In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Cultural Materialism

  • Introduction
  • General Overview
  • Roots of the Perspective
  • Primacy of the Infrastructure
  • Evolutionism
  • Etic-Emic
  • Cultural Materialism and Cultural Ecology
  • Cultural Materialism and Foodways
  • Cultural Materialism and Conflict/Warfare
  • Cultural Materialism and Modernity
  • Reviews and Critiques
  • Relation of Harris’s Anthropology to Sociology
  • Summary

Anthropology Cultural Materialism
Frank Elwell, Brian Andrews
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 September 2016
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 September 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766567-0154


Marvin Harris (1927–2001), an American Anthropologist, synthesized the paradigm of cultural materialism in 1968, and became its most vociferous champion. He received his Ph.D. from Columbia in 1953, and taught there as a member of the faculty from 1952–1981, then becoming a graduate research professor at the University of Florida until his death. Cultural materialism attempts to account for the origin, maintenance, and change of sociocultural systems. The foundation of such systems, Marvin Harris maintains, are the modes of production and reproduction in interaction with the environment. According to Harris, the mode of production consists of technology and work patterns, especially with regard to food and energy. The mode of reproduction refers to population characteristics such as level and growth rate as well as social practices that increase or limit population. Harris combines the mode of production and reproduction in his concept of infrastructure, representing technologies and social practices by which a sociocultural system adapts to its environment, regulating both the type and amount of resources needed to maintain the system. As environments change, either through natural processes or human action, infrastructures must adapt. Because infrastructural adaptation is so critical to the survival of individuals and sociocultural systems, Harris maintains, the adoption of these technologies and social practices will have significant impact on human institutions as well as cultural values and beliefs. Sociocultural system change occurs according to several “selective principles” operating at the individual level. These selective principles are the biological and psychological cost/benefit calculus that serve to guide human behavior within a given sociocultural system. However, Harris also recognizes that hierarchies based on class, sex, age, ethnicity, and other statuses exist throughout the structure of societies and that the interests of the elite weigh more heavily than most. Changes that enhance the position of elites are likely to be amplified and propagated throughout the entire system. Changes that undermine their power and authority are likely to be resisted. A cultural materialist analysis attempts to identify the elites, gauge the amount of power that they wield, and uncover their biases, assumptions, and interests, though it is recognized that changing material conditions of non-elites could change society as well. It is through individual cost/benefit decisions that human groups and societies evolve, and it is through the infrastructure that a sociocultural system adapts to its natural and social environment. A good deal of Harris’s work is concerned with explaining widespread cultural norms, ideologies, values, and beliefs as well as social institutions and practices through the use of population, production, and ecological variables. Harris explores the impact of productive and reproductive factors on such social institutions as the family, the workplace, religion as well as widespread ideals, ideologies and beliefs such as feminism, foodways, war, and cow worship in a variety of different sociocultural systems. His research strategy (i.e., always look to infrastructural-environmental relationships first) is capable of integrating a diverse range of theoretical insights and empirical observations within its scope. But his insistence that relationships between population, production, and the environment are at the base of all sociocultural systems, and that this base must necessarily have a profound effect on the rest of the system, are the core of cultural materialist theory.

General Overview

In 1968 Harris published The Rise of Anthropological Theory. Known as “The RAT” by generations of graduate students, the book develops the research strategy placing priority on material conditions—what Harris then labels “techno-environmental and techno-economic” factors—in determining other parts of the sociocultural system. The review of the history of anthropology is intended to provide evidence of the efficacy of a materialist strategy. Harris 1974 and Harris 1977 analyze several of the riddles of culture arguing strenuously for the importance of theory—particularly cultural materialism theories—in guiding observations. Harris 1979 fully develops cultural materialism just as postmodernism was emerging within anthropology. In that work and in several others (Harris 1994 and Harris 1995), Harris attacks postmodernists for taking the extreme position of questioning the reliability and validity of all forms of knowledge and asserting that all truth is relative, plural, and subject to power relationships—with science being no exception. Harris 1998 provides an excellent summary of cultural materialism as he refined it over the years, introducing the concept of the primacy of the infrastructure to soften and replace the concept of infrastructural determinism. In addition to Harris there have been others who have championed the theory, though most others insist on giving a greater role to structural and superstructural feedback in system stability and change. Price 1982 for example, asserts that cultural materialism is a systems theory, with the material infrastructure acting upon and being affected by structural and superstructural variables, although it insists that material/behavioral factors have more profound weight and impact upon the system. As a research strategy it directs first attention to these factors to account for cultural similarities and differences, stability, and change. Johnson and Johnson 2001 makes explicit that Harris’s concept of priority of infrastructure should be understood in the context of the entire sociocultural system: that is, cultural ideas and beliefs encourage and reinforce behavior, even such behaviors that are determined by infrastructural-environmental relationships.

  • Harris, Marvin. 1968. The rise of anthropological theory: A history of theories of culture. New York: Crowell.

    The RAT has been cited by well over a thousand works.

  • Harris, Marvin. 1974. Cows, pigs, wars and witches: The riddles of culture. New York: Vintage.

    Writing as a public intellectual, Harris identifies the importance of infrastructural- environmental relationships in understanding such cultural practices as cow worship, pig lovers and haters, primitive war, potlatch, messiahs, and witches.

  • Harris, Marvin. 1977. Cannibals and kings: The origins of cultures. New York: Vintage.

    Writing for a general audience here, Harris examines the infrastructural causes of such behaviors as infanticide; the origins of agriculture and war, cannibalism, capitalism; the probable limits of the industrial mode of production; and the value of social science in understanding sociocultural evolution as well as a role for free will in human affairs.

  • Harris, Marvin. 1979. Cultural materialism: The struggle for a science of culture. New York: Random House.

    In this work Harris more fully develops his concepts of the infrastructure—now the mode of production (technology of subsistence, work patterns, techno-environmental relationships) and the mode of reproduction (technology and practices for maintaining, limiting, or expanding population)—and connecting social structural organization and cultural values and beliefs to the practical problems of making a living.

  • Harris, Marvin. 1989. Our kind: Who we are, where we came from, and where we are going. New York: HarperCollins.

    Harris’s last book for the general reader that recounts what he has learned as an anthropologist about biological and sociocultural evolution.

  • Harris, Marvin. 1994. Cultural materialism is alive and well and won’t go away until something better comes along. In Assessing cultural anthropology. Edited by Robert Borofsky, 62–75. New York: McGraw-Hill.

    A review of epistemological and theoretical principles of cultural materialism, arguing that it is well suited for any of anthropology’s subfields.

  • Harris, Marvin. 1995. Anthropology and postmodernism. In Science, materialism, and the study of culture. Edited by Martin M. Murphy and Maxine L. Margolis, 62–77. Gainesville: Univ. Press of Florida.

    In this essay Harris points out the absurdity of the postmodern position, asserting that if all truth is a fiction, then why believe in the validity of postmodernism? He also finds it difficult to believe that postmodernists actually live as they preach, to do so would mean never consulting a physician or lead to one to be killed while crossing a street.

  • Johnson, Allen, and Orna Johnson. 2001. Introduction to the updated edition. In Cultural materialism, the struggle for a science of culture. New York: Random House.

    Provides a good summary of the theory emphasizing the importance of a scientific anthropology in identifying errors and refining knowledge over time, the role of etics and emics in cultural materialism, and the role that infrastructural causation has in Harris’s system.

  • Price, Barbara J. 1982. Cultural materialism: A theoretical review. American Antiquity 47:709–741.

    DOI: 10.2307/280279

    The paper advocates cultural materialism as an explicit macro theory to provide direction for the subfield of archeology: this was a subfield that, like cultural anthropology and sociology, appears to be lacking coherence and direction. In fact, Price asserts, cultural materialism shares far more with archaeology—despite the difference in subject matter—than it does with the idealist tradition in cultural anthropology.

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