Dr. Kopytoff, Anthropology

Dr. Igor Kopytoff, professor emeritus of anthropology at Penn, died August 9, of complications from Parkinson’s disease. He was 83 years old.

Dr. Kopytoff’s interests, research and publications focused on transformations in social structure, political organization and religion. Among his notable publications—and those of which he was most proud—were works on indigenous slavery in Africa, the place of ancestors in African societies, the reproduction of political and social structures in African “frontier” communities and the cultural process of commoditization of objects.

Dr. Kopytoff was born in Manchuria in 1930, to Russian parents. He grew up in a community of Russians and other foreigners in Shanghai, attending French- and English-language Jesuit schools. With his parents and brother, he left China in 1948 for Chile—where he worked in the offices of a copper mining company—and then for British East Africa, before moving to Evanston, Illinois, in 1951.

He soon enrolled at Northwestern University, where he received a BA in anthropology in 1955. After earning a master’s degree at Penn in 1958, he returned to Northwestern for his PhD which he earned in 1960. A student of Dr. Melville Herskovits, he conducted his PhD fieldwork among the Suku of southwestern Congo, writing a dissertation on Suku religion. After teaching at Brown University for two years, he joined the faculty at Penn as an assistant professor in 1962, and would remain at Penn until he retired in 2007.

While on the Penn faculty, he conducted fieldwork amongst the Mbato of southern Côte d’Ivoire and the Aghem of western Cameroon. Dr. Kopytoff became associate professor of anthropology in 1966 and full professor in 1977, and over the years held visiting positions at universities in England, Canada and Belgium.

His research was supported by fellowships and grants from Northwestern University, the University of Pennsylvania, the Wenner-Gren Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the Social Science Research Council, the National Science Foundation, the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Guggenheim Foundation, among others. He especially enjoyed teaching courses on the history and theory of anthropology.

Dr. Kopytoff was a consultant to President John Kennedy’s Task Force on the Congo in 1961.

Dr. Kopytoff’s wife of 31 years, Barbara, also an anthropologist—who earned a PhD from Penn and was a lecturer and research associate in the ethnohistory program in 1979 to 1981—died in 1999 (Almanac September 7, 1999) .

He is survived by his daughter, Larissa, C’01.

A memorial service will be held at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology later this year.