Roy Rappaport, one of the leading ecological anthropologists of the 20th century, was born in New York City. He earned his undergraduate degree from Cornell University. In 1959 (at the age of 33), Rappaport enrolled at Columbia University where he studied anthropology under Marvin Harris, Harold Conklin, Margaret Mead, Conrad Arensberg, and Andrew P. Vayda. He claimed that the anthropologist who most influenced him was Gregory Bateson, whom he first met in 1968. It was Bateson who introduced Rappaport to systems theory and encouraged him to look at evolution and adaptation as informational processes.
Between 1962 and 1964, Rappaport conducted fieldwork among the Maring of Papua, New Guinea, primarily among the Tsembaga clan. His greatest contributions to ecological anthropology stem from his precise measurements of the activities of 204 Maring speakers during the summer of 1963. In 1964, Rappaport presented a paper, “Ritual Regulations of Environmental Relations among a New Guinea People,” at the American Anthropological Association. The 1964 paper was published in the journal Ethnography and has been widely reprinted. This paper contains almost all of the ideas that were to occupy Rappaport’s thought for the rest of his life. In 1965, Rappaport joined the anthropology faculty at the University of Michigan, where he taught for over 30 years.
Rappaport’s 1966 doctoral dissertation was published as Pigs for the Ancestors. His goal in Pigs for the Ancestors was to go beyond the arguments of cultural materialism and functionalism to focus on the adaptive value of rituals in maintaining carrying capacity, the persistence of species, human nutritional well-being, and the frequency of warfare within small-scale societies. Pigs for the Ancestors contains Rappaport’s key ideas in human ecology and religion; most notably, what he saw as the occasional contradiction between “operational” and “cognized” environments. Rappaport emphasized that the “operational” environment—governed by the immutable laws of the physical universe—and the “cognized” environment— which he defined as “the sum of the phenomena ordered into meaningful categories by a population”— differed due to the fact that “cognized” environments are less bound by physical laws.
According to Rappaport, there are two universal aspects of ritual: (1) it constitutes an invariant sequence of acts and utterances (form), and (2) its participants must actually perform according to these invariant sequences. Rituals impose a standard of conduct that goes beyond the will of individual participants and constitutes the foundation of all convention. Ritual is the basic “social act.” Ellen Messer has suggested that Rappaport spent the earlier part of his academic career documenting his ideas on human ecology and how ritual regulates environmental relations and the rest of his life trying to understand why ritual should order ecosystems and human life.
Always active professionally, Roy Rappaport served as chair of the Department of Anthropology at the University of Michigan and was president of the American Anthropological Association from 1987 to 1989. He was also elected to membership in the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. A highly committed, ethical, and engaged scholar, Rappaport advocated bringing anthropological findings to bear on social issues of the day. He served as a consultant for the state of Nevada on the advisability of storing nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain and was a member of the National Academy of Sciences Task Force dealing with the leasing of offshore oil rights. From 1991 until his death, Rappaport served as head of the Program on Studies in Religion PSIR) at the University of Michigan. He regularly offered the course Anthropology 448/Religion 452: “Anthropology of Religion: Ritual, Sanctity, and Adaptation.”
While heading the PSIR, Rappaport embarked on what was to become his last major study, published posthumously as Ritual and Religion in the Making of Humanity. Ritual and Religion is one of the most comprehensive anthropological studies of religion ever published. In it, Rappaport attempted to establish a new set of categories for the study of religion and makes a strong case for what he saw as religion’s central role in human evolution.
- Messer, E. & Lambek, M. (Eds.). (1999). Ecology and the sacred: Engaging the anthropology of Roy A. Rappaport. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.
- Rappaport, R. A. (1968). Pigs for the ancestors: Ritual and ecology of a New Guinea people. New Haven: Yale University Press.
- Rappaport, R. A. (1979). Ecology, meaning, and religion. Richmond, CA: North Atlantic Books.
- Rappaport, R. A. (1999). Ritual and religion in the making of humanity. New York: Cambridge University Press.