946, editing with N. H. Norman Industrial Man: Business Men and Business Organizations (New York, 1959); his professional image was possibly enhanced by his industry and neatly clipped moustache.

With Mildred Hall, whom he had married on 12 January 1932, he wrote What You Should Know About Social Class (Chicago, 1953). Warner died in Chicago on 23 May 1970 and was cremated; his wife, a son and two daughters survived him. He was esteemed by a colleague as 'the greatest of the empiricists'.

Select Bibliography

  • Papers of the Peabody Museum of American Archaeology and Ethnology, 16, 1937
  • Oceania, 41, 1970, p 77
  • American Journal of Sociology, 76, 1970-71
  • New York Times, 24 May 1970
  • Washington Post, 25 May 1970
  • Warner's collection of 102 Arnhem Land photographs (Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies)
  • Australian National Research Council papers (National Library of Australia).

Citation details

D. J. Mulvaney, 'Warner, William Lloyd (1898–1970)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1990, accessed online 4 March 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 12, (Melbourne University Press), 1990

View the front pages for Volume 12

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


25 October, 1898
Colton, California, United States of America


23 May, 1970 (aged 71)
Chicago, Illinois, United States of America

Cultural Heritage

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