Societies survive and successfully reproduce themselves only insofar as they meet the elementary material needs of a certain minimum of their members. This observation is the starting point for cultural materialism, a living theoretical tradition founded and defined by the American anthropologist Marvin Harris (1927-2001). Of cardinal importance, in Harris’s view, is the fact that people pursue their needs in the context of intimate dependence on the natural environs for their energy requirements. It follows that we may expect the most important causes of the similarities and differences between societies to arise at the sites where humans maintain their most immediate commerce with the natural world. The realms of demography, technology, and economy best answer to this description. Of all sociocultural realms, these are also those most subject to law-like regularities and therefore to scientific investigation. Harris draws the conclusion that if anthropology is ever to rescue itself from the siren calls of various fashionable idealisms, and if it is one day to reclaim itself as a science, then it will be to these “material” aspects of society and culture that it will turn.
Impressively wide ranging, in the hands of Harris and other adepts, cultural materialism has been able to offer empirically informed but connected theorizations concerning an apparently unlimited number of cultural processes and historical periods. The source of food taboos; the origins of egalitarianism in many band societies; causes of the variety of kinship systems; why the Oedipus complex is an expression of aggressive male competition; why beef has been central to U.S. meat consumption; the reasons for the demise of the U.S.S.R.; the role of Haitian peasant voodoo in resource circulation; the origins of the state, war, and capitalism—these and many other social scientific questions have been opened up anew under the confident cultural materialist pen. At the same time, the explanatory power of the theory has been tested against virtually any contending school of thought one cares to name. Needless to say, for its adherents it has not been found wanting in these encounters.
Although cultural materialists seem to have a rather embattled view of themselves, they are not so alone as all that. In fact, they float on a broad if turbulent intellectual stream within modern anthropology. The focus they put on evolutionary dynamics was a hallmark of anthropology’s founding fathers and later of Leslie White (1900-1975). The tacit functionalism of cultural materialism was prefigured in the work of Bronislaw Malinowski (1884-1942), and the emphasis on scientificity by A. R. Radcliffe-Brown (1881-1955). Cultural materialism’s stress on ecological influences had been taken a long way by Julian Steward (1902-1972), and a concern with history and material culture marked the work of Eleanor Burke Leacock (1922-1987). In the 1960s and 1970s, when Harris was writing programmatic works like The Rise of Anthropological Theory (1968) and Cultural Materialism (1979), Marxism was a significant force in Western academies. Broader still are the utilitarian, materialist, empiricist, and behaviorist currents that are component parts of much Western common sense, not to speak already of the great prestige of Darwinism. Cultural materialism conscientiously distinguishes itself from each of these trends and viewpoints, but would have been inconceivable without them.
At the heart of Harris’s work, and of cultural materialism ever since, are two sets of ideas. The first set is methodological and encompasses an interest in developing a scientific approach to culture and society. This interest is pursued through an insistence on “operationalizing” all major concepts and through a preference for “etic” over “emic” explanations. The second set of ideas is substantive in nature. Humans and human societies being what they are, on the balance of probabilities the best explanations for any given sociocultural phenomenon will be “materialist” ones. The “material” invoked in this instance leads us to distinguish between the “infrastructural,” the “structural,” and the “superstructural” aspects of any social whole. Let us now turn to these elements.
Anthropology, according to cultural materialists, suffers from a surfeit of half-baked and ill-digested concepts. Kinship, society, culture, symbol, caste, and numerous other concepts tend to be used haphazardly and anointed with idiosyncratic meanings. This is partly because little effort has been put into generating intersubjectively agreed-upon definitions. It is also partly because most anthropologists are convinced that anthropology neither can nor should pretend to the kind of scientificity possible in the natural sciences. And finally it is partly because many anthropologists make it their primary concern to interpret those aspects of culture, such as cosmology, myth, and ritual, which are least susceptible to properly scientific investigation.
Such attitudes are too complacent by far for the cultural materialists. The undergrowth of mutually and often self-contradictory theories needs clearing away. For a start, each anthropologist should shoulder the responsibility of specifying the logical and empirical steps any given investigator would have to take to independently establish the existence of the entities and causal relations posited in their original theory. This is what it means to operationalize one’s concepts. Doing so is, in principle, entirely possible for a social science like anthropology and should in any case be accepted as an ideal to strive for. Moreover, as a corollary of this ideal, anthropology should confine itself to investigating aspects of sociocultural life open to being reinvestigated and assessed by other anthropologists. It is fine for a Carlos Castaneda to regale us with stories of his apprenticeship to the Mexican shaman Don Juan; it is entertaining to learn of their epic journeys to the far reaches of the mind; but it is not science, and consequently it is not anthropology.
Etic and Emic
Setting out to understand their fellow humans as objectively as possible, anthropologists encounter a difference between their own thoughts about those they study and the account of themselves given or presupposed by those they study. Typically, different kinds of causal relations and phenomena assume significance in each case. Linguistics, faced with analogous difficulties, developed a useful distinction. It distinguished between phonetics (the study of the different types of sounds generatable by the human vocal apparatus) and phonemics (the study of the sound discriminations that speakers of a particular language employ in making meaningful utterances). The two are not the same (as anyone first encountering the “inaudible” tonal distinctions utilized in some Asian languages will attest). By way of analogy, the linguist Kenneth Pike suggested that the difference between observer and observed in anthropology could be clarified by speaking of “etic” and “emic” orientations to the phenomena, respectively.
This is a distinction, of course, that exists for the anthropologist alone. On Harris’s reading, an anthropologist who takes up an emic approach is one who makes native conceptions, whether conscious or unconscious, the standard against which to judge their own anthropological concepts. By contrast, an etic approach is not concerned with whether the explanations it produces would or could make sense to the people concerned. The only issue of moment for an etic approach is whether these explanations are scientifically valid, fruitful, and parsimonious. Insofar as we are interested in the real causes of sociocultural phenomena, and insofar as we do not intend to limit ourselves to ponderously reproducing a people’s illusions about the reasons for their behavior, we must necessarily give pride of place to etic accounts.
Where are the real causes of sociocultural phenomena likely to be found? By speaking of cultural materialism, Harris indicates his most general answer to this question. This is a materialism of the midrange. It is epistemological (natural, and many social entities and relations exist independently of our thoughts about them), and most important it is causal (mental phenomena emerge from and are dependent on material phenomena, whereas the reverse is rarely the case). As for philosophical materialism (the contention that reality is ultimately composed of matter rather than ideas), for Harris the issue is a “sterile” one.
Darwinism and Marxism provide the main intellectual coordinates for this account of sociocultural causation. From Darwinism, cultural materialists derive an emphasis on humans as creatures who face a series of constraints to which they must adapt. Nature, on this view, is the realm par excellence of physical, chemical, and biological limits. These limits cannot be abolished on a whim. They can be modified, if at all, only at the cost of expenditure of energy. Sociocultural forms either instantiate ways of more or less optimally regulating the capture and expenditure of energy from nature so as to meet the fundamental biological and psychological needs of their members, or they cease to exist.
It is consequently in the areas where a sociocultural formation most directly abuts onto nature that we are entitled to search for the most likely determining influences on the remainder of that formation. This is an idea inspired by the Marxist conviction that the characteristic features of a social totality are derivative of its mode of production. Harris finesses this claim by etically differentiating three sociocultural domains. In the infrastructural domain, we find those technologically mediated human activities oriented to producing the means of subsistence and to ensuring biological reproduction. In the structural domain, we find the domestic and political organization of these activities and the conflicts arising therefrom. And in the superstructural domain, we find everything else: all behavioral events at a greater remove from subsistence concerns (rituals, games, music, science), as well as, in practice, most aspects of a people’s mental life (religion, myth, ideologies, philosophies).
Most important, unlike versions of Marxism that credit a single determining factor (perhaps class, perhaps the “economic base”), cultural materialism juggles with a suite of infrastructural variables. Demographic pressures, nutritional requirements, subsistence technologies, ecological changes—these and other factors may be appealed to depending on the nature of the case. On the other hand, cultural materialism distinguishes itself from sociobiology by an ambition to explain sociocultural differences as well as similarities. So rather than saddling itself with a set of would-be explanatory genetic and evolutionary universals, it appeals always to this particular land yield, this particular climatic pattern, that specific advantage of cows over pigs.
Cultural Materialist Ideals
Harris observes more than once that political commitments sometimes trump the commitment to objectivity within anthropology. In any quandary of this kind, he considers anthropologists to have a primary duty to the truth. Perhaps it is not surprising, therefore, that observers routinely fail to notice that for Harris, the mission to secure anthropology as a science has an ethicopolitical significance as well as a cognitive one. Typically, this emerges in the context of intellectual polemics. A good example is the debate over the significance of Aztec sacrifice.
In Cannibals and Kings (1977), Harris attempts to account, among much else, for the Aztec practice of sacrificing war captives, a theme also explored in cultural materialist vein by Michael Harner. The point stressed by Harris and Harner is that Aztec cannibalism was almost certainly unique. The functionaries of the Aztec state took what was probably a common practice in the Americas and not only made it the center of ecclesiastical life but also escalated it to unprecedented levels (estimates for the 15th century go as high as 250,000 people killed in some years). This, Harris and Harner contend, must be accounted for by population pressure, the uniquely depleted animal protein sources in the Mexican Valley, and the advantages to the Aztec ruling class in maintaining a “cannibal empire.”
Reviewing Harris’s book, Marshall Sahlins finds these ideas laughable. He challenges the cultural materialist claim that protein sources were minimal in the Mexican Valley and stresses the impossibility of accounting for the elaborate holy temple rites of the Aztecs on the basis of a simple need for meat. As Sahlins would later comment: “Why build a temple, when all you need is a butcher’s block?”
Harris’s rejoinder is noteworthy for its tone as much as its content. In his view, Sahlins is not only objectively wrong, but his account is little more than a much belated apology for Aztec ruling class ideology. Hostility to the cultural materialist’s etic elucidation of why the priests at the main pyramid in Tenochtitlan and numerous other sites were really killing captives merely lends plausibility to Aztec religious mystifications.
Scientific objectivity, then, is for Harris our only reliable weapon against the disguises worn by exploitative social relations, wherever and whenever they might be. And exactly because it alone is capable of tearing off all ideological veils, science is the only possible panhuman way of knowing. Nothing else, as he writes in Cultural Materialism, can “transcend the prior belief systems of mutually antagonistic tribes, nations, classes, and ethnic and religious communities in order to arrive at knowledge that is equally probable for any rational human mind.”
What jumps out from a statement like this is that it sounds very much like an idealization. Surely the practice of science is usually less elevated. Harris is happy to grant both points. Nonetheless, it is precisely as an ideal that science deserves to be defended.
Evidently, cultural materialism comes here to its symptomatic point of exception. Alone among all social phenomena, science finally is to be exempted from etic explanation. Its truth, too valuable to be surrendered to materialist demystification, inheres in its ideal. This, speaking loosely, was Harris’s emics, the account he rendered to himself of why etic explanations must be paramount.
Criticisms of Cultural Materialism
Cultural materialists shot argumentative arrows in many directions. Not a few have been shot back. For Jonathan Friedman, cultural materialism’s causal explanations are merely redescriptions of empirical correlations. Were they to be taken seriously as explanations, they would in any case prove untenable. The unidirectional model of causation from infrastructure to structure and superstructure is not just a travesty of Marxism, it is theoretically implausible. It misses the relative autonomy of any social structure from its technoenvironmental conditions. Empirically, the theory fares no better, since cultural materialism can only account for the many instances of social change within the same technoenvironment, or of technological changes within the same social form, at the price of its own incoherence.
Maurice Bloch likewise attacks cultural materialism’s point of pride: the fact that, unlike many “idealist” approaches in anthropology, it actually puts forward concrete explanations to account for specific historical changes and social functions. Bloch’s observation is that these explanations are entirely ad hoc. If cows in India are holy and therefore ineligible to be eaten, Harris will look around for why etically this makes good economic sense. Were circumstances otherwise, and cows abhorred in India, Harris would doubtless discover equally meritorious reasons for why keeping cows out of India is economically rational. The explanation, then, is unfalsifiable but trivial. The only way to circumvent the problem would be to hazard a general theory as to the conditions under which cows anywhere will be considered holy; but this Harris does not do.
In the end, most anthropological criticisms of cultural materialism emerge from a common discomfort. This is the unshakable sense that, whatever the denials, for Harris and his cothinkers human cultures are finally not real. This is a criticism that cuts along both the substantive and the methodological axes of cultural materialism. The objections in each area might be summed up as follows.
Harris’s “cultures” have a sort of emaciated reality, and his “superstructures” in particular are ontologically anemic (“mystifications”). It is as if the further you climb away from the ecological, demographic, economic, and technological determinants, the more insipid and less meritorious of sustained “scientific” consideration do the human phenomena become. The supposed gradient of causality is treated simultaneously as a gradient both of material quiddity and scientific credibility. But nothing else is to be expected if the necessary requirement that a culture adapt to its environment is made to stand in for the entirety of its inner logic.
Kindred objections emerge on the methodological front. Operationalizing one’s concepts is not the same thing as subjecting them to critical interrogation. And attempting to ensure that one has an “etic” approach to phenomena will not cleanse one’s concepts of the ontological commitments they inherit from their mother culture. To make this point is not, as Harris supposes, to elide the differences between nonscientific and scientific knowledge. It is not to suggest that we can neglect to carefully distinguish between thought and behavior, theory and practice, or subjectively and objectively verifiable statements. Nor is it to promote the simple-minded claim that anthropology’s etic science is little more than the imposition of one particular emic universe on another. But such an imposition is exactly what anthropology threatens to become when it neglects to critically reflect on its scientific practice as a sociohistorical and cultural practice.
- Bloch, M. (1983). Marxism and anthropology: The history of a relationship. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.
- Ferguson, B. R. (2001). Materialist, cultural and biological theories on why Yanomami make war. Anthropological Theory, 1(1), 99-116.
- Harris, M. (1977). Cannibals and kings: The origins of cultures. New York: Random House.
- Harris, M. (1979). Cultural materialism: The struggle for a science of culture. New York: Random House.
- Lévi-Strauss, C. (1987). The view from afar. London: Penguin.
- Ross, E. B. (Ed.). (1980). Beyond the myths of culture: Essays in cultural materialism. New York: Academic Press.