Marvin Harris is one of the most prominent contributors to 20th-century anthropological theory. He is best known as the originator of cultural materialism, a theoretical paradigm and research strategy aimed at providing causal explanations for differences and similarities in cultural behavior. Cultural materialism assumes that cultural patterns are ultimately derived from the practical problems of human existence.
Born in Brooklyn, New York, Harris received his undergraduate and graduate training at Columbia University, where he earned his PhD in 1953. He taught at Columbia for nearly three decades, and from 1980 until his retirement in 2000, he was graduate research professor of anthropology at the University of Florida.
Like others in his student cohort in the Department of Anthropology at Columbia, Harris was trained in the four subfields of the discipline. His first exposure to anthropology came in Columbia’s introductory course taught by Charles Wagley, who later became his mentor. The course took a four-field approach, and according to Harris, the basic outline of the course could be traced back to Franz Boas, the dominant figure in the Columbia department as well as in American anthropology for the first half of the 20th century. Although Harris was a severe critic of Boas’s method for studying culture, he was a staunch defender of Boas’s vision of four-field anthropology and of the Boasian stance on race, language, and culture. As a result of his early training, Harris addressed large questions in and across the subfields of anthropology throughout his professional career.
The Rise of Anthropological Theory
The impact of Marvin Harris’s ideas can be gauged from his 1968 magnum opus, The Rise of Anthropological Theory, an overview of anthropological theory from the perspective of cultural materialism. Harris introduced the term cultural materialism in this volume—”the Rat,” as it is known to three generations of anthropology students. The book’s contribution to anthropological theory was highlighted in 1991, when both the Social Science Citation Index and the Arts and Humanities Citation Index named it a “citation classic.”
In the book, Harris argued that previous social theorists had never developed an entirely satisfactory materialist and nomothetic (generalizing) research strategy dedicated to explaining the evolution of sociocultural differences and similarities. As such, the yardstick he used to evaluate specific theories and schools of thought was the degree to which they aided an understanding of and provided explanations for cross-cultural variation.
The Rat is truly a history of anthropological theory. Through the lens of cultural materialism, it analyzes individual theories and schools of thought from the 18th century through the 1960s. It begins with the Enlightenment, the era Harris identifies as the one in which naturalistic causal explanations of cultural phenomena were first established, a modern conception of culture began to evolve, and materialist explanations of cultural similarities and differences first appeared. Harris explores the subsequent reaction against naturalism and materialism in the early 19th century and their eventual replacement by hardcore biological determinism that, with the notable exception of Marxist materialism, held sway over anthropological theory into the early 20th century. Franz Boas and his followers rescued anthropology from biological reductionism only to replace it with an idiographic strategy that, from Harris’s perspective, did little to advance anthropology as a scientific enterprise.
The Rat concludes its theoretical journey with discussions of neoevolutionist and ecological approaches to the study of culture, both of which Harris believed came closest to the cultural materialist paradigm he was championing. While admiring his nomothetic cultural evolutionary approach, Harris faulted anthropologist Leslie White for his lack of interest in environmental variation. The anthropologist treated most favorably in the work was Julian Steward, whose combined interests in cultural evolution and cultural ecology and whose concept of culture core came closest to Harris’s own model of technoenvironmental, technoeconomic, and demographic determinism.
A central theme of the volume was the critique of what Harris saw as prevailing idealist and idiographic schools of thought in anthropology. The ongoing influence of such paradigms in contemporary anthropology, which he eventually analyzed in their various transformations—symbolic and interpretive anthropology, structuralism and postmodernism—concerned Harris throughout his career. His last book, Theories of Culture in Post-Modern Times (1998), was a series of essays debunking such approaches to the study of culture.
Although the The Rise of Anthropological Theory used cultural materialism as a framework for evaluating previous theories, the full elaboration and defense of Harris’s materialist paradigm was realized in Cultural Materialism: The Struggle for a Science of Culture (1979). Cultural materialism evolved from and was influenced by a number of theoretical currents including evolutionary theory, cultural ecology, and Marxist materialism. Harris acknowledged his debt to all of them, most especially the latter. But he emphatically differentiated his own model from dialectical materialism as well as from the program for political action that is so closely associated with Marxist materialism.
Cultural materialism “is based on the simple premise that human social life is a response to the practical problems of earthly existence” (Harris, 1979, p. ix). This statement highlights the central tenet of cultural materialism, infrastructural determinism, the assumption that explanations for cultural similarities and differences ultimately lie in the material conditions of human life. A society’s infrastructure (or material base) is its system of production and reproduction, which is determined by a concatenation of ecological, technological, environmental, and demographic variables. The study of a society’s infrastructure investigates “how people obtain food and shelter, maintain a population base, and satisfy other basic biological and emotional needs and drives” (Harris & Johnson, 2000, p. vi).
A society’s infrastructure, in turn, shapes its structure and superstructure. A society’s structure comprises its domestic economy (social organization, kinship, division of labor) and its political economy (political institutions, social hierarchies), while its superstructure consists of the ideological elements of culture, its religious, symbolic, and artistic and intellectual activities.
The study of infrastructure should be a “strategic priority” because it is “the principal interface between nature and culture,” according to Harris; if the goal of science is to establish lawlike generalizations, then one should begin by studying those aspects of socio-cultural systems “under the greatest direct restraints from the givens of nature” (Harris, 1979, p. 57). But contrary to some of his critics, Harris does not hold that all changes in sociocultural systems stem from alterations in their infrastructures, nor does he suggest that structure and superstructure are mere passive reactors to shifts in a culture’s material base. Nevertheless, if structural or superstructural changes are not compatible with the existing modes of production and reproduction, they are unlikely to persist and spread.
In sum, cultural materialism holds that over time and in most cases, changes in a society’s material base will lead to functionally compatible changes in its social and political structures, along with modifications in its secular and religious ideologies. The ultimate goal of cultural materialism is to explain, not merely describe, cultural variations in the way people live.
As part of this model, Harris distinguished emic and etic approaches to cultural data. In an emic proach, the observer learns the cultural rules and categories from the native’s perspective. If informants agree on a description or interpretation of data, the data are considered accurate. With an etic approach, in contrast, the observer does not use native rules or categories, but rather those derived from independent observers using agreed-on scientific measures.
Quantifiable measurements such as of fertility rates, caloric intake, or average rainfall are employed in order to develop general cultural theories without regard to whether those measurements “mean” anything to the native populations themselves. Harris argued forcefully that a science of society cannot be based solely on informants’ interpretation of their own behavior.
Harris also viewed cultural materialism as a vehicle for understanding and solving contemporary social problems. After all, before problems like poverty and racism can be solved, their causes must be understood. In his words, “If it be anthropology to struggle against the mystification of the causes of inequality and exploitation, long live anthropology” (Harris, 1979, p. 340).
Cultural Materialism Applied: Research in Brazil, Mozambique, and India
Harris’s field research, most of which was guided by the principles of cultural materialism, took him to three continents; he worked in Brazil, Mozambique, and India. His early Brazilian research resulted in Town and Country in Brazil (1956), an ethnographic study of Minas Velhas, a historic mining community in Bahia state. Harris provided a vivid description of racial prejudice in Minas Velhas, but he also showed that prejudice did not necessarily translate into systematic discrimination, taking issue with the notion that attitudes and temperament are the best predictors of behavior.
Harris’s work on race and race relations received its fullest treatment in Patterns of Race in the Americas (1964), in which he used a cultural materialist framework to systematically compare the divergent racial patterns that emerged in Brazil, the United States, the Caribbean, and highland Latin America. Here, Harris took issue with cultural heritage and national character explanations of racial patterns, particularly those advanced by Brazilian social theorist Gilberto Freyre. Freyre had stressed the role of Portuguese national character in forming Brazilian race relations, and indeed in creating a “new world in the tropics” based on a penchant for racial tolerance and miscegenation. In Patterns of Race in the Americas, Harris argued persuasively for the role of material conditions in forming the patterns of race in different parts of the Americas. And he debunked Freyre’s contention that slaves received more humane treatment in Brazil than in the United States, supposedly because of differences in Portuguese and Anglo national character, religion, and attitudes toward darker-skinned peoples.
Harris is also known for his work on Brazilian racial classification, especially his research on the multiple racial categories in everyday use throughout Brazil. To understand how racial classification and behavior in regard to race differed in Brazil and the United States, Harris and anthropologist Conrad Kottak coined the term hypo-descent. Because a rule of hypo-descent exists in the United States, children of mixed parentage, that is, those from a union of an African American and a Euro-American, are always assigned to the minority category. But hypo-descent is absent in Brazil, where racial classification is based more on individual phenotype and social perceptions than on parentage. Harris concludes that the evolution of these different systems of racial classification arose out of the material conditions of divergent settlement and subsequent histories of Brazil and the United States.
In his last field research in the early 1990s, Harris returned to Brazil and to the issue of Brazilian racial classification. This time, he contrasted the categories used by Brazilians themselves in designating their own race and the racial categories employed in the Brazilian census. Because of differences in the racial terminology used in each instance, Harris found that Brazilian census data overestimated the White segment and underestimated the mixed-race segment of the national population.
Harris traveled to Mozambique, then a Portuguese colony, in 1955 to 1956 to study acculturation among the Ba Thonga people. However, after his arrival in Mozambique, Harris became more interested in politics and did not complete his planned fieldwork. He became good friends with the academic Eduardo Modlane, the leader of Frelimo, the Mozambique liberation movement, who later became the first president of an independent Mozambique. Advocating Mozambican independence from Portugal, Harris wrote Portugal’s African Wards (1958). Harris’s field study in Mozambique and his subsequent denunciations of the plight of Africans under Portuguese rule were influential in the eventual abolition of the forced-labor system in use there.
Harris’s fieldwork in India was inspired by the reading he did for his article “The Cultural Ecology of India’s Sacred Cattle,” published in Current Anthropology (1966). Again attacking the primacy of the ideological over the material, Harris demonstrated the many roles that sacred cattle play in the Indian ecosystem. He interpreted Hindu doctrine as using the full force of religion to help conserve a vital resource, the sacred cow.
Cultural Materialism for a Wider Audience: Popular Writings
Harris published 19 books, collectively translated into 14 languages. He applied his theoretical principles in several popular books written in a compelling, accessible style. In all of them, Harris turned his materialist gaze on and attempted to provide scientific explanations for what he called “the riddles of culture,” an approach that made him both highly influential and controversial. He also employed a materialist paradigm in writing two widely used introductory textbooks that have gone through several editions each, Culture, People, Nature (1997) and Cultural Anthropology (with Orna Johnson, 2002).
Cows, Pigs, Wars, and Witches (1974), arguably the most persuasive and prominent of his popular books, was the first one written for a general audience. It was inspired by Harris’s fascination with the sacred cow in India as well as other puzzling cultural phenomena such as religious dietary restrictions (including the Jewish and Muslim taboos against eating pork), cargo cults, and witch hunts.
This was followed by Cannibals and Kings, which took a historical view of some of the cases examined in Cows, Pigs, Wars, and Witches. But Harris also extended his inquiry to new riddles of culture. One of the most controversial was his analysis of Aztec cannibalism, which Harris interpreted in the context of protein shortages resulting from the lack of significant animal domestication in Mesoamerica.
Good to Eat (1985) was a critique of anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss’s contention that classificatory systems involving animal food taboos could be understood mainly because they were “good to think.” To the contrary, Harris argued, a better approach is to see animals first as food for the body rather than for the mind. Harris’s popular books showed an enduring fascination not only with Lévi-Strauss but also with the Yanomamo Indians of Venezuela and Brazil, as described by anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon. Harris rejected Chagnon’s initial sociopolitical explanation for Yanomamo warfare, as well as Chagnon’s subsequent use of explanatory models from human evolutionary ecology. Harris insisted that protein shortages provided the best explanation for the “riddle” of Yanomamo raiding patterns.
Our Kind completes a quartet of Harris’s books aimed at explaining the riddles of culture to students and an educated lay audience. Harris’s renown beyond academic circles spread through these readable, intriguing, and controversial works. Harris liked to compare the riddles of culture to potato chips: No one can eat just one. That is, whenever he offered a solution for one riddle—the sacred cow, for example—someone would say, “Yes, but what about the abominable pig or primitive warfare?” Of the books in the quartet, Our Kind is most like a bag of potato chips. In it, Harris provides very short explanations for dozens of cultural riddles.
In Why Nothing Works (1987), Harris moved from the study of cultural riddles in “exotic” societies to an analysis of shifts in the material base of his own society. Here, he sought to highlight and explain the deficiencies of an economy changing from heavy goods manufacture to services and information. Employing a well-reasoned cultural materialist analysis, Harris showed how changes in the American economy were reflected in shifts in the nation’s social organization—its marriage and family patterns, gender roles, and sexual relations—and its attendant ideology.
The influence of Harris’s theories was not limited to cultural anthropology. As archaeologist David Hearst Thomas has noted, “roughly half of the practicing American archaeologists consider themselves to be cultural materialists to one degree or another.” As a result of the forcefulness of his ideas elaborated in his many publications, Marvin Harris’s theoretical paradigm has become one of the best known in contemporary social science.
- Harris, M. (1964). Patterns of race in the Americas. New York: Walker.
- Harris, M. (1974). Cows, pigs, wars, and witches. New York: Random House.
- Harris, M. (1977). Cannibals and kings. New York: Random House.
- Harris, M. (1979). Cultural materialism. New York: Random House.
- Harris, M. (1985). Good to eat. New York: Simon & Schuster.
- Harris, M. (1998). Theories of culture in post-modern times. Walnut Creek, CA: Alta Mira Press.
- Harris, M. (2001). The rise of anthropological theory. Walnut Creek, CA: Alta Mira Press.
- Harris, M., & Johnson, O. (2002). Cultural anthropology (5th ed.). Boston: Allyn & Bacon.
- Murphy, M. F., & Margolis, M. L. (Eds.). (1995). Science, materialism. and the study of culture: Readings in cultural materialism. Gainesville: University Press of Florida.