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What are the disadvantages of cultural materialism in studying human societies?

The disadvantages of cultural materialism in studying human societies include narrow foundational presuppositions that miss important aspects of human culture; a rigid classification system; and strict methodology that can overlook subjective factors in societal change.

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Let's begin by defining "cultural materialism." Cultural materialism examines human societies through the lens of what they produce both economically and physically. It looks at the infrastructure of society (the meeting of basic needs and the relationship with the environment); the structure of society (its politics, economics, and social organizations);...

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Let's begin by defining "cultural materialism." Cultural materialism examines human societies through the lens of what they produce both economically and physically. It looks at the infrastructure of society (the meeting of basic needs and the relationship with the environment); the structure of society (its politics, economics, and social organizations); and the superstructure of society (its beliefs and symbols).

While cultural materialism certainly can help researchers identify important information about a society, it also has its disadvantages. Its most important disadvantage lies in its foundational presuppositions. Cultural materialism looks at people and their societies through the lens of the material world only. It does not admit spiritual realities but rather attempts to classify the spiritual by the material. This can lead to a warped and limited view of religion and of human nature. The superstructure category, for instance, acknowledges beliefs and symbols, but only as they are created through material culture.

Further, some scholars think that the classification of societal elements into the three categories of infrastructure, structure, and superstructure is too rigid. While cultural materialism does examine the interrelations between these three areas, it may miss much of their ultimate unity through the tendency to split them up and examine them separately.

Finally, cultural materialism is sometimes criticized for its strict methodology that may miss more fluid, less quantifiable aspects of human society. Cultural materialists, for example, seek to measures cultural change according to objective, verifiable factors, but they sometimes fail to recognize that there are many subjective factors at work as well. These tend to get overlooked in the methodology.

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