The life of Marvin Opler can be defined, without a doubt, as passionate and exciting. From his childhood he pursued the dream of becoming an anthropologist, so he always had a deep respect for human diversity.
This is why the conflicts of the Second World War, which he unfortunately had to live through, aroused in him the indestructible defense of the rights of those who were subjected to the yoke of social injustice. It is a testament to the love for his profession, which still prevails today.
in this biography of Marvin Opler we will address the most relevant moments of his professional life, deepening his academic career and the work he has done as an anthropologist, teacher and social psychologist; in a historical context of particular convulsion in which he was immersed until the last consequences.
Brief biography of Marvin Opler
Marvin Opler was an outstanding American anthropologist and social psychologist, Born in the city of Buffalo, New York in 1914. He is known for his contributions to the study of noise-induced stress in city life, as well as for the social auspices of a “psychology rooted in the clinical setting.
The figure of his older brother, Morris Opler (also an anthropologist), would be important to him, as he passed on his passion for studying Apache culture as a child.
Below we will review the life and work of Marvin Opler, highlighting his great contribution as an anthropologist to the meticulous study of Native American cultures, As well as their social perspective on mental health and their contribution to the knowledge of the experience of Japanese residents in the United States during World War II (1939-1945). This historical context is essential for understanding how the author projected his heritage and understood the society in which he lived.
Marvin Opler began his education at the age of 21 in his hometown of Buffalo, but completed it at the University of Michigan. He moved there because of his interest in a theoretical convergence of social psychology and anthropology, which in his day was represented by Professor Leslie White, who worked there as a teacher. However, when he graduated from the social sciences, his insatiable thirst for knowledge drove him to pursue his doctorate at Columbia.
It would be precisely at this point that he would meet Ruth Benedict (president of the American Anthropological Association and a leading figure in the study of personality, art and culture) and Ralph Linton (author of classic works like the study of man or the tree of culture); and in which he would become a pioneer in achieving anthropological studies on several virtually unknown indigenous tribes for western society.
In this sense, they highlight their contributions to knowledge about the Ute (which lived in the areas of present-day Utah and Colorado, further extending its hunting zone to the state of Wyoming and that of Arizona) and the Paiute (which had their homes on the Colorado River and southern Utah), which earned him a doctorate from Columbia University in 1939.
Later ethnographic studies
Opler’s work as a researcher he resorted to the method of social anthropology, that is to say of ethnography. It is a qualitative conception which must evolve towards the physical environments from which the sample comes, in order to coexist with the persons of interest and to assimilate their own uses and customs. It is a participatory observation to discover and describe cultures different from the original one.
With this methodology, he helped disseminate knowledge about the Apache people (who are currently spread throughout Oklahoma, Texas and Arizona, in a cultural conglomerate in which linguistic and folk diversity stands out) and about the natives. from the northern Oregon coast. For this and other work, he held the Chair of Anthropology at Reed College (a prestigious private university located in southeast Portland).
In 1943, at the height of World War II (1939-1945), was recruited by the American National War Labor Board, A government agency that pursued the goal of resolving disputes arising from war (in internal / external affairs of the state). The creation of the same took place during the tenure of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, being its second iteration (since the first took place at the end of World War I and dissolved in 1919, almost a year later of its conclusion).
He works as an anthropologist on Lake Tule
In the years he remained on the National War Labor Council, Marvin Opler was assigned as a community analyst at Tule Lake (Newel), place in which the largest concentration camp for Japanese of that time would be raised (his brother occupied the same place in Apple orchard).
These facilities housed citizens of Japanese descent who resided in the United States during the conflict (even though they were born there), or approximately 120,000 inmates (mostly from the mainland).
In clear opposition to that of other colleagues, Opler performed a particularly critical task with the treatment these citizens received during his long imprisonment, recording in detail the life of the place and standing as a privileged activist for his rights.
At this point, he describes how many Japanese, acculturated for generations by Western influence, have returned to some of their ancestral customs in order to restore the dignity that had been taken away from them. This phenomenon was invented as a cultural revivalism, And this was one of the phenomena that Opler documented after his experience in the concentration camp.
He has also had time to write numerous articles on the implicit effects on racial segregation and even on the emotional crises of the Japanese that motivated his renunciation of an identity as Americans. In all of his writings he was very critical of the regime of mass imprisonment his country applied, alluding to xenophobic and non-security reasons.
Some of the people who assisted Opler in this task were attorney Wayne Mortimer Collins (1 lawyer from Sacramento who had previously engaged in various civil rights lawsuits) and his wife Charlotte (who worked as a nurse in the camp, being the only white woman to have loaned). herself). He came to forge strong friendships that would last a lifetime, especially with the Japanese who were able to recount their prosocial acts even after his death. In fact, they turned out to be artists who kindled the dull flame of Japanese culture after the war.
These activities aroused the suspicion of the FBIThis prompted an in-depth investigation into Opler’s figure in order to determine the possible presence of links with the Communist Party. However, despite baseless allegations from a member of the War Relocation Authority (an agency he has entrusted with the responsibility of locating the Japanese in their respective places of detention), they were ultimately fired.
The persecution of this agency would not end here, as it would return a few years later, although it never bore fruit in any conviction. It was a sample of the extent to which ideological control of the population was a constant in the United States, even despite claiming to be a land of freedoms.
The figure of Opler is today considered a benchmark of what could have been the work of the anthropologists who worked on Lake Tule during those years, as most of them considered the work in isolation to be justified and ethical. that was carried out there. Many Japanese thinkers have touted the figure of Opler in recent decades as an extraordinary bastion of respect for his compatriots in the obscurity of those times, paddling against the tide in a turbulent period marked by warlike impulses.
Work in the field of social psychiatry
When all the fields were finally closed concentration and put an end to the great war, Opler taught at Stanford and Harvard universities (For the departments of anthropology and sociology). However, it was from 1952 that he began to develop important work related to the field of mental health, at the Center for Mental Health Study located in Midtown (Midtown Community Mental Health Research Study). He remained in this post until 1960, publishing his findings on the experiment a few years later.
In his work, aimed at the inhabitants of this district of New York, highlighted the search for individual differences in the expression of schizophrenia attributable to the cultural substrate patients; his role in the field of health therefore pursued the aspirations which motivated him as a young man to study anthropology.
Opler died of a heart attack in 1981, a year after the death of his wife (from whom he separated in 1970), without seeing his last and most important contributions in this field published.
It is remembered as one of the authors who have contributed the most to the development of social psychologyEspecially as a result of the more than 200 texts he published for nearly 25 years, he was a professor at the University of Buffalo (where he began and ended his academic life). He worked there from 1958 until the end of his days, occupying the post of professor of anthropology for a few years (1969-1972).
Research interest of Marvin Opler
Marvin Opler published very different books throughout his life, all on anthropology and social psychology.
Regarding the first of them, he addressed questions such as the acculturation of peoples (loss of popular traditions due to the influence of an outside culture) or the rituals of the Ute and the Apache (including including the shamanic analysis of his own dreams, to which a method of psychoanalysis without any contact with her). He was also interested in the social role of women and has written extensively on his experiences in Tule Lake Concentration Camp.
As for social psychology, was interested in a socio-cultural delineation of mental health, The use of psychoactive substances for ritual purposes, the prevention of psychological disorders and how international conflicts could contribute to the emergence of problems such as violence and suicide. In this way, he focused his vision of mental health in the social field, with work still relevant today in this field, showing that even in a well-being of this type it is not a question of individual entity, but it also has to do with what is happening in the environment.
- Opler, M. (1956). Entities and organization in individual and group behavior: a conceptual framework. Group psychotherapy and psychodrama, 9 (4), 290 – 300.
- Opler, M. (1941). The integration of the sun dance into the Ute religion. American anthropologist, 43 (4), 551-572.
- Opler, M. (1946). The creative role of shamanism in the Apache mythology of Mescalero. Journal of American Folklore, 59, 268-281.
- Opler, M. (1969). International and cultural conflicts affecting mental health. Violence, suicide and withdrawal. American Journal of Psychotherapy, 23 (4), 608-620.
- Price, DH (2004). Threatening Anthropology: McCarthyism and the FBI Militant Anthropologist Watch. Durham: Duke University Press.
- Price, DH and Peace, WJ (2003). Non-American Anthropological Thought: Opler-Meggers Exchange. Journal of Anthropological Research, 59 (2), pages 183-203.