Cooper, John M.

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Cooper, John M.



John Montgomery Cooper (1881–1949) was an American ethnologist, ethnographer, and priest who also made important contributions to the fields of education and social welfare.

Although his father's family was Quaker, his mother was of French Catholic stock, and at an early age Cooper felt the desire to enter the priesthood. His academic work at St. Charles College near Baltimore, Maryland, was followed by six years of study in Rome and travel on the Continent. At the American College in Rome he received a PH.D. in 1902 and a degree of doctor of sacred theology in 1905, the year in which he was ordained. On returning to the United States, he was appointed to St. Matthew's church in Washington, D.C.

In 1909 Cooper became associated with the Catholic University of America as part-time instructor in religious education and was soon relieved of parish duties. In 1923 he became an associate professor in the department of sociology and a full professor in 1928. When the department of anthropology was established in 1934, he became its chairman, a position he filled until his death.

From 1917 to 1925 Cooper's attention was turned to subjects broadly sociological in nature. Practically all his writings concerned group work, social hygiene, and related topics. His association with the National Catholic Welfare Council, 1918–1920, brought him to international prominence as a leader in social group work. His last contribution to applied sociology was his book Children's Institutions (1931a).

Although subsequently he made original contributions to several fields of anthropology, such as linguistics (1945), and to the psychiatric approach to certain ethnographic phenomena (1934), Cooper was primarily an ethnologist. His vacation trips to northern Canada led to an interest in American Indians, which was encouraged by John Reed Swanton and Frederick W. Hodge, ethnologists at the Smithsonian Institution. His first notable contribution to ethnology, which preceded his sociological work, was his Analytical and Critical Bibliography of the Tribes of Tierra del Fuego (1917). This study revealed in high measure the qualities that marked all of his work—craftsmanship, lucidity of expression, and critical judgment. His recurrent visits to the Algonquian-speaking Indians of northeastern Canada and the Great Plains resulted in many papers on various aspects of their culture —material, social, and magico-religious. His last full-length monograph, the second part of The Gros Ventres of Montana (1957), on religion and ritual, was published posthumously.

As a theorist Cooper was particularly intrigued with questions of distribution and historical reconstruction. His paper on the areal and temporal distribution of culture in South America (1942) inspired the over-all arrangement of the Handbook of South American Indians (Steward 1946–1959). To this large compendium he contributed ten articles, all of which exhibit his complete mastery of the often widely scattered sources. In his Temporal Sequence and the Marginal Cultures (1941) he presented evidence for the hypothesis that the nonliterate peoples of the ethnographic present represent “tarriers” with relatively unchanged cultures from prehistoric times, and he worked out several canons to be applied in historical reconstruction. One of these canons is as follows:

(a) Where a given cultural phenomenon is consistently found among present-day marginal peoples it was probably present in early prehistoric human culture as such, (b) The probability of such early prehistoric presence is augmented where the factors underlying the given phenomenon can be assumed on probable grounds to have been continuously operative among the cultural ancestors of the present-day marginals and to have been operative in early prehistoric times. (Cooper 1941, p. 64)

Cooper was aware that the applicability of his canons was distinctly limited. “As is obvious they cannot yield a total all-embracing reconstruction of prehistoric culture …” (1941, p. 66). Exhibiting proper scientific caution, he drew conclusions when the evidence warranted but never subscribed to what he considered the overbroad generalizations of the Viennese Kulturkreis theory, which claimed by means of “the culture-history method” to be able to reconstruct original primeval human culture.

Lowie (1949, p. 291) stated that Cooper's essay “Andamanese–Semang–Eta Cultural Relations” (1940), “which presents a powerful argument for the pristine unity of the Asiatic Pygmies,” was possibly “the most superb example of what sound judgment coupled with control of the material can accomplish.” His interpretative paper “The Relations Between Religion and Morality” (1931b) was selected for inclusion in The Golden Age of American Anthropology. In this paper Cooper called attention to a certain fundamental order and uniformity underlying the extremely varied moral standards that prevail among the nonliterate peoples of the world and showed that while among some of the marginal peoples religious sanctions are clearly operative, among a good number of them social sanctions alone back up the moral code. He concluded therefore that neither the classical theory, which maintained an early dissociation of religion and morality, nor the theory holding that in earlier times both duties to God and to neighbor were looked upon as the will of God can be maintained in the light of the anthropological evidence.

In addition to his purely academic activities Cooper evidenced extraordinary organizing skill. He was largely responsible for founding the Catholic Anthropological Conference in 1926. He initiated and edited several valuable publications, including the periodical Primitive Man (title changed to Anthropological Quarterly in 1953). He never shirked professional responsibility and participated actively in numerous organizations. His religious beliefs and his priestly vocation completely penetrated his life. He never felt that they interfered in any way with his scientific attitude as an anthropologist.

Regina Flannery


1917 Analytical and Critical Bibliography of the Tribes of Tierra del Fuego and Adjacent Territory. U.S. Bureau of American Ethnology, Bulletin No. 63. Washington: Government Printing Office.

1931a Children's Institutions: A Study of Programs and Policies in Catholic Children's Institutions in the United States. Philadelphia: Dolphin.

(1931b) 1960 The Relations Between Religion and Morality in Primitive Culture. Pages 560–572 in Margaret Mead and Ruth L. Bunzel (editors), The Golden Age of American Anthropology. New York: Braziller.

1934 Mental Disease Situations in Certain Cultures: A New Field for Research. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology 24:10–17.

1940 Andamanese-Semang-Eta Cultural Relations. Primitive Man 13:29–47.

1941 Temporal Sequence and the Marginal Cultures. Anthropological Series, No. 10. Washington: Catholic University of America.

1942 Areal and Temporal Aspects of Aboriginal South American Culture. Primitive Man 15:1–38.

1945 Tête-de-Boule Cree. International Journal of American Linguistics 11:36–44.

1957 The Gros Ventres of Montana. Part 2: Religion and Ritual. Edited by Regina Flannery. Anthropological Series, No. 16. Washington: Catholic University of America.


Bibliography of John Montgomery Cooper. 1950 Primitive Man 23:66–84.

Furfey, Paul H. 1950 John Montgomery Cooper: 1881–1949. Primitive Man 23:49–65.

Lowie, Robert H. 1949 John Montgomery Cooper: 1881–1949. Boletín bibliográfico de antropología americana 12, part 2: 289–292.

MÉtraux, Alfred 1950 The Contribution of the Rev. Father Cooper to South American Ethnography. Primitive Man 23:39–48. → This number contains a comprehensive bibliography of Cooper's works.

Steward, Julian H. (editor) (1946–1959) 1963 Handbook of South American Indians. 7 vols. U.S. Bureau of American Ethnology, Bulletin No. 153. New York: Cooper Square.

Tibesar, Leopold H. 1950 Doctor Cooper Initiates the Catholic Anthropological Conference. Primitive Man 23:35–38.

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