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Cultural Materialism

Catherine Buzney and Jon Marcoux

Coined by 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 “cre ate a pan-human science of society whose findings can be accepted on logical and evidentiary grounds by the pan-human community" (Harris 1979: xii). Cultural materialism is an expansion upon Marxist materialism.  Marx suggested that there are three levels of culture, infrastructure, structure, and superstructure; however, unlike Marxist theory, cultural materialism views both productive (economic) and reproductive (demographic) forces as the primary factors which shape society.  Therefore, cultural materialism explains the structural features of a society in terms of production within the infrastructure only (Harris 1996: 277). As such, demographic, environmental, and technological changes are invoked to explain cultural variation (Barfield 1997: 232). 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. Cultural materialism also differs from Marxism in its lack of class theory. While Marxism suggests that culture change only benefits the ruling class,  cultural materialism addresses relations of unequal power recognizing innovations or changes that benefit both upper and lower classes (Harris 1996: 278). Despite the fact that both cultural materialism and Marxism are evolutionary in proposing that culture change results from innovations selected by society because of beneficial increases to productive capabilities, cultural materialism does not envision a final utopian form as visualized by Marxism (Engels, quoted by Harris 1979: 141-142; Harris 1996: 280). Cultural Materialists believe that all societies operate according to  model in which production and reproduction dominate and determine the other sectors of culture (See Key Concepts ‘Priority of Infrastructure’), effectively serving as the driving forces behind all cultural development.  They propose that all non-infrastructure aspects of society are created with...
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