Tag Archives: Neomaterialism

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