Ortner grew up in a Jewish family in Newark, New Jersey, and attended Weequahic High School, as did Philip Roth and Richie Roberts. She received her B.A. from Bryn Mawr College in 1962. She then studied anthropology at the University of Chicago with Clifford Geertz and obtained her Ph.D. in anthropology in 1970 for her fieldwork among the Sherpas in Nepal. She has taught at Sarah Lawrence College, the University of Michigan, the University of California, Berkeley, Columbia University, and the University of California, Los Angeles. She has done extensive fieldwork with the Sherpas of Nepal, on religion, politics, and the Sherpas' involvement in Himalayan mountaineering. Her final book on the Sherpas, Life and Death on Mt. Everest, was awarded the J.I. Staley prize for the best anthropology book of 2004.
In the early 1990s, Ortner changed the focus of her research to the United States. Her first project was on the meanings and working of "class" in the United States, using her own high school graduating class as her ethnographic subjects. Her most recent book concerns the relationship between Hollywood films and American culture. She also publishes regularly in the areas of cultural theory and feminist theory.
Sherry Ortner was awarded a MacArthur "Genius" grant in 1990. In 1992, she was elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. She has been awarded the Retzius Medal of the Swedish Society for Anthropology and Geography.
Ortner was previously married to Robert Paul, a cultural anthropologist now at Emory University; and to Raymond C. Kelly, Emeritus Professor of Anthropology at The University of Michigan. She is currently married to Timothy D. Taylor, a Professor of Ethnomusicology and Musicology at UCLA.
Ortner is a well-known proponent of practice theory. She does not focus on societal reproduction but centers on the idea of "serious games", on resistance and transformation within a society. She formed her ideas while working with Sherpas. She is concerned with the dominant constraints of cultural understanding within cultures, subversive to the idea of culture as being simply reproduced. Actors play with skill in a game of life with power and inequality. Seeing social structure as a kind of sporting arena, playing a game of life in the field, and that the rules are set by the society's structure. But one is a free agent, one does not have to follow the rules. One can break the rules of life. This results in one being carried away or results in changing the rules and boundaries by this action. Ortner focuses on the issues of resistance and transformation.
- (1974) "Is female to male as nature is to culture?" pp. 67–87 in Woman, Culture, and Society, edited by M. Z. Rosaldo and L. Lamphere. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
- (1978) Sherpas through their Rituals. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
- (1981) Sexual Meanings: The Cultural Construction of Gender and Sexuality (co-edited with Harriet Whitehead). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
- (1984) "Theory in Anthropology Since the Sixties." Comparative Studies in Society and History 26(1):126-166.
- (1989) High Religion: A Cultural and Political History of Sherpa Buddhism. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
- (1995) Resistance and the Problem of Ethnographic Refusal. Comparative Studies in Society and History 37(1):173-193
- (1996) Making Gender: The Politics and Erotics of Culture. Boston: Beacon Press.
- (1999) Life and Death on Mount Everest: Sherpas and Himalayan Mountaineering. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
- (1999) (ed.) The Fate of "Culture": Geertz and Beyond. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
- (2003) New Jersey Dreaming: Capital, Culture, and the Class of '58. Durham, NC: Duke University Press
- (2006) Anthropology and Social Theory: Culture, Power, and the Acting Subject. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
- (2013) Not Hollywood: Independent Film at the Twilight of the American Dream. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
- The long way home, University of Chicago Magazine, February 96
- Neatby, Nicole. "Sherry B. Ortner, New Jersey Dreaming: Capital, Culture, and the Class of '58.", Labour/Le Travail, March 22, 2005. Accessed July 8, 2008. "SHERRY ORTNER is a respected anthropologist who has turned her attention away from Sherpas in Nepal to the Class of '58 Weequahic high school in Newark, New Jersey, the high school from which she herself graduated that year."
- Beale, lewis. "GRANT HONORS WORK ON SLAVERY, SHERPAS AWARDS SALUTE ARCANE ACADEMIA", The Miami Herald, August 5, 1990. Accessed July 8, 2008.
- "Book of Members, 1780-2010: Chapter O" (PDF). American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Retrieved 22 April 2011.
- Sherry Ortner faculty profile
- The Long Way Home article in University of Chicago Magazine, Feb 1996.
- Review of Ortner's book "Making Gender: The Politics and Erotics of Culture"
- Interview with Sherry Ortner in AIBR Journal