Cultural Materialism

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Cultural Materialism - Marvin Harris
Cultural Materialism is an anthropological paradigm founded upon, but not constrained by, Marxist Materialistic thought. The term Cultural Materialism, first coined by Marvin Harris in his The Rise of Anthropological Theory (1968), is derived from two English words: "Culture" (social structure, language, law, religion, politics, art, science, superstition, etc.) and "Materialism" (materiality, rather than intellect or spirituality, is fundamental to reality). Harris developed Cultural Materialism by borrowing from existing anthropological doctrines, especially Marxist Materialism.

Cultural Materialism - Infrastructure, Structure and Superstructure
Cultural Materialism retains and expands upon the Marxist Three Levels of Culture Model: Infrastructure, Structure and Superstructure.

  • Infrastructure -- population, basic biological need, and resources (labor, equipment, technology, etc.).
  • Structure -- pattern of organization (government, education, production regulation, etc.).
  • Superstructure -- social institutions (law, religion, politics, art, science, superstition, values, emotions, traditions, etc.).
Marxist Dialectical Materialism (concepts and ideas are the result of material condition) and Marxist Historical Materialism (influential members of society hold sway on material condition, while society's social institutions are founded upon material condition) differ from Cultural Materialism in a few key aspects. Cultural Materialism holds that Infrastructure has influence on Structure, while Structure exerts little influence upon Infrastructure. Marxist Materialism, on the other hand, maintains that Infrastructure and Structure are influential to each other. Another distinction between Marxist and Cultural Materialism is Class Theory. Marxist Materialism believes social change is beneficial to the ruling (Bourgeoisie) class only, while Cultural Materialists believe social change is beneficial to the working (Proletariat) class as well.

Cultural Materialism - Organization, Ideology and Symbolism
Cultural Materialism seeks to explain cultural organization, ideology and symbolism within a materialistic (Infrastructure/structure/superstructure) framework. Cultural Materialists believe society develops on a trial and error basis. If something is not beneficial to a society's ability to produce and/or reproduce, or causes production and/or reproduction to exceed acceptable limits, it will disappear from society altogether. Therefore, law, government, religion, family values, etc. must be beneficial to society or they will cease to exist within society. Cultural Materialists ignore "Emic" (society's opinion) in favor of "Etic" (observation of phenomenon via scientific method).

Cultural Materialism - Criticisms
Proponents of alternative anthropological doctrines criticize Cultural Materialism for various reasons. Marxists criticize Cultural Materialism for ignoring Structure's influence upon Infrastructure. Postmodernists believe that reliance upon "Etic" in studying culture is not appropriate, as science is merely a function of culture. Idealists criticize Cultural Materialism for ignoring variables such as genetics, and believe "Emic" is more significant than Cultural Materialists allow. Finally, it seems that Materialism is too simplistic. We must consider intellectual and spiritual influences upon society as well. We are intelligent creatures who tend to have spiritual inclinations that cannot be accounted for by material means alone.

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