Materialism: Evolutionary, Functionalist and Ecological

How is Marx present in the “Materialism: Evolutionary, Functionalist and Ecological Traditions?
-Morton Fried, On the Evolution of Social Stratification and the State (1960)
-Marvin Harris, The Cultural Ecology of India’s Sacred Cattle (1966)
-Philippe Bourgois, “From Jibaro to Crack Dealer: Confronting the Restructuring of Capitalism in El Barrio” (1995)

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  • Selena Farnesi  On March 17, 2009 at 12:11 am

    I once heard a story that gave an explanation for why Catholics don’t eat meat on Fridays. The story believed the tradition was passed down and altered from the fasting practices prior to the death of Jesus Christ. Apparently the government instructed everyone to eat only fish on Tuesdays and Thursdays because they had a special interest in boosting the fish market since fish was taxable and meat was not because meat was a luxury for the rich. Once Jesus was crucified, his followers started fasting on Wednesday and Friday to mourn the day Judas turned against Jesus, and the day Jesus was crucified; in addition not fasting on the proper days was a protest against the government that had crucified Jesus. The practice of fasting on Wednesdays and Fridays was passed down and altered through generation and now takes form as Catholic’s “Fish Friday” during the Lenten seasons.

    I do not know whether this story is actually true or not, however, if it were it would be evidence to support Harris’ view that religious practice often stem from political or economic endeavors that also benefit the culture. And even though I have only be told this story and have not seen any academic proof it is true, it seems that too parallels Harris’ experience since his essay on the sacred cows of India was written even though Harris had never been to India or had any personal relation with the Hindu religion.

  • Jessica  On March 17, 2009 at 3:35 am

    An Indian newspaper editorial read:

    The alarming increase of stray and wild cattle over wide areas of Northern India is fast becoming a major disincetive to crop cultivation…Popular sentiment against cow slaughter no doubt lies at the back of the problem. People prefer to let their aged, diseased, and otherwise useless cattle live at the expense of other people’s crops (Indian Expess, New Delhi, 7 February 1959).

    The farmers whose crops were threatened were a privileged group of people. Ten percent of the Indian agricultural population owned more than half the total cultivated area. Twenty two percent of rural households owned no land at all.
    The anti-slaughter laws primarily effected people growing cash crops for narrow commericial,urban, and landed sectors of the population.

    The owners of the cows didn’t care if the farmer’s crops were eaten, because they didn’t personally benefit from the farmer’s efforts.

    The best dairy cows were found in the cities, since the high cost of feeding the cows in a city could only be offset by good milking qualities. Cows were slaughtered at the end of their first urban lactation period because it was too expensive to maintain them while awaiting another pregnacy. Calfs born to the cows were killed after they had stimulated the cows’ flow of milk. The best dairy cattle were prevented from breeding, while animals with progressively poorer milking qualities reproduced in the country. At least fifty thousand high-yielding cows and she-buffalos from Madras, Bombay, and Calcutta were “annually sent to premature slaughter” and were “lost to the country”(which was extremely wasteful).

    People from low castes cured hides and were given the right to eat meat from dead cattle-they were referred to as carrion eaters. Cows were important to marginal low caste and out caste farmers for this reason.

    Evidently, the cows are a part of a class conflict between those who own land and those who don’t. While Marvin Harris recognized the issue as a class conflict, he didn’t see it as a catalyst for cultural change.

    Marvin Harris believed that modes of production and reproduction, or infrastructure, determined a society’s behaviors and beliefs. An American materialist, he minimized the role of conflict. Neomarxists felt that the ecological materialists transformed Marxist analysis to mechanistic vulgar materialism.

  • Kathryn Pesch  On March 19, 2009 at 6:24 pm

    I agree with both above. Culture and economy have a lot to do with one another. As she stated above in India the cows run wild and they live on the streets and no one keeps them locked up. I was in India a year ago and the only way they keep their cows where they want them is on a leash almost. It doesn’t matter what caste system you are in India, everyone has cows. It is a law in India to now kill cows and to keep them protected because of their religious beliefs. In a lot of other countries besides the US there are laws based off of religious views.

  • Joy  On March 19, 2009 at 6:43 pm

    Marx is present in Materialism, through the emphasis on the material causes of societal customs and progression. Fried saw the evolution of social stratification as driven by the efficient use of energy and the ability for all members to equally access the resources brought into the society. Thus, this emergent stratification of society, with its end result as a state, is dependent upon unequal allocation of resources among the different levels of people in society (Marxist class struggle). Furthermore, this unequal allocation of resources arises as energy is more efficiently used, through development of such techniques as irrigation. Private land ownership ensues, and thus a reflection of Marx again appears, in that private land ownership only serves to further increase the stratification and magnitude of unequal appropriation of capital within society. Harris also shows that cultural customs can be understood from solely material and economic causes, reflecting the materialist view that Marx held.
    This return to materialism and evolutionism, however, seems to again, for the sake of parsimony, over-emphasize the material causes of society and culture, neglecting that other, sometimes more complicated, human factors affect societal progression and custom.

  • Kathryne J  On March 19, 2009 at 6:57 pm

    These examples from Harris’ theories are really good. At one time, cows were an extremely helpful commodity, mostly for work labor in agriculture. To reinforce these practical views, the cattle’s protection was cemented in sacred law. It has since then gotten completely out of hand.

    This demonstrates that the modes of production in society can dictate behavior and beliefs in society. This can be applied to many an example today, like Selena’s Catholic fish-eaters. But I also believe it can be applied to non-religious things. For example, the automobile was invented for transportation or for hauling materials farther distances. Today, automobiles are status symbols that are believed to be necessary to have, despite other means of public transportation. Another thing that has gotten out of hand, despite other economic alternatives.

  • caseyc  On March 19, 2009 at 7:35 pm

    I have to comment on Bourgois, since I’m presenting on him tonight. Bourgois is considered Neo-Marxist, which will be explained tonight, of course. Neo-Marxists vary from traditional Marxism in the fact that they do not believe society is progressing to a “communist utopia”, although most Neo-Marxists are still heavily critical of capitalist society. The issues of conflict and tension between classes is still found in Neo-Marxism. This is obvious in Bourgois writings, he covers his time living in the crack era of the late 80’s and early 90’s in Spanish Harlem. The classic Marx study of subjects and their relation to work is demonstrated in Bourgois’ analysis of street level crack dealers. I could go on and on, but then I wouldn’t have a presentation would I?! So I leave with one of the key points I found in the text, The Ethnographic Endeavor, how do we understand abstract, non-tangible structures when we are dealing with single individuals and their personal and cultural histories?…..

  • Merrily McCarthy  On March 19, 2009 at 8:38 pm

    Tomb Of The Undug

    American archealogists have been digging
    …our links to the age old past
    They have dug thru the old Inca Temples
    …preserving their artifacts with labels and cast.

    Into the steamy Mayan jungles they tromped
    …hoping to locate more ancient battle wear
    So they can prop it up at a museum exhibit
    …charging admission at their annual fund affair.

    Egyptian governments have opened their doors
    …allowing us to disrespect their mummified dead
    Just so we can proudly display their king
    …who no longer has blood, nor brains in his head.

    We purchase expensive history courses in our colleges
    …to learn their ways, to make our society better and right
    Then we travel to far off India for further study
    …cause their COW DUNG works better to turn on our light.

    Maybe one day leaders of other nations will regress
    …And how will we feel if the trend should reverse
    When foreigners ask to open the tombs of Washington or Lincoln
    …showing them off to their countrymen by way of black hearse.

    Or post thumously resurrecting the Kennedy graves
    …Taxiderming Presidents Jack and ol brother Bob
    So stuffed, they can be spun and studied after the fact of demise
    …Thus a reminder, of all the other Presidents graves to be robbed.

    Then there are the Mahatma Ganhdi’s of religion
    …who might just get a kick out of unearthing President Grant’s tombs
    Because ever since the Buddhist statues were demolished in dirt
    …India and other places can offer plenty of spacious empty rooms.

    Westerners seem to have a self centered passion
    …Idling time with day dreams, creating historical fanciful fads
    But Easterners might catch us off guard as we sleep
    …When awakening, we discover, our own displayed, gilded Nads.

    Epilogue Of Tomb Of The Undug

    How thoughtful of China to share with us
    …their most honored past monarchs of the throne.
    They graciously saved face by sharing minor knowledge
    …but laughed as to redirect attention from all they own.

    What if we were to pull ancient Queen Elizabeth
    …out in the open air, into full public sight
    Her skeleton replete with jewels, ruffs, and puffed skirt
    …Now, this would give her obedient subjects a fright!

    Or what if Osama is still burdened with a burning desire
    …for Elvis’s Graceland Memorial to be trolled
    He, wishing his ashes to be thereupon interred
    …with his own legacy on Elvis’s tombstone to be scrolled.

    These deeds tis true, Americans so have unregretably done
    …With no afterthought of conscience, not even a scold
    Because Americans firmly believe it is their given right
    …to seek, dig up, and display, everything foreign and old.

    by Merrily McCarthy

  • Merrily McCarthy  On March 19, 2009 at 8:44 pm

    The cow dung article by Marvin Harris was truely fascinating as well simple. I can relate to this process of the sacred cow having been raised on a dairy with 400 cows. They were not neglected and were used for meat, milk and tallow. Our cows were part of the total economic American of the 1930s clean on up to the 1980’s. Depending on your point of perception “it was a lot of methane” and I had to breathe it constantly every day, morning, noon and night. I think I became a shallow breather because if I inhaled too strongely, the methane was overwhelming in my lungs and I experienced a burning sensation. There are inumberable off color jokes that could be made here, I choose not to make them and I think I have heard them all!

  • empfresnostate  On March 19, 2009 at 9:57 pm

    I see Harris’ point about the cow. The cow becoming a religious symbol may have not been intentional. The animal does offer many sources that provide sustenance to man whether for external or nutritional value. Religions can manifest as a way of social control. Not as a way for someone to rise in power, but as a way for people to live socially in harmony. The cow, providing much more than just milk, is the center piece of that harmony.
    On Burgois’ article, I related personally to many of the examples he gave. I think that the subjects in his ethnography share two cultures one being their work culture and the other being their barrio culture. Even though the workers and their bosses are both (possibly born and raised) from the U.S., they come from a different culture. I don’t mean the Puerto Rican or Mexican one; I mean the “work” type of culture. I used to work in a retail business and moved up in the ranks to become a manager of the place. I was let go for not fitting the picture of what a manager should look like. I was also reprimanded on a few occasions for not speaking “like a manager.” Doesn’t the Sapir-Whorf theory fit in with Burgois?

  • Felicia  On March 19, 2009 at 11:02 pm

    Marx was influenced by Morgan’s notion that societies moved from more primitive to more civilized stages of development. Marx then developed his version with notion that societies transitioned from primitive communism, through capitalism, to communism. Marx continued with this notion that “stages are judged in terms of the modes of production which dominate each stage.” The infrastructure of a society is formed by this mode of production. Harris took this idea of the infrastructure and the mode of production to develop his idea of cultural materialism. The modes of production are the means and relations of production, and in the case of cultural materialism it was religious and cultural beliefs, practices, and institutions that formed the infrastructure or the base of a society. However, Harris did reject Marxist dialectics, but did insist that the infrastructure determines the beliefs and the behaviors of a society.

  • theanthrogeek  On March 19, 2009 at 11:40 pm

    You guys really get how this blog is intended to work;
    Great illustrations (particularly the fishy Catholics and the dung one); and great peotry from merrily;
    I cannot wait to hear about casey’s work on crack!!

  • Josh "marky mark" Tibbet  On March 19, 2009 at 11:45 pm

    I will speak in Haiku

    The cows are of use
    But could they afford bigger?
    The cattle complex.

    I like how the poor people let their cows eat the rich farmer’s crops. talk about social justice man. No hopes of dowry’s there, haha, jk. (possible spelling error on Dowry).

    Marxism would probably work better for these people. if they distributed the cows better, then the over crowding would not be so much of an issue, and they could bring on more cows without the worry of causing famine in centralized areas.

  • Mark  On March 20, 2009 at 12:25 am

    I do have to agree that there is a certain amount of materialist thought behind certain cultural practices. I remember my dad telling me a story when I was a kid about a group of people who had become stranded on an island that was constantly being thrashed by waves. So to keep control the waves they built high walls, which ended up working pretty well. The people formed a society and many generations passed. So many, that the children of the society forgot why the walls had been constructed in the first place, they had taken on religious meaning. The the only things they knew is that the walls were there to keep out “bad things” which they attributed to evil.
    Anyways, explorers discovered this island and the people and criticized them about the walls. Saying that it was foolish to have walls to keep out evil and there was no such thing, and that they should tear the walls down so they could see the ocean and all its beauty. So they did. And the waves which were being kept out by the walls, came in and destroyed the society.
    Although I don’t believe that the reasons why cows are sacred is that if we eat them, society will be destroyed. But I don’t doubt that the beliefs origin somehow stems from a practical solution to a problem. If we eat all our cows, we starve. Something like that.
    Hell, christmas was instituted on a Pegan holiday in order to ensure conversion. The initial holiday wasn’t pegan or created for a material purpose, but the day on which it presides is. Same goes for Halloween and even the christmas tree. Taking images and revamping them to meet certain goals or needs.

  • brandi  On March 20, 2009 at 12:37 am

    Actually, Marx was influenced by Hegel. Hegel felt that conflict created progess through stages that would eventually lead to perfection. It’s why Marx and Engel promoted the idea in the Communist Manifesto that there had to be a two part revolution (a bourgeois and a proletariat) that would lead to the ultimate socialism. Capitalism was seen as evil because it degraded the individual’s worth while taking the production item and make it worth more than the person and the time it took them to create the item. It was seen as selling themselves for a small wage. Plus, Marx did not care for the idea of private property or inheritance but instead believed in a collective. The Neo-Marxists did continue with this dialectic view of class struggle while the cultural materialists are the ones that “firmly insist on the primacy of modes of production and reproduction” or what Harris called “infrastructure”. Basically, that the parts of religion like sacred cattle are made sacred because of their importance in the survival of society. Besides that Meillassoux and Godlier believed “…that Marx’s work provided the basic insights for the analysis of traditional society but that, because his writings had focused primarily on the development of capitalism in Europe, they could not be applied directly to ethnographic analysis”. His work had to be adapted, which is sensible since Marx was an atheist that believed God was merely an opiate for the masses.So production value would have had to be the key factor behind making cows sacred and not religion.

  • Patricia  On March 21, 2009 at 11:35 pm

    Archealogical evidence found dating from 4000-3500 B.C. in the form of painted scenes on pottery, carvings, and statues at Obeid in Iraq in the same archeological strata shows many depictions of naked goddesses standing, holding or nursing infants and associated symbols suggesting the head of a bull with long curving horns. This is suggestive of the myth centered around a Moon-goddess and Moon-Bull. This myth was depicted on Halaf ware of the Syro-Cilician corner that tells of a Moon-Goddess who was fertilized by the Moon-Bull who dies and is resurrected. They were leading fertility symbols of that period, roughly 4000-3500 B.C.

    Sacred temples of the Mother-Goddess found in India have the same oval design as the temples found in Iran and all have an innermost shrine that is suggestive of female genitalia, which was symbolic of the “generative force of nature by analogy” with the childbearing and nurishing powers of the female.

    Polychrome mosaics found at the ruins of a goddess temple at Obeid show several priests milking sacred cows, straining and storing the milk. The goddess who was honored in that temple was NINSURHAG who was considered Mother of the Universe and all men, gods, and beasts. She was patroness and guardian of the kings whom she nourished with “her blessed milk” which was taken from the sacred cows through whom she was said to have functioned.

    It is a short trip to get from there to the cows being sacred themselves because they represent her and their milk being sacred because it comes from the sacred cows.

    There is a group (Todas) who live in the Nilgiri hills who worship a goddess named Togorsh. They have small temple compounds that are dairies where they keep cattle that they worship. Their chief sacrifice is a calf which is the symbolic son of the mother (goddess). They offer a prayer to their goddess Togorsh that includes the word NINHURSAG which they can’t interpret.

    Could the myth have been one of the reasons for the sacred cows? The milk had to be produced for the Kings to flourish and by making the cows sacred, there would always be a supply of fresh milk. And since the cows were sacred they would not be stolen from the temples and sacred barns to house them. The cows would also produce calves for the sacrifices which would provide meat for the whole community. I can see how this would be very beneficial to those in a smaller close community.

    In modern day India, if you visit one of the temples of the Goddess, you will be served milk and rice or other dairy-type food which is given as her bounty (prasad).

  • Madoka  On March 2, 2010 at 4:18 pm

    The Marx way of thinking is based on dialectics as a philosophy. This idea is a method used to understand the changing or developing of the world and other things. When focusing on a subject to understand it concretely, the process of thinking of the subject freely is dialectics. However I believe depending on the philosopher, the contents of dialectics will deviate. That means to recognize all of dialectics as Marx’s ideas is mistake.

  • Jason McClung  On March 7, 2010 at 11:28 pm

    Before I begin, I must admit that I’m a Recovering Materialist. There, I said it.

    Harris argues that the religious doctrine, or ahimsa, doesn’t itself have power, but is granted power based on the economic benefit the cows provide to both man and cow. The slaughtering of cows is forbidden because the cow fills a Darwinian niche that builds up the ecosystem through several mechanisms such as dung, milk, and labor.

    Cow’s milk, though each cow produces less than 1/50 the milk of an American cow, makes up half of the dairy products produced in India, giving economic benefit. Further, cows are to Indians what horses and buffalo were to pre-industrial agrarian America, providing the traction to plow grain fields. Even further, the dung cows produce is the number one fuel for domestic cooking and other uses.

    In light of that evidence, there is a direct economic benefit to keeping a cow alive over eating it, even if it works the other way in America. The religious doctrine, to Harris, developed as an extension of this material fact.

    Also of note, Harris draws up a note about emic (the emotional aspect) and etic (the scientific aspect) of arguments, and how in the past people muddled the two together concerning India (religion and economics) producing arguments that conflicted with each other (religious keeping vs. economic slaughter) without looking at Harris’ argument of milk, labor and dung.

    – Jason

  • TheAnthroGeek  On March 9, 2010 at 10:53 am

    Hi, I’m TheAnthroGeek, and I too an a recovering materialist. The arguments of Harris and others of his ilk are so easy to accept and I too have found myself falling into the beloved simplicity of it all.

  • Adrianna Salinas  On March 9, 2010 at 3:58 pm

    Eric Wolf describes the difference between peasants and primitives. Primitives occupy simple systems, meaning they control every aspect of production. Peasants on the other hand produce their own sustenance, but are also obligated to give a portion of it to the wealthier land owner’s. Wolf uses Marxist ideals through out the article. Especially, when he explains the peasantry as a mode of production. By this Wolf means that the wealthy more powerful land owners use them for their sustenance. If the peasantry does not share a portion of their crop, these owners are likely to remove them from their land. They are forever indebted to them.

  • Charon193 (Christina Knapp)  On March 11, 2010 at 10:28 am

    The Marxist view is present when these authors state that current customs are done for economic reasons rather than the religious ones that the people portray. Everything happens so that people can have access to materials and use them for themselves. This leads to all of the evils, in materialist views, that make up the capitalist governments. Not to sound like Freud or anything, but could the economics surrounding these customs be a subconscious effect and not actually an intended product? Take the sacred cows for instance. The people believe them to be sacred, but is it really because of the economic value of them? Is it even for religious reasons? Is it possible that when these people first saw cows that they just felt that they deserved respect for some unknown reason? To analyze the reasons for the cows sacredness, in my opinion, is like trying to analyze why people fall in love. You have all of these theories, but they can never be proven. Scientists say it is a result of chemical attraction while romantics call it fate. Can’t things just happen for no reason, mystical, scientific, or otherwise?

  • Megan Scholl  On March 11, 2010 at 8:16 pm

    I’m really not sure how Marxism ties into the articles, though I know it does somehow, since previous posters have found ways. My mind’s not really working with me right now, but I did have a remark. What I found really interesting about this week’s articles was Marvin Harris’ “The Cultural Ecology of India’s Sacred Cattle.” The thing I found interesting about it is how I think more cultures around the world could benefit from the same thing. Rather than just killing the cow and eating the meat, keeping it alive for its feces and milk is more productive. Meat can be gotten in other ways and from other means. (Hell, I barely eat meat as it is, and I’m perfectly healthy!). Keeping the cow alive means milk for the family (and possibly to sell), dung to be used as fertilizer and for anything else it may be useful for, and a strong animal to assist with labor. These are things that can be used over and over and over again. When it comes to a cow’s beef, you kill the cow, eat the meat, and that’s it. That cow’s gone forever. It’s better to kill the weaker animals for their meat and save the stronger ones for everything mentioned above.

    Many people today raise animals simply for slaughter rather than anything else. They don’t use the chickens for their eggs or feathers, but only their meat. I know that we do have places like dairy farms for cow milk and beef farms for the meat, but I like the way the natives thought in this article; they’re in the right line of thinking.

    This probably wasn’t a useful comment, but I found the stuff interesting, nonetheless!

  • Nicole Giglio  On March 11, 2010 at 10:33 pm

    “Human society is neither random nor capricious. The regularities of thought and behavior called culture are the principal mechanisms by which we human beings adapt to the world around us. Practices and beliefs can be rational or irrational, but a society that fails to adapt to its environment is doomed to extinction. Only those societies that draw the necessities of life from their surroundings without destroying those surroundings, inherit the earth.”

    I find myself at odds with this passage, agreeing and disagreeing with it at the same time. I believe that as humans we must evolve and adapt, but I don’t think that we should rule out randomness altogether.

    Christina made an excellent point concerning anthropologists and scientists trying to explain away cultural choices as specifically economic or religious or what have you. Giving a material item a mystical or special designation simply to protect its economic value is a decent assumption. But I do worry, in all these theories, that we may assume or think too far into the meanings of some things.

    Or maybe my brain is just fried and I’m coming up with excuses.

    And I don’t even know if I’m a recovering materialist, I may have chosen to simply succumb.

  • Patrick Stumpf  On March 11, 2010 at 11:46 pm

    These authors certainly remind me of Marx. Marx believed that the nature of the individual and of society rested upon the material conditions in determining production. Production and labor create society, not the other way around!
    Fried especially reflects this when he states that “the conditions of emergence of rank and stratificationas pristine phenomena are simply obscured when the impetus to change is the introduction of aspects of a market economy”. Even in the “rank society” power comes with material resources.

  • Audra  On March 12, 2010 at 8:50 am

    In the article, ‘The Cultural Ecology of India’s Sacred Cattle,’ I am reminded of the stories of the Lakota Nation and the ‘Indian Pony’ which are known as the Spanish Mustang today. The Lakota Nation believed that their horses were sacred. An animal that could carry a man through battle, hunt buffalo, and travel for miles without needing to stop must be a sacred animal.

    The Lakota Nation particularly used these horses and bred these horses for several purposes. One of the most important uses for the Spanish Mustang was to hunt buffalo which is not an easy thing to hunt. Buffalo might seem slow but they are able to change direction quickly which makes it more dangerous for hunters. However, with the use of the Spanish Mustang it made it safer. These horses were so intelligent that the Lakota were able to train a horse to ride out by itself (withouts a rider) and herd the buffalo towards the group of mounted hunters. If the buffalo would suddenly turn on the rider the horse would be able to turn just as fast to escape being injured.

    In essence, the Spanish Mustang made hunting safer and more plentiful. This is probably one of the main reasons that the horse was adopted into the Lakota culture. It was also why the Spanish Mustang was considered sacred and not a food source. The horses brought more food than their bodies could give and they provided safety for the hunter/warriors.

  • pao kue  On March 12, 2010 at 12:35 pm

    Marx and Morgan have very similar ideas. They both hypothesize that society develops and evolve in stages from material resources. Also, in Morton H. Fried’s “On the Evolution of Stratification and the State”, he admits that evolution of a society occurs in stages, specifically Stages A (egalitarian society), Stages B (rank society), Stages C (stratification society), and Stages D (state society). According to Fried, he said that the development of a kin, group, or society, its evolution occurs in stages, and that one stage triggers the next until it reaches status of the state society. Similarly to Marx, they argue that it is the accomplishment of production, labor, and inventories advancement that builds a new society.

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