It was developed by Marwin Harris. It was propounded in his book, “ The rise of anthropological theories” in 1968. Cultural materialism talks about change in culture because of change in material life of people. It seeks to make anthropology as pan human science. It represents etic view of the culture in contrast to emic view. Cultural materialism embraces three anthropological schools of thought: cultural materialism, cultural evolution and cultural ecology
Origin and Points of Reaction:
It emerged in reaction against structuralism, emic view, cultural relativism and idealism. Emerging as an expansion of Marxism materialism, cultural materialism explains cultural similarities and differences as well as models for cultural change within a societal framework consisting of three distinct levels: infrastructure, structure and superstructure.
Cultural materialism is an expansion upon Marxist materialism. Cultural materialism explains the structural features of a society in terms of production within the infrastructure only. As such, demographic, environmental, and technological changes are invoked to explain cultural variation.
Cultural materialism aims to understand the effects of technological, economic and demographic factors on molding societal structure and superstructure through strictly scientific methods.
It aims to create pan-human science by pan human society on the basis of logic and evidence.
- Societal framework consisting of three distinct levels: infrastructure, structure and superstructure.
- Cultural materialism promotes the idea that infrastructure, consisting of “material realities” such as technological, economic and reproductive (demographic) factors mold and influence the other two aspects of culture.
- The “structure” sector of culture consists of organizational aspects of culture such as domestic and kinship systems and political economy,
- The “superstructure” sector consists of ideological and symbolic aspects of society such as religion.
- Therefore, cultural materialists believe that technological and economic aspects play the primary role in shaping a society.
- Cultural Materialists believe that all societies operate according to a model in which production and reproduction dominate and determine the other sectors of culture, effectively serving as the driving forces behind all cultural development.
- They propose that all non-infrastructure aspects of society are created with the purpose of benefitting societal productive and reproductive capabilities. Therefore, systems such as government, religion, law, and kinship are considered to be constructs that only exist for the sole purpose of promoting production and reproduction.
- Calling for empirical research and strict scientific methods in order to make accurate comparisons between separate cultures, proponents of cultural materialism believe that its perspective effectively explains both intercultural variation and similarities. As such, demographic, environmental, and technological changes are invoked to explain cultural variation.
- Emic: This term denotes an approach to anthropological inquiry where the observer attempts to “get inside the heads” of the natives and learn the rules and categories of a culture in order to be able to think and act as if they were a member of the population (Harris 1979: 32). For example, an emic approach might attempt to understand native Faeroe islanders’ highly descriptive system for naming geographic locations. Cultural materialism focuses on how the emics of thought and the behavior of a native population are the results of etic processes (i.e., observable phenomena).
- Etic: This term denotes an approach to anthropological inquiry where the observer does not emphasize or use native rules or categories but instead uses “alien” empirical categories and rules derived from the strict use of the scientific method. Quantifiable measurements such as fertility rates, kilograms of wheat per household, and average rainfall are used to understand cultural circumstances, regardless of what these measurements may mean to the individuals within the population (Harris 1979:32). An example of this approach can be found in Paynter and Cole’s work on tribal political economy (Paynter and Cole 1980). Cultural materialism focuses on the etics of thought and the etics of behavior of a native population to explain culture change.
- Etic behavioral mode of production: The etic behavioral mode of production involves the actions of a society that satisfy the minimal requirements for subsistence (Harris 1979: 51). The important thing to remember here is that these actions are determined and analyzed from a scientific perspective, without regard for their meaning to the members of the native society.
- Etic behavioral mode of reproduction: The etic behavioral mode of reproduction involves the actions that a society takes in order to limit detrimental increases or decreases to population (Harris 1979: 1951). These actions are determined and analyzed from a scientific perspective by the observer, without regard for their meaning to the members of the native society.
- Infrastructure: The infrastructure consists of etic behavioral modes of production and etic modes of reproduction as determined by the combination of ecological, technological, environmental, and demographic variables (Harris 1996: 277).
- Structure: The structure is characterized by the organizational aspects of a culture consisting of the domestic economy (e.g., kinship, division of labor) and political economy (Harris 1996: 277). Political economy involves issues of control by a force above that of the domestic household whether it be a government or a chief.
- Superstructure: The superstructure is the symbolic or ideological segment of culture. Ideology consists of a code of social order regarding how social and political organization is structured (Earle 1997: 8). It structures the obligations and rights of all the members of society. The superstructure involves things such as ritual, taboos, and symbols (Harris 1979: 229).
- Priority of Infrastructure: “The etic behavioral modes of production and reproduction probabilistically determine the etic behavioral domestic and political economy, which in turn probabilistically determine the behavioral and mental emic superstructures”. The main factor in determining whether a cultural innovation is selected by society lies in its effect on the basic biological needs of that society. These innovations can involve a change in demographics, technological change and/or environmental change in the infrastructure. The innovations within the infrastructure will be selected by a society if they increase productive and reproductive capabilities even when they are in conflict with structural or superstructural elements of society. Innovations can also take place in the structure (e.g., changes in government) or the superstructure (e.g., religious change), but will only be selected by society if they do not diminish the ability of society to satisfy basic human needs. Therefore, the driving force behind culture change is satisfying the basic needs of production and reproduction.
Marvin Harris (1927-) wrote The Rise of Anthropological Theory in which he lays out the foundations of cultural materialism (CM) and critically considers other major anthropological theories; this work drew significant criticism from proponents of other viewpoints. . His work with India’s sacred cow ideology (1966) is seen by many as his most successful CM analysis, Harris considers the taboo against cow consumption in India, demonstrating how economic and technological factors within the infrastructure affect the other two sectors of culture, resulting in superstructural ideology. In this work, Harris shows the benefits of juxtaposing both etic and emic perspectives in demonstrating how various phenomena which appear non-adaptive are, in fact, adaptive.
Using empirical methods, cultural materialists reduce cultural phenomena into observable, measurable variables that can be applied across societies to formulate nomothetic theories. By focusing on observable, quantifiable, measurable phenomena, cultural materialism presents an etic (viewed from outside of the target culture) perspective of society. In keeping with the scientific method, these events and entities must be studied using operations that are capable of being replicated.
Harris’s basic approach to the study of culture is to show how emic (native) thoughts and behaviors are a result of material considerations. Harris focuses on practices that contribute to the basic biological survival of those in society (i.e., subsistence practices, technology, and demographic issues). In order to demonstrate this point, analysis often involves the measurement and comparison of phenomena that might seem trivial to the native population (Harris 1979: 38). Harris used a cultural materialist model to examine the Hindu belief that cows are sacred and must not be killed.. First, he argued that the taboos on cow slaughter (emic thought) were superstructural elements resulting from the economic need to utilize cows as draft animals rather than as food (Harris 1966: 53-5 4). He also observed that the Indian farmers claimed that no calves died because cows are sacred (Harris 1979: 38). In reality, however, male calves were observed to be starved to death when feed supplies are low (Harris 1979: 38). Harris argues that the scarcity of feed (infrastructural change) shaped ideological (superstructural) beliefs of the farmers (Harris 1979: 38). Thus, Harris shows how, using empirical methods, an etic perspective is essential in order to understand culture change holistically.
Example of cultural materialism at work involves the study of women’s roles in the post-World War II United States. Maxine Margolis empirically studied this phenomenon and interpreted her findings according to a classic cultural materialist model. The 1950’s was a time when ideology held that the duties of women should be located solely in the home (emic thought); however, empirically, Margolis found that women were entering the workforce in large numbers (actual behavior) (Margolis 1984). This movement was an economic necessity that increased the productive and reproductive capabilities of U.S. households (Margolis 1984).Furthermore, Margolis argues that the ideological movement known as “feminism” did not cause this increase of women in the workforce, but rather was a result of this movement by women into the workforce (Margolis 1984). Thus, here we see how infrastructure determined superstructure as ideology changed to suit new infrastructural innovations.
Garbage project by Willium Rathje in Arizona about Alcohol consumption. Archaeologist William Rathje wanted to test many of the assumptions archaeologists have in dealing with waste from the past (Rathje 1992). In pursuit of this aim, Rathje excavated modern landfills in Arizona and other states and took careful measurements of artifact frequencies. One of the many things he did with this data was to test the difference between stated alcohol consumption of informants and actual alcohol consumption (based on refuse evidence). In order to do this, Rathje selected a sample of households from which he collected and analyzed refuse. He also gave those households a questionnaire that asked questions relating to alcohol consumption. After analyzing what people said they drank and what was actually found in the refuse, Rathje found a significant discrepancy between stated and actual alcohol consumption (Rathje 1992). This case study demonstrates that an etic approach to cultural phenomena may uncover vital information that would be otherwise missed by a wholly emic analysis.
- Cultural materialism can be credited with challenging anthropology to use more scientific research methods. Rather than rely solely on native explanations of phenomenon, Harris and others urged analysts to use empirical and replicable methods.
- Cultural materialism also promoted the notion that culture change can be studied across geographic and temporal boundaries in order to get at so-called universal, nomothetic theories.
- Some of Harris’ work (1966, 1977) shows that logical, scientific explanations for cultural phenomena such as India’s beef taboos are possible without invoking mystical or ephemeral causal factors such as are present in structuralist or functionalist interpretations.
- Archaeologists, have adopted cultural materialist approaches.
- Critics of Harris argued that his use of CM to explain all cultural phenomena was too simplistic and, as a result, many criticized and even dismissed his work (Friedman 1974).
- Cultural materialism has been termed “vulgar materialism” by Marxists such as J. Friedman
- Criticisms of cultural materialism are plentiful in anthropology. As with all of the different paradigms in anthropology (e.g., functionalism, structuralism, and Marxism), cultural materialism does have its flaws. Cultural materialism has been termed “vulgar materialism” by Marxists such as J. Friedman because opponents believe that the cultural materialists empirical approach to culture change is too simple and straightforward (Friedman 1974). Marxists believe that cultural materialists rely too heavily on the one-directional infrastructure-superstructure relationship to explain culture change, and that the relationship between the “base” (a distinct level of a sociocultural system, underlying the structure, in Marxist terminology) and the superstructure must be dialectically viewed (Friedman 1974). They argue that a cultural materialist approach can disregard the superstructure to such an extent that the effect of superstructure on shaping structural elements can be overlooked.
- Idealists such as structuralists (e.g., Durkheim and his followers) argue that the key to understanding culture change lies in the emic thoughts and behaviors of members of a native society. Thus, in contrast to cultural materialists, they argue that there is no need for an etic/emic distinction (Harris 1979: 167). To idealists, the etic view of culture is irrelevant and full of ethnocentrism; furthermore, they argue that culture itself is the controlling factor in culture change (Harris 1979: 167). In their view, culture is based on a panhuman structure embedded within the brain, and cultural variation is the result of each society’s filling that structure in their own way (Harris 1979: 167). They argue that the cultural materialist emphasis on an etic perspective creates biased conclusions.
- Postmodernists also argue vehemently against cultural materialism because of its use of strict scientific method. Postmodernists believe that science is itself a culturally determined phenomenon that is affected by class, race and other structural and infrastructural variables (Harris 1995: 62). In fact, some postmodernists argue that science is a tool used by upper classes to oppress and dominate lower classes (Rosenau 1992: 129). Thus, postmodernists argue that the use of any science is useless in studying culture, and that cultures should be studied using particularism and relativism (Harris 1995: 63). This is a direct attack on cultural materialism with its objective studies and cross-cultural comparisons.
- Marxists believe that cultural materialists rely too heavily on the one-directional infrastructure-superstructure relationship to explain culture change, and that the relationship between the “base” (a distinct level of a sociocultural system, underlying the structure, in Marxist terminology) and the superstructure must be dialectically viewed (Friedman 1974). They argue that a cultural materialist approach can disregard the superstructure to such an extent that the effect of superstructure on shaping structural elements can be overlooked.