Wagner received a B.A. in Medieval History from Harvard University (1961), and a Ph.D. in Anthropology from the University of Chicago (1966), where he studied under David M. Schneider. He taught at Southern Illinois University and Northwestern University before accepting the chairmanship of the Department of Anthropology at the University of Virginia, where he taught until his death. He resided in Charlottesville, Virginia.
Wagner was one of the world's most influential anthropologists. He first conducted fieldwork among the Daribi of Karimui, in the Simbu Province of Papua New Guinea, as well as the Usen Barok of New Ireland. He was influential in creating the genre known as the New Melanesian Ethnography, which emphasizes creativity and innovation in cultures and how they understand the world.
His book The Invention of Culture (1975; 1981) is considered a classic of ethnography and theory, and has been translated into Japanese, Portuguese, Italian and French. His concepts of symbolic obviation, figure-ground reversal, analogic kinship, holography and fractality of personhood have been critical in the development of anthropological theory in the last few decades. Anthropologists influenced by Wagner include Marilyn Strathern, Jadran Mimica, James Weiner, and Eduardo Viveiros de Castro.
- The Curse of Souw; Principles of Daribi Clan Definition and Alliance in New Guinea. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1967. (ISBN 9780226869742)
- Habu; The Innovation of Meaning in Daribi Religion. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1972. (ISBN 9780226869728)
- Lethal Speech: Daribi Myth As Symbolic Obviation. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1978. (ISBN 9780801411939)
- The Invention of Culture. Chicago: University of Chicago Press,  1981. (ISBN 9780226869339)
- Asiwinarong: Ethos, Image, and Social Power Among the Usen Barok of New Ireland. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1986. (ISBN 9780691094212)
- Symbols That Stand for Themselves. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986. (ISBN 9780226869292)
- An Anthropology of the Subject Holographic Worldview in New Guinea and Its Meaning and Significance for the World of Anthropology. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001. (ISBN 9780520925823)
- Coyote Anthropology. Lincoln [Neb.]: University of Nebraska Press, 2010. (ISBN 9780803230071)
Articles and book chapters
- 1977 - “Scientific and Indigenous Papuan Conceptualizations of the Innate”, in Bayliss-Smith, Timothy e Feachem, Richard (ed.), Subsistence and Survival (New York: Academic Press)
Works on Wagner
- Seção Temática: Seminário de Raposa, pensando com Roy Wagner. Ilha Revista de Antropologia. 12(1): 1-160.
- "Reinventing the Invention of Culture" in Social Analysis. The International Journal of Cultural and Social Practice. Vol. 46, No. 1, Spring 2002. Edited by David Murray and Joel Robbins
- "The Double-Bind in the Obviation: The Sufficiency of Daribi Women and Bateson's 'Schizophrenic Mother'" by Elizabeth Stassinos given as an AAA paper at the George W. Stocking Jr. Symposium December 2, 2009 Organized by Andrew and Harriet Lyons, Discussants Herb Lewis and Kathy Fine. (Originally titled: "Obviating Roy Wagner: The Pidik of Science Fiction")
- John M. Ingham Simplicity and complexity in anthropology. On the Horizon 2007 Volume: 15 Issue: 1 Page: 7 - 14
- "Roy Wagner: Symbolic Anthropology and the fate of the New Melanesian Ethnography." Session organizers: Sandra Bamford, Joel Robbins, Justin Shaffner and James Weiner. Conference for the European Society for Oceanists (Verona, 2008).
- Personal page at the University of Virginia
- Roy Wagner interviewed by Alan Macfarlane 9th June 2008 (film)
- Official obituary in The Daily Progress