Cultural Materialism

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 16)

In his popular works, Cows, Pigs, Wars and Witches and Cannibals and Kings: The Origins of Cultures, Marvin Harris established himself as the major spokesman for the cultural materialist approach to anthropology. In Cultural Materialism, he outlines the principles of his anthropological practice and compares his approach to alternative methodologies in anthropology in order to make a case that “cultural materialism leads to better scientific theories about the causes of sociocultural phenomena than any of the rival strategies that are currently available.” Although primarily addressed to the professional anthropological community, Harris’ work will appeal to almost any reader seriously concerned with the study of cultures.

The point of departure for cultural materialism is Karl Marx’s statement that “the mode of production in material life determines the general character of the social, political, and spiritual processes of life. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but on the contrary, their social existence determines their consciousness.” Although acknowledging his debt to Marx, Harris modifies Marx’s basic principle in some important ways to make it sufficiently inclusive to describe all aspects of cultural phenomena. Fundamentally, he rejects the idea of dialectical contradictions central to dialectical materialism in favor of a more empirical and scientific analysis of “systemic interactions between thought and behavior.” Philosophically, Harris points out, “dialectical materialism” is predicated on Hegelian principles while his own “cultural materialism” derives from the epistomological assumptions of “David Hume and the British empiricists—assumptions that led to Darwin, Spencer, Tylor, Morgan, Frazer, Boas, and the birth of anthropology as an academic discipline.”

Marx also failed, according to Harris, to give equal attention to the mode of reproduction as he did to the mode of production, even though these two aspects of culture are equal as shaping powers. Nor was Marx aware of the modern anthropological distinctions between “emic” aspects of culture, in which the native informant offers the ultimate criteria for judging the adequacy of anthropological observations, and “etic” approaches, which make the scientific observer the best judge of cultural phenomena. Simply put, the “emic” approach studies a culture on its own terms while “etic” approaches study cultures from the outside using scientific principles. “Frequently, etic operations involve the measurement and juxtaposition of activities and events that native informants may find inappropriate or meaningless.” Harris stresses the separate study of emic and etic aspects of culture because:research strategies that fail to distinguish between mental and behavior stream events and between emic and etic operations cannot develop coherent networks of theories embracing the causes of sociocultural differences and similarities. And a priori, one can say that those research strategies that confine themselves exclusively to emics or exclusively to etics do not meet the general criteria for an aim-oriented social science as effectively as those which embrace both points of view.

Using his elaborated Marxist perspective and the etic-emic distinctions, Harris arrives at the universal cultural principles which shape the cultural materialist approach to anthropological research:To begin with, each society must cope with the problems of production—behaviorally satisfying minimal requirements for subsistence; hence there must be an etic behavioral mode of production. Second, each society must behaviorally cope with the problem of reproduction—avoiding destructive increases or decreases in population size; hence there must be an etic behavioral mode of reproduction. Third, each society must cope with the necessity of maintaining secure and orderly behavioral relationships among its constituent groups and with other societies.

Since cultural materialists believe disorder to be most likely to result from economic processes which allocate labor and distribute material products, “one may infer the universal existence of etic behavioral domestic economies and etic behavioral political economies.”...

(The entire section is 1774 words.)