Rappaport, Roy A.

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RAPPAPORT, ROY A. (19261997). The American anthropologist Roy A. Rappaport's writings, which span ecology, systems theory, and religion, address the large issues of ritual and religious logos in human survival and evolution. After helping to conceptualize the field of anthropological human ecology in the 1960s, Rappaport did fieldwork among the Maring of highland New Guinea and crafted a truly innovative "systems" ethnography, in what became the classic Pigs for the Ancestors: Ritual in the Ecology of a New Guinea People (1968), which explores the ritual regulation of environmental relations in their local ecosystems. Rappaport followed up on his analysis of what religion does by probingthrough cybernetic studies of the sacred and in essays that link adaptation, the structure of human communication, and ritual lifewhy ritual should order ecosystems and human life. While conducting his religion research, he also consulted with government agencies on the notion of human impacts, arguing for a more public- and policy-engaged anthropology. From beginning to end, he saw anthropology as a holistic discipline that could provide value-based moral and intellectual foundations for both the sciences and the humanities and that could help bridge their divide.

Rappaport, a New Yorker and credentialed innkeeper, was already close to forty when he began his graduate anthropology studies at Columbia University in the politically turbulent 1960s, a time of heightened public debate on ecology, civil rights, the Vietnam War, and the threat of nuclear war. At Columbia he contended with Marvin Harris's cultural materialism; Harold Conklin's ethnoscience; Conrad Arensberg's political anthropology; Andrew Vayda's, Fredrik Barth's, and Harold Conklin's interpretations of anthropological ecology, and Leslie White's theory of general evolution as presented by Morton Fried. Building on Arensberg and White, he developed his own ideas of ordered general systems; and he transformed the ethnoscience and ecologies of Conklin, Vayda, and Barth into his own notions of "cognized" and "operational" environments that introduced ideas of structure in adaptive systems. He also departed from Conklin and Barth by intentionally introducing clearly specified units of analysis, such as "human population," not only "culture," and by tracing energy and nutrient flows, not only ideas. He also bypassed the vague social structural-functional formulations and simple functionalist or materialist arguments of Harris to explore not ritual's function but its adaptive value in maintaining empirical ("reference") values, as in the numbers of humans, plants, and animals living in peace or in conflict within a given territory over a specified unit of time.

The identification of ritual as an important mechanism regulating peace and warfare, distribution of regional population, and humans' sustainable use of environmental resources was innovative, as was the ritual analysis that did not try to specify whether local models of the natural world (which included the superhuman) were true but only whether they were appropriate to maintain the ecosystem.

Despite Rappaport's personal ambivalence toward religion, his research then turned to understanding ritual's internal structure, the principles of sanctity that govern it, and how these principles connect individuals, societies, and ecosystems. Influenced by the ideas of Gregory Bateson (19041980) in cybernetics and adaptation, Charles Peirce (18391914) in semiotics, and J. L. Austin (19111960) in performatives, he sought the etiology, structure, and attributes of logos (transcendent or higher truths) that bind human beings into meaningful and enduring social orders and enable the trustworthy communication necessary for a shared social and cultural life. A key to his arguments centers on the ambivalent role of language in human evolution, which introduces new content and flexibility into human ideas of desirable, creative, moral, and imaginary orders, but also permits lies. Ritual, he concluded, is the universal basis for establishing trust, given the possibility of linguistic dissembling and falsification. His concept of "the holy" weds discursive liturgical order both to nondiscursive religious experience, which allows human beings to commit themselves to orderly rules that organize their collective lives, and to cultural conventions that help maintain ecological balance. To reach these conclusions, Rappaport continued to ground his abstract theory in Maring ethnography and his ideas of ultimate sacred postulates, logos, and resilience in his understandings of Judaism, his ancestral religion.

Rappaport's main interest in ritual was in adaptive, not maladaptive, structure. Regarding the clash between science and religion, he critiqued the role of science in the modern worldwhere science seeks to usurp the place of religion ("the holy")as a dangerous systemic "inversion," because while science questions the value of ritual acts, it offers nothing to replace them. Although science offers up new realms of thought, with calculations based on facts organized under theories, all scientific knowledge can be questioned, and so it fragments and precludes certainty. But humanity needs certainty and wholeness to survive. This certainty is provided by the sacred, which adds cultural structures of meaning to observations and analysis based on accordance with natural (scientific) law.

Rappaport joined the department of anthropology at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor in 1965, then served as chair of the department (19751980), was elected a senior fellow of the Michigan Society of Fellows (1975), and in 1991 became director of the university's program on studies in religion. He served as president of the American Anthropological Association from 1987 to 1989.

See Also

Anthropology, Ethnology, and Religion; Ritual Studies.


Messer, Ellen, and Michael Lambek, eds. Ecology and the Sacred: Engaging the Anthropology of Roy A. Rappaport. Ann Arbor, Mich., 2001.

Rappaport, Roy A. Pigs for the Ancestors: Ritual in the Ecology of a New Guinea People. New Haven, Conn., 1968. A second edition, with new preface, appendix, and epilogue, was published in 1984.

Rappaport, Roy A. Ecology, Meaning, and Religion. Richmond, Calif., 1979.

Rappaport, Roy A. "The Anthropology of Trouble." American Anthropologist 95, no. 2 (1993): 295303.

Rappaport, Roy A. "Humanity's Evolution and Anthropology's Future." In Assessing Cultural Anthropology, edited by Robert Borofsky, pp. 153167. New York, 1994.

Rappaport, Roy A. Ritual and Religion in the Making of Humanity. Cambridge, U.K., 1999.

Ellen Messer (2005)