Cultural materialism: what is it and how does this research approach work?
This is cultural materialism, a research approach used in the social sciences.
Anthropology, especially throughout the 20th century, has developed a whole series of perspectives from which to approach analysis.
One of the best known is that of cultural materialism.. In this article we will review this concept, discover how it emerged and what are the main characteristics that differentiate it from other forms of anthropological studies, understanding the pros and cons of this methodology.
What is cultural materialism?
Cultural materialism refers to a certain way of orienting anthropological research, characterized by focusing precisely on the material issues of a society and thus being able to determine, based on them, the degree of development that this human group would have acquired.
It is a concept a concept created by the author Marvin Harris, an American anthropologist who developed his career in the second half of the last century and whose ideas are still in vogue today.. Of all his contributions, that of cultural materialism is the one that had the greatest impact and for which he is usually known within this field of knowledge.
His approach to this system was first seen in the book The Development of Anthropological Theory, which he published in 1968. Later he continued to deepen this concept and developed it extensively, through the volume Cultural Materialism, which was published in 1979.
In order to create this idea, Marvin Harris was influenced by other currents, especially by the socialist authors Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, and also by the work Oriental Despotism: A Comparative Study of Total Power, by the author Karl August Wittfogel. He also picked up ideas from other anthropologists, such as Lewis Henry Morgan, Sir Edward Burnett Tylor or Herbert Spencer.
The last influences that Marvin Harris took to develop the theory of cultural materialism were those of cultural evolution and cultural ecology, also from American anthropologists, and the work of the American anthropologists, Sir Edward Burnett Tylor and Herbert Spencer. of the American anthropologists Julian Haynes Steward and Leslie Alvin White, who provided the evolutionary touch from which his approach also draws.
Components of cultural materialism
For Marvin Harris, through cultural materialism it is possible to establish a distinction by levels of three different forms of societal systems, which would be infrastructure, structure and superstructure.
Infrastructure would be the most basic of these. This level relates to the most basic needs of society and the way in which they are being fulfilled.. This level would be acting as a foundation for the others.
The infrastructure would have two main aspects, which would be production, in terms of the form of technology that society employs and its ways of providing itself with food and energy resources, and reproduction, referring to all matters relating to the population level, either with measures that seek to increase, decrease or maintain it.
Above the infrastructure would be the structure, the second level of cultural materialism. At this level, the anthropological analysis would already be contemplating other more complex features of the social group, such as the way it is organized at the economic or political level.
In this vision of economic organization from domestic economies to the predominant economic systems at the global level.. Therefore, the exchange of resources at all levels will be studied. The same applies to the political structure, which will go from the particular, analyzing the roles of individuals at the family level, to the social distribution of the entire group.
The relationships between different groups or societies, the forms of economic and political interaction will also be taken into account. Likewise, the way in which work is distributed among the inhabitants and the hierarchies that are formed will be studied.
The third step in this series of levels that analyze the composition of a society, we reach the superstructure. This is the most complex level of all, and is supported by the previous two. In the superstructure, cultural materialism analyzes elements such as the ideology of the human group. elements such as the ideology of the human group under study, as well as the symbolic elements used by the group..
It is at this level that artistic issues, games and sports, rituals, religions, taboo concepts and any other issue whose nature makes it be included in the set of aspects of a society's thinking are included.
It must be understood that this scheme has a pyramid structure, so that the higher levels, although more complex, are subordinate to the lower ones. Every change at one level directly affects all those above it. In this sense, the level of infrastructure would be the most important of all, according to the thesis of cultural materialism.
However, although a change in the infrastructure implies a modification at the level of structure and superstructure, this alteration may not be immediate, but may require time to become evident.but may take time to become evident. Likewise, this does not mean that for the second or third level to be modified, the first level must necessarily change, since changes can occur without necessarily having altered the base.
In any case, if the changes come through this second way, it is true that the modifications, according to the model of cultural materialism, must be compatible with the existing base, that is, with the infrastructure, because otherwise, it will not be possible for a change of this typology to occur, since the base will not be able to sustain it because it is not in accordance with it.
Its epistemological basis
Epistemology is the way in which knowledge of a given field is arrived at. In this case, the epistemology of cultural materialism is achieved through the scientific method. Marvin Harris, creator of the model, argues that this means is the one that somehow guarantees the least number of mistakes and biases when obtaining knowledge, although it is not totally free of these problems.
In addition, the author warns of the problem of the fact that both the person conducting the study and the object of study itself are groups of human beings, since a person may behave differently when feeling evaluated, and this is a variable that must be taken into account when studying different cultures.
Following this question, Marvin Harris points out that it will be necessary to make a distinction between what people think and what they do, that is, between thoughts and behaviors. These two perspectives could be analyzed by means of the concepts emic and etic, which originally refer to phonology and phonetics, but which in this context indicate whether the point of view is that of the native speaker (emic) or that of the observer (etic).
In this way, cultural materialism can contemplate both the perspective of the society being analyzed and that of the anthropologist who is analyzing that social group, in order to obtain the dimensions of thoughts and behaviors and to be able to unite both visions in a final scheme, supported by two different bases, which will enrich the information we have.
Criticisms of this perspective
Although cultural materialism has been a very popular theory, this does not mean that it has not had its detractors. There are different criticisms of this model. For example, the author Jonathan Friedman considers that this system is too reductionist and that it places all the weight on the environmental context and forms of technology, making all the other components of society develop in accordance with them.
Postmodernism has also criticized Marvin Harris's model, in this case for the use of the scientific method, which for the defenders of this doctrine would not be the only way to reach the truth and therefore there would be other ways of analyzing societies, obtaining different perspectives.and obtaining different perspectives.
For his part, James Lett criticizes cultural materialism on epistemological grounds, considering that it cannot be truly materialist, since between the material and the immaterial no causal relationships could be established. Instead, he suggests that we should speak of correlations.
Finally, the author Stephen K. Sanderson is also skeptical of the approaches of cultural materialism, since he considers that Marvin Harris uses this model to deal with complex concepts such as differences in birth rates or incest, when, according to him, these phenomena belong to the same phenomena. according to him, such phenomena belong to the field of social biology..
These are some of the criticisms that this theory has faced, despite enjoying great popularity among other authors and sectors of anthropology.
(Updated at Mar 28 / 2023)