Category Archives: 07 – Materialism

Material Girls and Lumpenproletariat


Sometimes I think of myself as a “material girl” but then I remember I’m not young, I’m not a girl and I’m not fond of Marvin Harris. Harris was a material girl, in the sense that he argued, as Madonna said, “we are living in a material world and I am a material girl”. In other words, it all comes down to material culture for Marvin Madonna and Marilyn.

For Madonna, “only boys who save their pennies make my rainy day, ’cause they are living in a material world and I am a material girl”.
The music video for “Material Girl” (left) was inspired byMarilyn Monroe‘s “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” (right), from the 1953 film Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.

sacred-cowFor Harris, the lyrics might have gone something like this:

“Only cows that pull and poop (and lactate) make my theory sway” (bonus points to any who can decipher that cryptic line).


ON OTHER HAND, Philippe Bourgois is cool, looks cool and has some very good points to make. Maybe his appellation caused this but he seems to be the least bourgois (i.e., in Marxist contexts, “upholding the interests of capitalism; not communist”) Bourgois I can imagine.

I am most impressed by Philippe Bourgois‘ resurrection of the word “Lumpen”. In his Lumpen Abuse: The Human Cost of Righteous Neoliberalism (2011), he states,

This chapter argues for re-framing Marx’s concept of class through a redefinition of the problematic but creative category of “lumpen” to develop a “theory of lumpen abuse under punitive neoliberalism.” To do this, we draw from Foucault’s understanding of subjectivity and biopower, Bourdieu’s concepts of symbolic violence and habitus, and Primo Levi’s insights on the invisibility of Holocaust-like gray areas in routine daily life and we re-define the lumpen as those vulnerable populations for whom biopower (the state-mediated forces and discourses of disciplinary modernity that are normally life- enhancing) has become abusive rather than productive. Our era’s economy, its structures of service provision, and the symbolic violence of individual achievement and free market efficiency condemns increasingly large proportions of the transgressive and unemployed poor to processes of lumpenization, which decimate bodies and amplify suffering. (2011:7)

The term “lumpen” comes from lumpenproletariat (lum·pen·pro·le·tar·i·at) or for the linguistically inclined, /ˈləmpənˌprōləˈte(ə)rēət,ˈlo͝om-/ . It is a noun in Marxist terminology and refers to the lowest of the lower classes. Those poor people that are so unorganized and unpolitical that they are unaware of their victimization. Consequently, they are on no use to Marx’s ideas about revolution and in fact, may be an impediment to it. In grad school, they made us read The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon. This is the first and likely last time it will be of use to me!


Bonus Question:
What’s the deal with this picture?
Other Questions to ponder:
Fried believes that the force that drives political evolution is the control over production and distribution of resources. He proposes an evolutionary model Stage A (Egalitarian Organization) -> Stage B (Rank Society) -> State C (Stratification society)-> State D (State Society).

His observations have been made but no one has been able to follow the model as it says in all stages. Instead a variety of unrelated societies are selected and each represent one or another of the several transitions. Why has his observation not been able to be proven as a theory. What elements or considerations did he miss?

Bourgois is considered Neo-Marxist in his writing he covers conflict and tensions between classes topics found in Neo-Marxism.

In comparison of Marx study of subjects and their relation to work is demonstrated in Bourgois’ analysis of street level crack dealers.

Is the environment and lack of acceptance a excuse or turn out of certain individuals who seek drugs and illegal activities to survive ends meet?

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.

Neomaterialism – Evolutionary, Functionalist, Ecological, Marxist


Steward and White from the previous section laid the foundations of Ecological Anthropology materialistic cultural analysis,  but it wasn’t until the next generation of Anthropologists that these fields underwent true development.

As with all things, the course of the good ship Anthropology was sent in the same direction as the concomitant winds of scientific thought, with particular note to General Systems theory and the field of ecology.

General Systems theory – is the transdisciplinary study of systems in general, with the goal of elucidating principles that can be applied to all types of systems in all fields of research. The term does not yet have a well-established, precise meaning, but systems theory can reasonably be considered a specialization of systems thinking and a generalization of systems science. The term originates from Bertalanffy‘s General System Theory (GST) and is used in later efforts in other fields, such as the action theory of Talcott Parsons and the system-theory of Niklas Luhmann.

In this context the word “systems” is used to refer specifically to self-regulating systems, i.e. that are self-correcting through feedback. Self-regulating systems are found in nature, including the physiological systems of our body, in local and global ecosystems, and in climate.

Many early systems theorists aimed at finding a general systems theory that could explain all systems in all fields of science. The term goes back to Bertalanffy’s book titled “General System theory: Foundations, Development, Applications” from 1968.[6] According to Von Bertalanffy, he developed the “allgemeine Systemlehre” (general systems teachings) first via lectures beginning in 1937 and then via publications beginning in 1946.[16]

Von Bertalanffy’s objective was to bring together under one heading the organismic science that he had observed in his work as a biologist. His desire was to use the word “system” to describe those principles which are common to systems in general. In GST, he writes:

…there exist models, principles, and laws that apply to generalized systems or their subclasses, irrespective of their particular kind, the nature of their component elements, and the relationships or “forces” between them. It seems legitimate to ask for a theory, not of systems of a more or less special kind, but of universal principles applying to systems in general.[17]

Ervin Laszlo[18] in the preface of von Bertalanffy’s book Perspectives on General System Theory:[19]

Thus when von Bertalanffy spoke of Allgemeine Systemtheorie it was consistent with his view that he was proposing a new perspective, a new way of doing science. It was not directly consistent with an interpretation often put on “general system theory”, to wit, that it is a (scientific) “theory of general systems.” To criticize it as such is to shoot at straw men. Von Bertalanffy opened up something much broader and of much greater significance than a single theory (which, as we now know, can always be falsified and has usually an ephemeral existence): he created a new paradigm for the development of theories.

Ludwig von Bertalanffy outlines systems inquiry into three major domains: Philosophy, Science, and Technology. In his work with the Primer Group, Béla H. Bánáthy generalized the domains into four integrable domains of systemic inquiry:

Domain                                     Description

Philosophy              The ontology, epistemology, and axiology of

Theory                      A set of interrelated concepts and principles
applying to all systems

Methodology        The set of models, strategies, methods, and
tools that instrumentalize systems theory
and philosophy

Application           The application and interaction of the domains

These operate in a recursive relationship, he explained. Integrating Philosophy and Theory as Knowledge, and Method and Application as action, Systems Inquiry then is knowledgeable action.

– Wikipedia

It is also important to note that this is the basis for cybernetics.

Ecology – Ecology (from Greek: οἶκος, “house”; -λογία, “study of”) is the scientific study of the relation of living organisms with each other and their surroundings.

– Wikipedia

Further development of the field moved the “units of analysis” to cultures rather that local populations. The resultant field, called ecological materialism, can be subdivided into two subfields: neoevolutionists, who revisit the writings of Lewis Henry Morgan, were interested in finding the origins of cultural phenomenae, particularly with respect to a pattern of stages (e.g. band-tribe-chiefdom-state) or with respect to social inequality (e.g. egalitarian-rank-stratified-state); neofunctionalists, like psychological and structural functionalists, are interested in the function and purpose of institutions, yet differing in their description of institution (in terms of adaptation), particularly in how these institutions serve to “maintain and reproduce populations.” (Archeology is of chief importance to this field)

Morton Fried (1923-1986)

As a graduate student and subsequent holder of a professorship at Columbia University, Fried’s “understanding of social evolution” was influenced by both professors (particularly Julian Steward, but also White and V. Gordon Childe) and fellow students (such names as Service, Diamond, Wolf and Manners).

On the Evolution of Social Stratification and the State

A Breakdown of the Reading

According to Fried, cultures will progress, in a pristine environment, in the following way:

Stage A (egalitarian organization) –>Stage B (rank society) –> Stage C (stratification society) –> Stage D (state society)

Egalitarian – group organizations with “as many positions of prestige … as there are persons capable of filling them.” Such groups are usually hunter-gatherer, participating in reciprocal exchange, with little in the way of significant harvest periods or food storage.

Rank – group organizations with “fewer positions of valued status than there are persons capable of handling them.” Such groups include rules of accession, rights to succession, and participation in a “redistributive economy.”

Stratification – group organizations with “differential relationships between the members of the society and its subsistence means.” These differential statuses lead to differential access to resources. There are two forms of resource access based on social status: priveliged and unimpeded, where access is unrestricted; the other is impaired, where a complex series of permissions are required for permitted levels of access.

State – group organizations with the “organization of the power of the society on a supra-kin basis.”

As the pristine environments found early in the Chinese and African river valleys no longer exists in the presence of so many modern states, the process has become more of an “acculturation phenomenon.”

The sequence of transitions from one stage to the next has never been documented. Also, when a society does transition, it is in an “inexorable” manner and done so without the cognizance of the “culture carriers.”

Marvin Harris (1927-2001)

Hailing from Columbia University, Harris was a student of both Boas and Steward (perhaps framing his later work) and was attracted to a paper by Leslie White that criticized Boasians, but it should be noted that he did not officially move to materialism until after his field work in Mozambique and his experience with Portuguese colonialism. His work carries the Marxist tenor of Leslie White.

The Cultural Ecology of India’s Sacred Cattle

A Breakdown of the Reading

Roy Rappart (1926-1997)

Ritual Regulation of Environmental Relations Among a New Guinea People

Eric Wolf (1923-1999)

Peasantry and Its Problem

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)