John Milton Roberts, December 8, 1916—April 2, 1990 | By Ward H. Goodenough | Biographical Memoirs
BIOGRAPHICAL MEMOIRS National Academy of Sciences

John Milton Roberts, photo

John Milton Roberts, signature
John Milton Roberts
December 8, 1916 — April 2, 1990
By Ward H. Goodenough

JOHN ROBERTS, "JACK" TO all who knew him,1 has been justly characterized as "one of the most brilliant and creative anthropologists of the second half of the twentieth century."2 His brilliance and creativity were not only in anthropology, in the prevailing understanding of that term, but more broadly in behavioral science. He had a penchant for looking at things that others thought unimportant or took for granted and for coming up with intriguing insights and discoveries, at times with profound implications for anthropological and social psychological theory, at other times with equally profound implications for the practical conduct of human affairs.

Roberts was intrigued by problems that seemed too "messy" to most social scientists and not easily amenable to systematic data gathering, quantification, or rigorous analysis. Thus, although experimental in his approach, his work was largely in relation to subjects where carefully controlled experiments were often impossible and where the kinds of cultural and societal data available were far from adequate for controlled comparison. Creative in this as in other respects, Roberts relied on the approach that examines an idea in relation to several independent lines of evidence, where evidence in any one line is not in itself conclusive. He was convinced that support for an idea from several such lines could be as compelling, cumulatively, as support from a single, beautifully contrived and controlled experiment.

He was a "consummate collaborator" and published more often than not as coauthor with colleagues "on an extremely wide variety of topics and on numerous cultures, always drawing upon and drawing out the expertise of his coworkers."3 His colleagues valued him highly for his intriguingly different ways of looking at things that so often provided productive veins for them to mine in their own research.

Roberts was born in Omaha, Nebraska, the only child of John M. Roberts, senior, and Ruth Kohler, his father's second wife. He had a much older half brother and half sister. His father, a highway engineer, moved the family to Lincoln, when Roberts was a year old, and it was there that he grew up and went to school, taking his A.B. degree at the University of Nebraska with distinction in 1937. He did not find the study of law at the University of Chicago congenial and left it after one quarter in the fall of 1937. He switched to anthropology, which he continued at the University of Chicago for two more quarters in 1938 and 1939, when he transferred to Yale. While there he studied with G. P. Murdock, B. Malinowski, C. S. Ford, and John Dollard, among others, and worked under Murdock as research assistant on the Cross-Cultural Survey (which became the Human Relations Area Files, Inc., after World War II).

His studies were interrupted in February 1942, when he was called up as a captain in the U.S. Army Reserve, less than a year after his marriage to Marie Louise Kotouc of Lincoln, Nebraska. In World War II, he commanded a company of infantry in northern France and was awarded the Silver Star for gallantry in action and the Bronze Star for meritorious service. He returned to Yale in November 1945, left for fieldwork among the Navaho in February 1946, and received his Ph.D. in 1947.

After one year as assistant professor of anthropology at the University of Minnesota, Roberts went, still as assistant professor, to Harvard's Department of Social Relations in 1948. He was also a research associate in the Laboratory of Social Relations and an assistant curator in the Peabody Museum. At Harvard, he was made coordinator of the project called The Comprehensive Study of Values in Five Cultures, which carried out field research from 1949 to 1953 in Zuni, Navaho, Spanish-American, Mormon, and Texan Homesteader communities in western New Mexico. This progrm was under the overall direction of Clyde and Florence Kluckhohn, who had already conducted long-range field research with the Ranch Navaho. Roberts' own research at that time was mainly with the Zuni.

From Harvard he went to the University of Nebraska in 1953, as associate professor, and went from there to Cornell University as professor in 1955. Three years later his wife died suddenly, victim of a stroke, a severe blow to Roberts and their two daughters, Tania Marie and Andrea Louise. In 1961 he married Joan Marilyn Skutt, who brought new happiness to his life and with whom he had two sons, James Barton and John Milton, Jr. Roberts remained at Cornell until 1971, when he went to the University of Pittsburgh, succeeding his former teacher, G. P. Murdock, as Andrew W. Mellon Professor. While at Pittsburgh he was also appointed Adjunct Mellon Professor of Sociology in 1975. He retired from both positions in 1987.

Roberts was a fellow at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences in 1956-57, taught at the Summer Seminar in Quantitative Anthropology at Williams College in 1966, and was acting chair of the Department of Anthropology at Cornell in 1966-67. He held the chair of comparative cultures, Naval War College, Newport, Rhode Island, in 1969-70. In the spring quarters of 1975 and 1984, he was visiting professor of anthropology at the University of California, San Diego, and in the spring quarter of 1987 he was visiting distinguished professor at the School of Social Sciences, University of California, Irvine.

Roberts was president of the American Ethnological Society (1960), the Northeastern Anthropological Association (1965-67), the Society for Cross-Cultural Research (1974-75), and the Association for the Anthropological Study of Play (1979-80). He was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 1982, where he was to have served as chair of Section 51 (anthropology) for a three-year term (1990-93).

In 1989 Roberts was honored with the publication of a massive Festschrift volume containing twenty-eight papers by thirty-eight contributors.2 They show clearly the breadth of Roberts's interest in and impact on the social and behavioral sciences.

In keeping with that breadth, Roberts's principal contributions to science were in several disparate areas. First among them was his contribution to the ethnography of the Navaho and Zuni. Of special importance for cultural theory was his Navaho work. Anthropologists had widely recognized individual and local differences in how people did things and understood things but had ignored such differences in regard to culture theory. Roberts was the first to undertake systematically to document cultural differences at the household level (1951) and to stimulate anthropological recognition that every social group at every level of societal organization had its own distinctive culture. Culture theory had to account not only for this variation but also the processes that kept it within limits through time. Roberts further documented such differences in his study of daily life in Zuni (1956).

The role of culture in the processing of information was another topic in which he pioneered, notably in "The Self-Management of Cultures" (1964). Not only did small groups differ culturally, individuals differed in their knowledge of and expertise in the culturally structured activities of the groups of which they were members, another of those self-evident and hence ignored truths whose significance Roberts documented in his papers on Butler County Eight Ball (1979, 1984), lathe craft (1987), and the humble game of tic-tac-toe (1965), so that it could no longer be ignored.

How people conducted themselves in their various activities was not only a matter of knowledge and expertise but, as in tic-tac-toe, also presumably a matter of personality differences, but its demonstration and implications remained to be documented. Using psychological tests that sorted people into those who are "high self-testers" against those who are not, Roberts showed how this personality difference affected performance in driving automobiles (1972), in the conduct of war games (1972), and in the posting of speed limits on highways (1972), with obvious practical implications for driver education, military command, and highway safety.

The studies of games and pastimes that Roberts undertook in collaboration with Brian Sutton-Smith and others are a major contribution in themselves. His paper with Arth and Bush on "Games in Culture" (1959) developed what is now recognized as the standard classification of games into those of physical skill, strategy, and chance. In many subsequent publications, especially with Sutton-Smith, Roberts showed how such games serve in all societies as models of different kinds of activities in real life, activities that differ in the kinds of roles they require of their participants in such things as competing successfully, accomplishing objectives while being loyal and obedient, and being willing to make decisions with inadequate information and take responsibility for the consequences of those decisions. His collaborative researches into what he came to refer to as "expressive culture" also explored how activities involving music, hobbies, and riddles, similarly provide models of real-life situations through which people not only rehearse social roles but also find ways of managing the emotional conflicts that are associated with these roles. This work has, again, had practical implications for understanding the emotional bases for addiction to various kinds of games as different as football, poker, and bingo.

In his later years Roberts had begun, with Hugo Nutini, to study expressive behavior among Mexican aristocracy; and at the time of his death, he was about to undertake, with Garry Chick, a study of how work, leisure, and technological change were influencing the lives of machine shop workers in western Pennsylvania.3 Funding for the latter had been approved by the National Science Foundation only a few weeks before Roberts's death. These projects, as well as many more that his work has inspired, go on after him.

We who knew him shall not forget the excitement he brought to the behavior science enterprise, his joy in exploring ideas, his generosity in sharing his ideas and letting others run with them, and the intellectual enrichment our discourse with him invariably gave us.


1 I am indebted to Marilyn Skutt Roberts, Evan Z. Vogt, D. Fred Wendurff, and Garry Chick for information and helpful comments on an earlier draft of this memoir.

2 R. Bolton. The Content of Culture: Constants and Variants. Studies in Honor of John M. Roberts. New Haven, Connecticut: HRAF Press (1989).

3 G. Chick and H. G. Nutini. John Milton Roberts. Anthropology Newsletter 31(6):4-5.


Three Navaho Households: A Comparative Study in Small Group Culture. Papers of the Peabody Museum of American Archaeology and Ethnology, Harvard University, vol. XL, no. 3. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Peabody Museum.
With W. Smith. Zuni Law: A Field of Values. Papers of the Peabody Museum of American Archaeology and Ethnology, vol. XLIII, no. 1. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Peabody Museum.
With W. Smith. Some aspects of Zuni law and legal procedure. Plateau 27(1):1-5.
Zuni Daily Life. Laboratory of Anthropology: The University of Nebraska, Monograph II. Lincoln: Laboratory of Anthropology. Reprinted in 1965 as Monograph I, Behavior Science Reprints. New Haven, Connecticut: HRAF Press.
With D. M. Schneider. Zuni Kin Terms. Laboratory of Anthropology: The University of Nebraska, Note Book No. 3, Monograph I. Reprinted in 1965 as Monograph II, Behavior Science Reprints. New Haven, Connecticut: HRAF Press.
With E. H. Lenneberg. The Language of Experience: A Study in Methodology. International Journal of American Linguistics, Memoir 13. Bloomington: Indiana University.
With R. M. Kozelka and M. J. Arth. Some highway culture patterns. The Plains Anthropologist 3:3-14.
With R. M. Kozelka, M. L. Kiehl, and T. M. Newman. The small highway business on U.S. 30 in Nebraska. Econ. Geogr. 32:139-52.
With E. Z. Vogt. A study of values. Sci. Am. 195(1):109-18.
With M. J. Arth and R. R. Bush. Games in culture. Am. Anthropol. 61:597-605.
The Zuni. In Variations in Value Orientations, eds. F. Kluckhohn and F. L. Strodbeck, pp. 185-316. Evanston, Illinois: Row, Peterson and Company.
With B. Sutton-Smith. Child training and game involvement. Ethnology 1:166-85.
With B. Sutton-Smith and A. Kendon. Strategy in games and folk tales. J. Soc. Psychol. 61:185-99.
With B. Sutton-Smith and R. M. Kozelka. Game involvement in adults. J. Soc. Psychol. 60:15-30.
The self-management of cultures. In Explorations in Cultural Anthropology: Essays in Honor of George Peter Murdock, ed. W. H. Goodenough, pp. 433-54. New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company.
With B. Sutton-Smith. Rubrics of competitive behavior. J. Genet. Psychol. 105:13-37.
With B. Sutton-Smith and B. G. Rosenberg. Sibling associations and role involvement. Merrill-Palmer Q. 10:25-38.
Oaths, autonomic ordeals, and power. In The Ethnography of Law, ed. L. Nader, pp. 186-212. Am. Anthropol. 67(6):Part 2.
Kinsmen and friends in Zuni culture: A terminological note. El Palacio 72(2):38-43.
With H. Hoffmann and B. Sutton-Smith. Patterns and competence: A consideration of tick tack toe. El Palacio 72(3):17-30.
With M. J. Arth. Dyadic elicitation in Zuni. El Palacio 73(2):27-41.
With W. E. Thompson and B. Sutton-Smith. Expressive self-testing in driving. Hum. Organiz. 25:54-63.
With B. Sutton-Smith. Cross-cultural correlates of games of chance. Behav. Sci. Notes 1:131-44.
With B. Sutton-Smith and with the collaboration of R. M. Kozelka, V. J. Crandall, D. M. Broverman, A. Blum, and E. L. Klaiber. Studies of an elementary game of strategy. Genet. Psychol. Monogr. 75(1):3-42.
With F. Koenig. Focused and distributed status affinity. Sociol. Q. 9(2):159-67.
With G. C. Myers. A technique for measuring preferential family size and composition. Eugen. Q. 15(3):164-72.
With F. Koenig and R. B. Stark. Judged display: A consideration of a craft show. J. Leis. Res. 1(2):163-79.
With C. Ridgeway. Musical involvement and talking. Anthropol. Linguist. 11(3):224-46.
With T. V. Golder. Navy and polity: A baseline. Nav. War College Rev. 23(3):30-41.
With B. Sutton-Smith. The cross-cultural and psychological study of games. In The Cross-Cultural Analysis of Sport and Games, ed. G. Lueschen, pp. 100-108. Champaign, Illinois: Stipes Publishing Company.
Expressive aspects of technological development. Philos. Social Sci. 1:207-20.
With M. L. Forman. Riddles: Expressive modes of interrogation. Ethnology 10:509-33.
With T. Gregor. Privacy: A cultural view. In Privacy, Nomos XIII, ed. J. R. Pennock and J. W. Chapman, pp. 199-225. New York: Atherton Press.
With J. O. Wicke. Flying and expressive self-testing. Nav. War College Rev. 23(5):67-80.
With R. F. Strand and E. Burmeister. Preferential pattern analysis. In Explorations in Mathematical Anthropology, ed. P. Kay, pp. 242-68. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press.
With R. M. Kozelka. A new approach to non-zero concordance. In Explorations in Mathematical Anthropology, ed. P. Kay, pp. 214-25. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press.
With Q. S. Meeker and J. C. Aller. Action styles and management game performance: An exploratory consideration. Nav. War College Rev. 24(10):65-81.
With J. W. Hutchinson and G. S. Carlson. Traffic control decisions and self-testing values: A preliminary note. Traffic Eng. 42(11):42-48.
With H. C. Barry III. Infant socialization and games of chance. Ethnology 11:296-308.
With J. W. Hutchinson. Expressive constraints on driver re-education. In Psychological Aspects of Driver Behavior, vol. 2, Applied Research Section II: Special Considerations in Influencing Driver Behavior, pp. 1-12. Voorburg, The Netherlands: Institute for Road Safety Research.
With S. B. Nerlove, R. E. Klein, C. Yarborough, and J.-P. Habicht. Natural indicators of cognitive development: An observational study of rural Guatemalan children. Ethos 2(3):265-95.
With C. Chiao and T. N. Pandey. Meaningful god sets from a Chinese personal pantheon and a Hindu personal pantheon. Ethnology 14:121-48.
With E. S. Mills et al. The Assessment of Demand for Outdoor Recreation. Report of Committee on Demand for Outdoor Recreation Resources. Washington, D.C.: National Academy of Sciences.
Belief in the evil eye in world perspective. In The Evil Eye, ed. C. Maloney, pp. 223-78. New York: Columbia University Press.
With H. C. Barry III. Inculcated traits and game-type combinations. In The Humanistic and Mental Health Aspects of Sports, Exercise and Recreation, ed. T. T. Craig, pp. 5-11. Chicago: American Medical Association.
With C. Ridgeway. Urban popular music and interaction: A semantic relation. Ethnomusicology 20:233-51.
With D. F. Kundrat. Variation in expressive balances and competence for sports car rally teams. Urban Life 7(2):231-51, 275-80.
With G. E. Chick. Butler County Eight Ball: A behavioral space analysis. In Sports, Games and Play: Social and Psychological Viewpoints, ed. J. H. Goldstein, pp. 65-99. Hillsdale, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
Comment on "Games of strategy: A new look at correlates and cross-cultural methods." In Play and Culture, ed. H. B. Schwartzman, pp. 226-27. West Point, New York: Leisure Press.
With S. M. Nattrass. Women and trapshooting: Competence and expression in a game of physical skill with chance. In Play and Culture, ed. H. B. Schwartzman, pp. 262-91. West Point, New York: Leisure Press.
With T. V. Golder and G. E. Chick. Judgment, oversight and skill: A cultural analysis of P-3 pilot error. Hum. Organiz. 39:5-21.
With W. N. Widmeyer and J. W. Loy. The relative contributions of action styles and ability to the performance outcomes of doubles tennis teams. In Psychology of Motor Behavior and Sport--1979, eds. C. M. Nadieu, W. R. Halliwell, K. M. Newell, and G. C. Roberts, pp. 209-18. Champaign, Illinois: Human Kinetics Publishers.
With G. E. Chick, M. Stephenson, and L. L. Hyde. Inferred categories for tennis play: A limited semantic analysis. In Play as Context, ed. A. T. Cheska, pp. 181-95. West Point, New York: Leisure Press.
With J. W. Hutchinson and F. G. Scorsone. Accident investigator bias potential. Transp. Eng. J. ASCE 107(TE3):255-62.
With B. Sutton-Smith. Play, games, and sports. In Developmental Psychology, eds. H. C. Triandis and A. Heron, vol. IV, pp. 425-71. Handbook of Cross-Cultural Psychology. New York: Allyn and Bacon.
With J. A. Luxbacher. Offensive and defensive perspectives in soccer. In The Paradoxes of Play, ed. J. W. Loy, pp. 225-38. West Point, New York: Leisure Press.
With M. D. Williams and G. C. Poole. Used car domain: An ethnographic application of clustering and multidimensional scaling. In Classifying Social Data, ed. Herschel Hudson and Associates, pp. 13-38. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
With H. G. Nutini and M. T. Cervantes. The historical development of the Mexican aristocracy. L'Uomo 6(1):2-37.
With R. V. Kemper and R. D. Goodwin. Tourism as a cultural domain: The case of Taos, New Mexico. Ann. Tourism Res. 10(1):149-71.
With G. E. Chick. Quitting the game: Covert disengagement from Butler County Eight Ball. Am. Anthropol. 86:549-56.
With C. P. Choe. Korean animal entities with supernatural attributes: A study in expressive belief. Arct. Anthropol. 21(2):1187-99.
With H. G. Nutini and M. T. Cervantes. Mexican haute bourgeoisie: An outline of its structure, ideology, and expressive culture. L'Uomo 8(1):1-27.
With A. Enersvedt. Categories of play activities by Norwegian children. In Cultural Dimensions of Play, Games, and Sport, ed. B. Mergen, vol. 10, pp. 5-27. Champaign, Illinois: Human Kinetics Publishers.
With S. Morita and L. K. Brown. Personal categories for Japanese sacred places and gods: Views elicited from a conjugal pair. Am. Anthropol. 88:807-24.
With G. E. Chick. Strategy and competence: Perceived change in the determinants of game outcomes. In The Many Faces of Play, ed. K. Blanchard, pp. 255-64. Champaign, Illinois: Human Kinetics Publishers.
Within culture variation: A retrospective personal view. Am. Behav. Sci. 13:266-79.
With G. E. Chick. Human views of machines: Expression and machine shop syncretism. In Technology and Social Change, 2d ed., ed B. Russell and P. J. Pelto, pp. 302-27, 377-93. Prospect Heights, Illinois: Waveland Press.
With R. L. Cosper. Variation in strategic involvement in games for three blue collar occupations. J. Leis. Res. 19(2):131-48.
With J. C. Hayes. Young adult male categorizations of fifty Arabic proverbs. Anthropol. Linguist. 29:35-48.
With G. E. Chick. Lathe craft: A study in "part" appreciation. Hum. Organiz. 46:305-17.
With H. G. Nutini. Witchcraft event staging in rural Tlaxcala: A study in inferred deception. Ethnology 27:407-31.
With G. E. Chick and A. K. Romney. Conflict and quitting in the Monday nite pool league. Leis. Sci. 13:295-308.


Biographical Memoirs National Academy of Sciences