Anthropological theory: Cultural materialism(Harris)

Marvin Harris in his 1968 text, The Rise of Anthropological Theory, cultural materialism embraces three anthropological schools of thought, cultural materialism, cultural evolution and cultural ecology (Barfield 1997: 232). Risen 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 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, while 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 materialism aims to understand the effects of technological, economic and demographic factors on molding societal structure and superstructure through strictly scientific methods. As stated by Harris, cultural materialism strives to “create a pan-human science of society whose findings can be accepted on logical and evidentiary grounds by the pan-human community”. Cultural materialism is an expansion upon Marxist materialism.

In contrast to cultural materialists, Marxists argue that production is a material condition located in the base (See American Material Page) that acts upon and is acted upon by the infrastructure (Harris 1996: 277-178). Furthermore, while Marxist theory suggests that production is a material condition located in the base of society that engages in a reciprocal relationship with societal structure, both acting and being acted upon by the infrastructure sector, cultural materialism proposes that production lies within the infrastructure and that the infrastructure-structure relationship is unidirectional (Harris 1996: 277-278). Thus, cultural materialists see the infrastructure-structure relationship as being mostly in one direction, while Marxists see the relationship as reciprocal.

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