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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...
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