Marvin Kaufmann Opler was born in Buffalo, New York on June 13, 1914, the son of Arthur and Fanny Opler. He attended the University of Buffalo from 1931 to 1934, then transferred to the University of Michigan, graduating with an A.B. degree in social studies in 1935. He earned a Ph.D. in anthropology from Columbia University in 1938, studying under Ralph Linton. His dissertation concerned the acculturation of the Ute and Paiute Indians in Colorado and Utah. He also conducted anthropological fieldwork among Eastern Apache tribes such as the Mescalero Indians in New Mexico, as well as Eskimo and Northwest Coast Indians in Oregon. After earning his doctorate, Opler taught sociology and anthropology at Reed College from 1938 to 1943.
Between 1943 and 1946, Opler served as a Community Analyst at the Tule Lake Japanese internment camp in Newell, California. Tule Lake eventually became the camp for "disloyal" and otherwise difficult Japanese-Americans. Opler was sensitive to the complex issues related to the Japanese internment. He wrote reports analyzing the relocation and segregation programs, as well as the issue of renunciation of loyalty to Japan. In 1946, he co-authored Impounded People, an often-critical assessment of the internment program, published by the War Relocation Agency itself. The book was reprinted by the University of Arizona Press in 1969.
In the years following the closing of the internment camps, Opler taught anthropology and sociology at Occidental College, Stanford University, Harvard University, and Tulane University. This period of short-term teaching assignments ended in 1952, when Opler joined the Cornell University Medical College as one of several principal investigators in the Midtown Manhattan Mental Health Study.
The Midtown Study had been founded by Dr. Thomas A. C. Rennie, who assembled an interdisciplinary research team of psychiatrists, social workers, sociologists, and anthropologists to conduct a study of the prevalence of treated and untreated mental illness in Manhattan's Upper East Side. When the Midtown Study's first volume was published in 1962, the statistic that nearly 80% of the sample population showed some degree of mental illness made front-page news. Within the Midtown Study, Opler directed the Ethnic Family Operation, which investigated sociocultural factors relating to mental health. Opler's work was intended to be the third volume of results, but was never published.
In 1958, Opler left the Cornell University Medical College to join the University of Buffalo (later known as the State University of New York at Buffalo), where he remained for the rest of his professional career. He held the posts of Professor of Anthropology, Professor of Sociology, and Professor of Social Psychiatry (in the department of Psychiatry in the School of Medicine). Opler served as Chairman of the Department of Anthropology from 1969 to 1972. Among other projects, he conducted studies in suicide research, and he maintained his longstanding interest in Native American studies.
Opler was a prolific writer. He authored, co-authored, and edited ten books, including Culture, Psychiatry and Human Values (1956), Culture and Mental Health (1959), Mental Health in the Metropolis: The Midtown Manhattan Study (1962), and Culture and Social Psychiatry (1967). He also wrote over 200 articles, many book chapters, and numerous book reviews.
Opler was active in several professional organizations, including the American Anthropological Association, the American Sociological Association, and the International Association of Social Psychiatry. He was co-organizer of the First International Congress on Social Psychiatry held in London in 1964. He was an editor of the International Journal of Social Psychiatry from 1957 until his death in 1981. He held several visiting professorships, and delivered lectures to diverse audiences.
Opler married Charlotte Fox on December 30, 1935. Their children were Ruth Opler Perry and Lewis Alan Opler. Opler died on January 3, 1981.