Materialism: Evolutionary, Functionalist, Ecological, and Marxist

While Marvin Harris‘ contributions to anthropology are widely respected, they do not represent the only views within that field. It has been said that “Other anthropologists and observers had almost as many opinions about Dr. Harris as he had about why people behave as they do.  A prolific writer, he was highly influential in the development of cultural materialism. In his work he combined Karl Marx’s emphasis on the forces of production with Thomas Malthus’s insights on the impact of demographic factors on other parts of the sociocultural system. Labeling demographic and production factors as infrastructure, Harris posited these factors as key in determining a society’s social structure and culture. Harris’ earliest work began in the Boasian tradition of descriptive anthropological fieldwork, but his fieldwork experiences in Mozambique in the late 1950s caused him to shift his focus from ideological features of culture, toward behavioral aspects.  While Harris’ contributions to anthropology are widely respected, they do not represent the only views within that field. It has been said that “Other anthropologists and observers had almost as many opinions about Dr. Harris as he had about why people behave as they do.

Morton Fried a distinguished Professor of Anthropology at Columbia University in New York City from 1950 until his death in 1986. He made considerable contributions to the fields of social and political theory.  His cohort included Elman Service, Eric Wolf, Sidney Mintz and Stanley Diamond. His first graduate teaching assistant was Marvin Harris and his first graduate student was Marshall Sahlins. Fried is best known for his works in cultural evolution’s social and political aspects. In the midst of his fame he wrote many works such as The Evolution of Political Society in 1967, State: The Institution in 1968, On the Evolution of Social Stratification and the State and the exceptionally important The Classification of Corporate Unilineal Descent Groups in 1957.

Philippe Bourgois a student of Eric Wolf and influenced by the work of French social theorists Pierre Bourdieu and Michel Foucault, he is considered an important proponent of neo-Marxist theory and of critical medical anthropology.  Much of Bourgois’s work examines how macro-power forces shape individual behavior and intimate relations. Since the mid-1990s his research has been funded by HIV prevention grants from the National Institutes of Health and has focused on the survival strategies of homeless drug users. Since moving to the University of Pennsylvania in 2007 he has initiated fieldwork on drugs and violence among street youth in North Philadelphia.

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  • jesteenburns  On March 5, 2012 at 11:58 am

    The section from Eric Wolf was a good read. As I was reading I felt like he addressed of tweaked some of the problems with pervious readings. Firstly I like the article in general, but I loved how it mostly had to do with larger civilizations, most notably Europe. When Mead had previously described her need to go to Samoa, she had many discouraging words toward studying a culture so close to one’s own, perhaps I have misunderstood her meaning, or have taken this out of context, but at that time I could not help but ask myself: ‘’But shouldn’t someone still do this’’. To me there were plenty of important things that need and should be studied about one’s own cultural set up, and I am glad to see that someone else too saw the importance of it.
    Another portion that I really liked is how he shows the same things takes different effects in different contexts, fostered by individual culture reactions toward what was happening. This is really the call against my largest problem with earlier versions of evolution. Different cultures respond to new technologies differently, thus culture shows more of an adaptive radiation than just a unilateral progression.
    It also addresses a problem that came up in our discussion last week. We were talking about hour working and the need to work, and how civilizations such as modern day America work far more hours that bush tribes. Eventually we got into the issue of standard of living and I think page 310 really addressed this issue when it talks about as technology develops, as a culture we become used to that it can hardly go back to a lesser technology, therefore any advancement in technology thus becomes a necessity. As Americans we have had many more technological advances than the bushman, therefore we are required to work more to meet these cultural standards. If Americans only worked for the basis of their caloric need, we too would work far less hours, however we also would never be The American Culture, as is realized today.

  • Martha T.  On March 5, 2012 at 3:37 pm

    The point of this essay was to shed light on the holes in the common assumptions regarding Indian cows. Harris points out that even though it seems as though there is an enormous surplus of bovines in India, the average Indian farmer does not have enough cows to plow his land. Therefore, although it seems that the Indian economy is under strain supporting these animals, the strain could possibly be alleviated if the cows were just distributed a little better. Another point Harris makes is that although Indian cows cant be used for beef due to Hindu taboo, they are still connected to 80% of the human calorie intake, through the grain fields that they plow. Still, the lack of proper distribution of these animals is surely responsible for a considerable waste of resources.

    I am still not convinced by Harris. In the section about dung he states that bovines are valuable because their waste can be used as fuel, but he admits that there is considerable disagreement about how much is actually used as fuel. Also, the largest estimate is 66%, therefore, according to these generous statistics, 34% is not useful in that respect. 34% is a big percentage!

    Furthermore, by the time a cow dies of natural causes, the likelihood of its hide and meat being in good condition is highly diminished, so it may go to waste.

    Also, for a country that has a taboo against killing the cows, they don’t seem to be treating their cows very well. Harris writes that people will admit that they neglect their animals, as though that is some how better than slaughtering them for food in a 3rd world country. “All calves born, however inferior, are allowed to live until they die of neglect”; this sounds like exceptionally cruel animal abuse. Neither the people or the animals benefit from this situation.

    Finally, one last criticism on this piece; despite the fact that Harris appears to be a huge advocate for breaking down assumptions, I find it interesting that he published an essay based on reading (however extensive), without actually even seeing an Indian bovine for himself.

  • CorrinaC  On March 7, 2012 at 9:32 am

    Marvin Harris focuses on the idea of cultural materialism and how that the production and mode of reproduction interact with society change and growth. I think that he means the technology and work patters as well and populations levels and growth, because these factors all contribute to a growing society and cultural development. The infrastructures of society can be used to regulate the amount of resources needed to sustain the society, and Harris fully explores the impact of productive and reproductive factors on social institutions which all ties in together to create society economic growth. I think he was trying to emphasize that a society’s cultural beliefs and social norms have to fit in with the infrastructure, but I feel that a lot of the infrastructure have to be compatible to society cultural norms and beliefs. I was asked if he was trying to pinpoint cultural materialism as an independent being outside of culture, but I do not think so. I think that in order for cultural materialism to be enabled it must be interact with societal structures.

  • Dale H.  On March 7, 2012 at 7:06 pm

    Cultural Materialism, as the text says, depends on production and reproduction. As Harris argues even the weirdest and most farfetched beliefs often have a foundation in something he describes as ordinary and banal. Thus, the infrastructure determines behaviors and beliefs. I agree with that, however, we can only guess as to why Hindus, who are kind to all animals and insects, give cows special veneration. The Hindu practice of ahimsa, the principle of nonviolence toward all living things, is not “the principle of unity of life” as defined by Harris. And although some say cows attained their importance the way Harris describes, especially in rural India, others say it was because of pre-Vedic worship of bulls and cows in the Indus River valley, long before there was ever a Hindu. Once again which came first, the chicken or the egg?

    In this section we have added more theories to our collection that are based on ideas that sometimes work for specific populations. Where is the universal theory?

  • Roxie  On March 7, 2012 at 8:19 pm

    Once again, I concur with some of the things that have been said. Well, this section of the text was from the “next generation” of anthropologist, who have developed this line of thought(s) or are they just expanding on what was already out there at this time. They are moving a different direction than what was previously thought. By looking at things in an ecological materialist approach as well as a neo-Marxis approach.
    Marvin Harris, reminds me of the arm chair anthropologist who just sit around and think about things, while others are doing the fieldwork. When he first states that his argument is based upon his intensive readings, and that he never went to India to observe anything that he is writing about. Is anyone reading this, Jim.

    Dale in response to your question, Where is the universal theory?
    My question is, What is the universal theory, if there even is just one? (universal pause) dun, dun, dunnnnnnnn.

    • rosalva  On March 8, 2012 at 1:24 pm

      How about the chicken and the egg Roxanne?

  • Arlyne Boyer  On March 10, 2012 at 5:17 pm

    …taking up where I left off in the previous section…

    Julian Steward and Leslie White were setting the stage for the next generation of anthropologists to dive in to and explore in greater depth. There are two types of materialism: ecological and neo-Marxist. Eco-materialists examine the interaction between populations and environments, rather than treating the environment as a backdrop that shapes culture, but is not influenced by it.

    There are two approaches to ecological materialism: neo-evolutionism and neo-functionalism. Neo-evolutionism is interested in the origins of cultural phenomonea (like the rise of civilizations), as well as the diferent stages of cultural development. Morton Fried was from this school of thought and his essay examines the evolution of social stratification in relation to the control and distribution of vital resources.

    Neo-functionalism is interested in the function and purpose of institutions and beliefs, while leaning towards adaptation (rather than contribution) to social stability. The focus is on the ways in which beliefs, practices and institutions allow populations to maintain and reproduce successfully within specific environments (physical, political, economic, etc).

    The main perspective of neo-functionalism is cultural materialism and was led by Marvin Harris (1927-2001). This has been the most powerful and long-lasting theoretical position in American anthropology and this is due to Harris – its promotor. This train of thought peaked in the 70s-80s but there is still a large following today (I may be one of them..not 100% certain yet, but I do like the way he thinks).

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