Cultural materialism (anthropology)

Cultural materialism (anthropology)

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Cultural materialism is an anthropological
Anthropology is the study of humanity. It has origins in the humanities, the natural sciences, and the social sciences. The term "anthropology" is from the Greek anthrōpos , "man", understood to mean mankind or humanity, and -logia , "discourse" or "study", and was first used in 1501 by German...

 research orientation first introduced by Marvin Harris
Marvin Harris
Marvin Harris was an American anthropologist. He was born in Brooklyn, New York. A prolific writer, he was highly influential in the development of cultural materialism...

 in his 1968 book The Rise of Anthropological Theory, as a theoretical paradigm and research strategy. Indeed it is said to be the most enduring achievement of that work. Harris subsequently developed a full elaboration and defence of the paradigm in his 1979 book Cultural Materialism. To Harris, cultural materialism "is based on the simple premise that human social life is a response to the practical problems of earthly existence".

Harris' concept of cultural materialism was influenced by the writings of Karl Marx
Karl Marx
Karl Heinrich Marx was a German philosopher, economist, sociologist, historian, journalist, and revolutionary socialist. His ideas played a significant role in the development of social science and the socialist political movement...

 and Friedrich Engels
Friedrich Engels
Friedrich Engels was a German industrialist, social scientist, author, political theorist, philosopher, and father of Marxist theory, alongside Karl Marx. In 1845 he published The Condition of the Working Class in England, based on personal observations and research...

, yet is a materialism
Economic materialism
Materialism is a mindset that views the consumption and acquisition of material goods as positive and desirable. It is often bound up with a value system which regards social status as being intrinsically linked to affluence as well as the perception that happiness can be increased through...

 distinct from Marxist dialectical materialism
Dialectical materialism
Dialectical materialism is a strand of Marxism synthesizing Hegel's dialectics. The idea was originally invented by Moses Hess and it was later developed by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels...

, as well as from philosophical materialism
In philosophy, the theory of materialism holds that the only thing that exists is matter; that all things are composed of material and all phenomena are the result of material interactions. In other words, matter is the only substance...

. Thomas Malthus
Thomas Malthus
The Reverend Thomas Robert Malthus FRS was an English scholar, influential in political economy and demography. Malthus popularized the economic theory of rent....

' work encouraged Harris to consider reproduction of equal importance to production. The research strategy was also influenced by the work of earlier anthropologists including Herbert Spencer
Herbert Spencer
Herbert Spencer was an English philosopher, biologist, sociologist, and prominent classical liberal political theorist of the Victorian era....

, Edward Tylor and Lewis Henry Morgan who, in the 19th century, first proposed that cultures evolved from the less complex to the more complex over time. Leslie White
Leslie White
Leslie Alvin White was an American anthropologist known for his advocacy of theories of cultural evolution, sociocultural evolution, and especially neoevolutionism, and for his role in creating the department of anthropology at the University of Michigan Ann Arbor...

 and Julian Steward
Julian Steward
Julian Haynes Steward was an American anthropologist best known for his role in developing "the concept and method" of cultural ecology, as well as a scientific theory of culture change.-Early life and education:...

 and their theories of cultural evolution and cultural ecology
Cultural ecology
Cultural ecology studies the relationship between a given society and its natural environment as well as the life-forms and ecosystems that support its lifeways . This may be carried out diachronically , or synchronically...

 were instrumental in the reemergence of evolutionist theories of culture in the 20th century and Harris took inspiration from them in formulating cultural materialism. It was in 1968 with Harris' The Rise of Anthropological Theory, a wide-ranging critique of Western thinking about culture, that he first proposed the name.

Epistemological principles

Cultural materialism is a scientific research strategy and as such utilizes the scientific method
Scientific method
Scientific method refers to a body of techniques for investigating phenomena, acquiring new knowledge, or correcting and integrating previous knowledge. To be termed scientific, a method of inquiry must be based on gathering empirical and measurable evidence subject to specific principles of...

. Other important principles include operational definition
Operational definition
An operational definition defines something in terms of the specific process or set of validation tests used to determine its presence and quantity. That is, one defines something in terms of the operations that count as measuring it. The term was coined by Percy Williams Bridgman and is a part of...

s, Karl Popper
Karl Popper
Sir Karl Raimund Popper, CH FRS FBA was an Austro-British philosopher and a professor at the London School of Economics...

's falsifiability
Falsifiability or refutability of an assertion, hypothesis or theory is the logical possibility that it can be contradicted by an observation or the outcome of a physical experiment...

, Thomas Kuhn
Thomas Kuhn
Thomas Samuel Kuhn was an American historian and philosopher of science whose controversial 1962 book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions was deeply influential in both academic and popular circles, introducing the term "paradigm shift," which has since become an English-language staple.Kuhn...

's paradigms, and the positivism
Positivism is a a view of scientific methods and a philosophical approach, theory, or system based on the view that, in the social as well as natural sciences, sensory experiences and their logical and mathematical treatment are together the exclusive source of all worthwhile information....

 first proposed by Auguste Comte
Auguste Comte
Isidore Auguste Marie François Xavier Comte , better known as Auguste Comte , was a French philosopher, a founder of the discipline of sociology and of the doctrine of positivism...

 and popularized by the Vienna Circle
Vienna Circle
The Vienna Circle was an association of philosophers gathered around the University of Vienna in 1922, chaired by Moritz Schlick, also known as the Ernst Mach Society in honour of Ernst Mach...

. The primary question that arises in applying the techniques of science to understand the differences and similarities between cultures is how the research strategy "treats the relationship between what people say and think as subjects and what they say and think and do as objects of scientific inquiry" In response to this cultural materialism makes a distinction between behavioral events and ideas, values, and other mental events. It also makes the distinction between emic and etic
Emic and etic
Emic and etic are terms used by anthropologists and by others in the social and behavioral sciences to refer to two kinds of data concerning human behavior...

 operations. Emic operations, within cultural materialism, are ones in which the descriptions and analyses are acceptable by the native as real, meaningful, and appropriate. Etic operations are ones in which the categories and concepts used are those of the observer and are able to generate scientific theories. The research strategy prioritizes etic behavior phenomena.

Theoretical principles

  • Etic and behavioral Infrastructure
    Infrastructure is basic physical and organizational structures needed for the operation of a society or enterprise, or the services and facilities necessary for an economy to function...

    , comprising a society's relations to the environment, which includes their ethics and behavioral modes of production and reproduction (material relations).
  • Etic and behavioral Structure
    Structure is a fundamental, tangible or intangible notion referring to the recognition, observation, nature, and permanence of patterns and relationships of entities. This notion may itself be an object, such as a built structure, or an attribute, such as the structure of society...

    , the ethics and behavioral domestic and political economies of a society (social relations).
  • Etic and behavioral Superstructure
    Base and superstructure
    In Marxist theory, human society consists of two parts: the base and superstructure; the base comprehends the forces and relations of production — employer-employee work conditions, the technical division of labour, and property relations — into which people enter to produce the necessities and...

    , the ethics and behavioral symbolic and ideational aspects of a society, e.g. the arts, rituals, sports and games, and science (symbolic and ideational relations).
  • Emic and mental Superstructure, including "conscious and unconscious cognitive goals, categories, rules, plans, values, philosophies, and beliefs" (Harris 1979:54) (meaningful or ideological relations).

Within this division of culture, cultural materialism argues for what is referred to as the principle of probabilistic infrastructural determinism. The essence of its materialist approach is that the infrastructure is in almost all circumstances the most significant force behind the evolution of a culture. Structure and superstructure are not considered "insignificant, epiphenomenal reflexes of infrastructural forces". The structure and symbolic/ideational aspects act as regulating mechanisms within the system as a whole.

The research strategy predicts that it is more likely that in the long term infrastructure probabilistically determines structure, which probabilistically determines the superstructures, than otherwise. Thus, much as in earlier Marxist thought, material changes (such as in technology or environment) are seen as largely determining patterns of social organization and ideology in turn.

Disagreement with Marxism

In spite of the debt owed to the economic theories of Marx and Engels, cultural materialism rejects the Marxist dialectic
Dialectic is a method of argument for resolving disagreement that has been central to Indic and European philosophy since antiquity. The word dialectic originated in Ancient Greece, and was made popular by Plato in the Socratic dialogues...

 which in turn was based on the theories of the philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel
Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel
Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel was a German philosopher, one of the creators of German Idealism. His historicist and idealist account of reality as a whole revolutionized European philosophy and was an important precursor to Continental philosophy and Marxism.Hegel developed a comprehensive...



During the 1980s, Marvin Harris had a productive interchange with behavioral psychologists, most notably Sigrid Glenn, regarding interdisciplinary work. Very recently, behavioral psychologists have produced a set of basic exploratory experiments in an effort toward this end.

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