Home » Disciplines & Subdisciplines » Subdisciplines » Cultural Materialism

Cultural Materialism


Soo Kyung Lim *Posted May 1998

(click these links to travel through the document)






I. Basic Idea

Cultural Materialism is a scientific research strategy that prioritizes material, behavioral and etic processes in the explanation of the evolution of human socio-cultural systems. It was first introduced by Marvin Harris in The Rise of Anthropological Theory (1968). Harris is the originator of, and has remained the main figure in, cultural materialism. He insists that the primary task of anthropology is to give causal explanations for the differences and similarities in the thoughts and behaviors of human groups.

II. Background


The basic element of cultural materialism comes from Steward’s cultural ecology; the idea that socio-cultural adaptation is achieved through the interaction of a human population with its environment.

However, in some points Harris disagrees with Steward.

A. Environment:

Steward sees environment as both a passive background and an influence on culture. Harris argues instead that the interaction of people and environment forms one system. Harris’ schema thus considers environmental changes in a way that Steward’s does not.

B. Culture:

Steward conceives of cultures as sets of traits, while Harris sees culture as a system built on the interrelation of different aspects of religion, politics, and kinship. Therefore, while Steward tends to isolate different cultural practices into traits, Harris sees the practices as systemically interrelated.

C. Society:

Steward views social organization, demography, and levels of integration as sub-sets of culture traits. Harris sees the interrelations of different aspects of social organization as manifestations of relations between different kinds of groups and networks, with differing status and roles.


Cultural materialists are concerned with causality in socio-cultural systems and believe it may be sought through the study of the material constraints that human societies are subjected. Such constraints act on the need to produce food or shelter and to reproduce the population. These can be renamed as infrastructure. In that cultural materialists prioritize material constraints to explain socio-cultural systems, they are descendents of Marx, building on his notion of historical or dialectical materialism. However, cultural materialism does not take the position that anthropology must become part of a political movement aimed at destroying capitalism. Cultural materialism allows diverse political motivation. Cultural materialism does not see all cultural change as resulting from dialectical contradictions, but argues that cultural evolution results from the gradual accumulation of useful traits through a process of trial and error.


Harris was also influenced by Skinner’s reductionism. Skinner, as a behavioral psychologist, wanted to explain everything, even art, religion, and language, by simple mechanisms. He reduced the complications of human personality to stimulus-response. Harris worked in behaviorist psychology and was also interested in people’s behavior, seeking to explain all human behavior with his theory of cultural materialism.

III. Theoretical Approach

Cultural materialism considers that all socio-cultural systems consist of three levels: infrastructure, structure and superstructure.

1. Behavior
2. Mental

1. Domestic economy
2. Political economy

1. Production
2. Reproduction


A. Mode of Production: the technology and the practices employed for expanding or limiting basic subsistence production, especially the production of food and other forms of energy.

B. Mode of reproduction: the technology and the practices employed for expanding, limiting and maintaining population size.


A. Domestic Economy: Consists of a small number of people who interact on an intimate basis. They perform many functions, such as regulating reproduction, basic production, socialization, education, and enforcing domestic discipline.

B. Political economy: These groups may be large or small, but their members tend to interact without any emotional commitment to one another. They perform many functions, such as regulating production, reproduction, socialization, and education, and enforcing social discipline.


A. Behavior Superstructure

Art, music, dance, literature, advertising


Sports, games, hobbies


B. Mental superstructure




(Harris 1979:52-53)

Infrastructural Determinism: The major principle of cultural materialism is that the modes of production and reproduction determine structure and structure determines superstructure. The argument that priority should be given to infrastructure is based in the idea that society adapts to the environment through infrastructural practices. Harris argues that studies in anthropology should give infrastructure-focused studies the “strategic priority,” because, if the goal of science is to find out law-like generalizations, then one should start by studying “the greatest direct restraints from the givens of nature”(Harris 1979:57). Cultural materialism does not hold that all system changes come from alternations in the infrastructure. Nor does cultural materialism argue that the structure and superstructure are just passive reactors. They do influence infrastructure. However, if changes in a superstructure or structure are not compatible with the existing modes of production and reproduction, those superstructural or structural changes are not effective or lasting. Infrastructural determinism proposes a probabilistic relationship among these three levels. Therefore when we notice a superstructural or structural change of a society, we have to look at its infrastructure first. Marvin Harris explains the collapse of Soviet and East European communism with this paradigm. (See Harris 1992)

IV. Epistemological Approach

Epistemological principles of cultural materialism are specific to the study of human sociocultural systems. For cultural materialists, sociocultural facts have four aspects.

Emic (phonemic)- native’s viewpoint

Etic (phonetic)- observer’s viewpoint

Behavior events – the body’s motions

Mental events – thoughts and feelings

Cultural materialists divide data collection and organization into emic and etic analyses.

Emic analysis depends entirely on an informant’s explanation. If informants agree on a description or interpretation of data, the data is considered correct.

Etic analysis does not rely on an informant’s description alone, but on explication provided by many observers using agreed-on scientific measures. Emic and etic analyses can add mental and behavior analyses. Therefore they can be

The emics of behavior : Informant’s description of a native’s behavior.

The emics of thought : Informant’s description of a native’s thought.

The etics of behavior : Observer’s explication of a native’s behavior.

The etics of thought : Observer’s explication of a native’s thought.

Cultural materialism rejects the research strategy restricted to the emics of thought only, which is the idealists’ favorite. Instead, cultural materialists think both emic and etic analyses should go together.

V. Methodology

Cultural materialism itself is a research methodology. It prefers

· Quantitative methods: Demography, caloric yields

· Ethnography

· Archeological research

· Etic as well as emic analyses.

VI. Issues

· Food and protein

· Food and evolution

· Demography, Population regulation

· Warfare, culture and environment

VII. Reaction

In the 1970’s when cultural materialism was introduced, American anthropology split into two groups: those who argued for the humanities and those, including cultural materialists, who advocated an anthropology modeled on natural science. Those who were opposite to cultural materialism argued that anthropology is a humanistic discipline. Geertz argued that “it is not an experimental science in search of law but an interpretive one in search of meaning”(Geertz 1973:5). Moore doubted the validity of etic analysis, asking “how can we be so dismissive of the informant’s emic viewpoint if culture is rooted in values and meanings held by individuals?”(Moore 1996:200) Most of the reactions to cultural materialism are against infrastructural determinism and the prioritization of etic behavior analysis.

VIII. Where are they (as of 1998)?

The key figure of cultural materialism is its originator, Marvin Harris. He is a graduate research professor at the University of Florida in Gainesville.

Eric Ross: Used to be at Univ. of Michigan, but now in the Hague.

Brian Ferguson: Rutgers: State Univ. of New Jersey.

John Cole: Univ. of Massachusetts.

Fredrick Gamst: Univ. of Massachusetts.

Conrad Kottak: Univ. of Michigan.

Gerald Murray: Univ. of Florida.

Robert Paynter: Univ. of Massachusetts.

Jane Schneider: Graduate School – CUNY

Allen W. Johnson: Univ. of California at Los Angels.

David H. Price: Saint Martin’s College.

Carol Ember: Hunter College – CUNY.

Morgan D. MacLachlan: Univ. of South California.

Stephen Sanderson: Cornel Univ.

(For this list, I refer to the authors of Beyond the Myths of Culture and Science, Materialism and the Study of Culture.)


Ferguson, R. Brian.

1984 Warfare, Culture, and Environment. New York: Academic Press, INC.

Harris, Marvin.

1968 The Rise of Anthropological Theory. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell.

1974 Cows, Pigs, Wars and Witches: The Riddles of Culture. New York: Random House.

1979 Cultural Materialism: The Struggle for a Science of culture. New York: Random House.

1992 “Anthropology and the Theoretical and Paradigmatic Significance of the collapse of Soviet and East European Communism.” American anthropologist 94:295-305.

1995 Cultural Anthropology. 4th ed. New York: Harper Collins College Publishers.

Headland, Thomas, K. Pike, and Marvin Harris, eds.

1990 Emics and Etics: The Insider/Outsider Debate. Newbury Park, California: Sage Publication.

Levinson, David & Melvin Ember eds.

1996 Encyclopedia of Cultural Anthropology. New York: Hery Holt and Company.

Moore, Jerry D. Ed.

1996 Visions of Culture. Newbury Park, CA: Sage Pubns.

Murphy, Martin F. and Maxine L. Margolis, Eds.

1995 Science, Materialism, and the Study of Culture. Gainesville: Univ. Press of Florida.

Ross, Eric B. Ed.

1980 Beyond the Myths of Culture: Essays in Cultural Materialism. New York: Academic Press.

Orlove, Ben. anthro 133. Department of Environmental Science and Policy, University of California, Davis.


For further reference

Ember, Carol, and David Levins.

1991 “The Substantive Contributions of worldwide Cross-cultural Studies Using secondary Data.” Behavior Science Research 25: 79-140.

Ferguson, B.

1989 “Game wars? Ecology and Conflict in Amazonia.” Journal of Anthropological Research 45:179-206.

Johnson, Allen W., and Timothy K. Earle.

1987 The Evolution of Human society: from Foraging Group to agrarian State. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press.

Keeley, Lawrence.

1988 “Hunter-Gatherer Economic Complexity and ‘Population Pressure’: A Cross-cultural analysis.” Journal of Anthropological Archaeology 7:373- 411.

Leavitt, Gregory.

1986 “Ideology and the Materialist Model of General Evolution.” Social Forces 65:525-553.

Sanders, William T., Robert S. Santley, and Jeffrey R.Parsons.

1979 The Basin of Mexico: Ecological Processes in the Evolution of a Civilization. New York: Academic Press.

Sanders, Stephen K.

1990 Social Evolutionism: A Critical History. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.

Skinner, B. F.

1984 “Selection by Consequences.” Behavioral and Brain science 7:477-510.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *