Cultural Materialism

Cultural Materialism by Jon Marcoux

Basic Premises 

Cultural Materialism is a theoretical paradigm that stresses the empirical study of sociocultural systems within a materialist infrastructure-structure-superstructure framework. The term cultural materialism was coined by Marvin Harris in his foundational text, The Rise of Anthropological Theory (1968). The aim of cultural materialism is best described by Harris who wrote that "[t]he task of cultural materialism is to create a pan-human science of society whose findings can be accepted on logical and evidentiary grounds by the pan-human community" (Harris 1979: xii). In accordance with these lofty aims, the paradigm combines many schools of anthropological thought including social evolutionary theory, cultural ecology, and especially Marxist materialism (Barfield 1997: 232). 

Cultural materialism seeks to explain the organizational aspects of politics and economy (See Key Concepts ‘structure’) and the ideological and symbolic aspects of society (See Key Concepts ‘superstructure’) as a result of the combination of variables relating to the basic biological needs of society (See Key Concepts ‘ production,’ ‘reproduction,’ and ‘infrastructure’) (Harris 1996: 277). According to cultural materialist theory, production and reproduction dominate and determine the other sectors of culture (See Key Concepts ‘Priority of Infrastructure’). Therefore, cultural materialists see things like government, religion, law, and kinship as constructs that must be beneficial to the productive and reproductive capabilities of society or else they would not exist. For example, the advent of metallurgy was selected by societies because it allowed for an increase in food production and trade. The selection of metallurgy in the model results in changes in trade and political organization (structure) as well as in ideology (superstructure). 

Cultural materialism is an expansion of the Marxist model of three levels of culture (infrastructure, structure, and superstructure). Unlike Marxist theory, however, cultural materialism privileges both productive (economic) and reproductive (demographic) forces in societies. As such, demographic, environmental, and technological changes are invoked to explain cultural variation (Barfield 1997: 232). A technical, but important difference between Marxism and cultural materialism is that cultural materialism explains the structural features of a society in terms of production within the infrastructure only (Harris 1996: 277). Marxists, however, argue that production is a material condition located in the base (See American Material Page) that acts upon (and is acted upon by) the infrastructure (Harris 1996: 277-178). Thus, cultural materialists see the infrastructure-structure relationship as being mostly in one direction, while Marxists see the relationship as reciprocal. Cultural materialism also differs from Marxism in its lack of class theory. Unlike Marxism, cultural materialism addresses relations of unequal power recognizing innovations or changes that benefit both upper and lower classes (Harris 1996: 278). Marxism treats all culture change as being beneficial only to the ruling class. Also, both cultural materialism and Marxism are evolutionary in proposing that culture change results from innovations selected by society because of beneficial increases to productive capabilities (Engels, quoted by Harris 1979: 141-142). Cultural materialism, however, does not envision a final utopian form (Harris 1996: 280). 

Cultural materialism is based on the belief that all societies operate according to this model. Proponents of this theory believe that by approaching the study of culture from this perspective one can explain the variability and similarities between distinct cultures (Harris 1979: 27). Empirical research and strict scientific methods are called for in order to make accurate comparisons between separate cultures possible (Harris 1979). 

Points of Reaction

As with other forms of materialism, cultural materialism is a reaction to cultural relativism and idealism. Cultural materialism emerged in the late 1960’s when anthropological thought was dominated by theorists who locate culture change in human systems of thought rather than material conditions (i.e. Durkheim and Levi-Strauss). Some idealists and relativists also believe that comparisons between cultures are non-productive and even irrelevant because each one is a product of its own dynamics. Marvin Harris argued that these approaches remove culture from its material base and place it solely within the minds of its people. Harris believes that idealists and relativists fail at being holistic by only looking at the emic (native) side of society (Harris 1979). By focusing on observable, measurable phenomena, cultural materialism presents an etic (viewed from outside of the target culture, see Key Concepts) approach to society. The result is a more holistic approach, which is a principal tenet of anthropological research (Harris 1996: 277). 

Leading Figures

Marvin Harris (1927-) was educated at Columbia University where he received his Ph.D. in 1953. In 1968, Harris laid out the foundations of cultural materialism in the book The Rise of Anthropological Theory (1968). In this book, Harris also considers the other major anthropological theories, often in a critical manner. This drew immediate negative reactions from proponents of these other view points (Barfield 1997: 232). Harris published many works in which he used the cultural materialist research strategy to study cultural evolution. His work with India’s sacred cow myth (1966) is seen by many as his most successful CM analysis (Ross 1980). Harris also made a concerted effort to write for a more general audience. His work Cannibals and kings: the origins of culture laid out in CM terms the evolutionary trajectories that lead to all features of human society (i.e., population growth, technological change, ecological change) (Harris 1977). This work also represents the point at which many believe Harris started putting too much emphasis on material conditions in explaining human society (Barfield 1997: 232). Harris’ critics argued that the use of cultural materialism to explain all cultural phenomenon was too simplistic (Friedman 1974). As a result, his work was often highly criticized and even dismissed by some.

Harris’ legacy is very well established, in spite of his critics. He accomplished the task of creating an anthropological theory and disseminating it both to students and the public. His work is widely cited by both proponents and critics of cultural materialism, and as of 1997, Harris’ anthropological text book Culture, People, Nature was in its seventh edition (Barfield 1997: 232) attesting to the quality of his work.

R. Brian Fergusson is a professor at Rutgers University department of anthropology. Fergusson’s research interests include warfare and political economy in Puerto Rico. He has published several books including Warfare, Culture, and Environment (1984) and Yanomami Warfare: A Political History (1995). Fergusson’s approach to anthropology is very similar to cultural materialism, but he argues that the source of culture change must not necessarily be restricted to the infrastructure (Fergusson 1995: 24). Instead, he argues that analysts look throughout the entire sociocultural system (i.e., structure and superstructure) for causal factors (Fergusson 1995: 24). For example, in his work with Puerto Rican sugar plantations, Fergusson argues that the sugar plantations were, in fact, cartels politically maintained by statutes of the U.S. congress (Fergusson 1995: 33). Furthermore, he argued that these structural factors allowed for economic inefficiency which ultimately lead to the collapse of Puerto Rico’s sugar plantations, and subsequent hardships for all citizens (Fergusson 1996: 33). Thus, he argues that in this case, the infrastructure is affected by the structure (i.e., the biological well being of citizens of Puerto Rico was affected by a wholly structural factor).

Martin F. Murphy is the chairperson of the anthropology department at the University of Notre Dame. Murphy’s research interests focus on political organization in the Caribbean (Murphy and Margolis 1995: 213). He has published widely including the book Dominican Sugar Plantations: Production and Foreign Labor Integration (1991). In this 1991 work, Murphy seeks to explain the use of foreign labor in sugar production as a response to material conditions such as demography and technology. Specifically, the use of foreign labor, such as Haitian immigrants, is seen as a response to a shortage of native Dominicans who are willing to do that type of intensive labor (1991).

Maxine L. Margolis is a professor of anthropology who works with Marvin Harris at the University of Florida. She has studied culture both in the United States and Brazil focusing on gender , international migration, and anthropological ecology (Murphy and Margolis 1995: 213). Her works include Mothers and Such: Views of American Women and Why They Changed (1984) and The Moving Frontier: Social and Economic Change in a Southern Brazilian Community (1973). An example of her CM analysis can be seen under METHODOLOGIES. 

Allen Johnson currently teaches at the University of California, Los Angeles. His research focuses on economic anthropology using a culture materialism framework (Murphy and Margolis 1995: 212). One of his most notable works, The Evolution of Human Societies: From Foraging Group to Agrarian State (1987) was co-written with the notable materialist archaeologist Timothy Earle. In this work, the authors use empirical grounds to argue that population growth is a prime cause for culture change. Specifically, they argue that population growth leads to competition for resources among egalitarian groups, and this competition acts as a catalyst in forming new adaptive modes (Johnson and Earle 1987). Some of these new adaptive modes involve an increase in inequality and the rise of stratified societies. Thus, they argue for an infrastructural cause for social evolution.

Key Works
Harris, Marvin 1966 "The Cultural Ecology of India’s Sacred Cattle." Current Anthropology 7:51-66.
Harris, Marvin 1968 The Rise of Anthropological Theory. New York, Crowell.
Harris, Marvin 1971 Culture, Man, and Nature: Introduction to General Anthropology. New York, T.Y. Crowell.
Harris, Marvin 1977 Cannibals and Kings: The Origins of Culture. New York, Random House.
Harris, Marvin 1979 Cultural Materialism: The Struggle for a Science of Culture. New York, Random House.
Headland, Thomas, K. Pike, and Marvin Harris 1990. Emics and Etics: The Insider/Outsider Debate. Newbury Park, CA, Sage Publications.
Murphy Martin, and Maxine Margolis, eds. 1995 Science, Materialism, and the Study of Culture. Gainesville, University of Florida Press.
Ross, Eric, ed. 1980 Beyond the Myths of Culture: Essays in Cultural Materialism. New York, Academic Press.

Principal Concepts

Emic: This term denotes an approach to anthropological inquiry where the observer attempts to learn the rules and categories of a culture in order to be able to think and act like a native (Harris 1979: 32). In other words, one tries to "get inside the head" of the native population. For example, an emic approach might attempt to learn why native Faeroe islanders’ use a highly descriptive system for naming geographic locations. Cultural materialism focuses on how the emics of thought and the behavior of a native population are the results of etic processes (i.e., observable phenomenon).

Etic: This term denotes an approach where the observer does not emphasize or use native rules or categories. Instead, the observer uses "alien" empirical categories and rules derived from the strict use of the scientific method. Quantifiable measurements such as fertility rates, kgs. of wheat per household, and average rainfall are used in order to develop general cultural theories without regard to whether those measurements "mean" anything to the native population (Harris 1979:32). An example of this approach can be found in Paynter and Cole’s work on tribal political economy (Paynter and Cole 1980). Cultural materialism focuses on the etics of thought and the etics of behavior of a native population to explain culture change. 

Etic behavioral mode of production: The etic behavioral mode of production involves the actions of a society that accomplish the task of satisfying the minimal requirements for subsistence (Harris 1979: 51). The important thing to remember here is that these actions are determined and analyzed without regard to their "meaning" to the members of the native society.

Etic behavioral mode of reproduction: The etic behavioral mode of reproduction involves the actions a society takes in order to limit detrimental increases or decreases to population (Harris 1979: 1951). Again these actions are determined solely by the observer without reliance on the native views on these matters.
Infrastructure: The infrastructure consists of etic behavioral modes of production and etic modes of reproduction as determined by the combination of ecological, technological, environmental, and demographic variables (Harris 1996: 277). 

Structure: The structure is characterized by the organizational aspects of a culture consisting of the domestic economy (e.g., kinship, division of labor) and political economy (Harris 1996: 277). Political economy involves issues of control by a force above that of the domestic household whether it be a government or a chief.

Superstructure: The superstructure is the symbolic or ideological segment of culture. Ideology consists of a code of social order regarding how social and political organization is structured (Earle 1997: 8). It structures the obligations and rights of all the members of society. The superstructure involves things such as ritual, taboos, and symbols (Harris 1979: 229). 

Priority of Infrastructure: In Harris’ words, "The etic behavioral modes of production and reproduction probabilistically determine the etic behavioral domestic and political economy, which in turn probabilistically determine the behavioral and mental emic superstructures" (Harris 1979: 55-56). In other words, the main factor in determining whether a cultural innovation is selected by society lies in its effect on the basic biological needs of that society. These innovations can involve a change in demographics, technological change and/or environmental change in the infrastructure. The innovations within the infrastructure will be selected by a society if they increase productive and reproductive capabilities even when they are in conflict with structural or superstructural elements of society (Harris 1996: 278). Innovations can also take place in the structure (e.g., changes in government) or the superstructure (e.g., religious change), but will only be selected by society if they do not diminish the ability of society to satisfy basic human needs. Basically then, the driving force behind culture change, whether or not it is seen as "real" from an emic perspective, is the need to satisfy the basic needs of production and reproduction.


Harris writes, "Empirical the foundation of the cultural materialist way of knowing" (Harris 1979: 29). Epistemologically, cultural materialism focuses only on those entities and events that are observable and quantifiable (Harris 1979: 27). In keeping with the scientific method, these events and entities must be studied using operations that are capable of being replicated (Harris 1979: 27). In using these empirical methods, the goal is to reduce cultural phenomena into observable, measurable variables that can be applied across societies to formulate nomothetic theories. 

Harris’s basic approach to the study of culture is to show how emic (native) thoughts and behaviors are a result of material considerations. The behaviors Harris focuses on involve practices that contribute to the basic biological survival of those in society (i.e., subsistence practices, technology, and demographic issues). In order to demonstrate this point, analysis often involves the measurement and comparison of phenomena that might seem trivial to the native population (Harris 1979: 38). 

A good example of this involves the sacred cows of India. In the Hindu religion, cows are considered sacred and must not be killed. Harris decided to study this phenomenon using his cultural materialist model. First, Harris argued that the taboos on cow slaughter (emic thought) were superstructural elements resulting from the economic need to utilize cows as draft animals rather than as food (Harris 1966: 53-54). He also observed that the Indian farmers claimed that no calves died because cows are sacred (Harris 1979: 38). In reality, however, male calves were observed to be starved to death when feed supplies are low (Harris 1979: 38). Harris argues that the ideological (superstructural) beliefs of the farmers had to change because of the scarcity of feed (infrastructural change) (Harris 1979: 38). Thus, Harris uses this example to show how, using empirical methods, an etic perspective is essential in order to understand culture change holistically.

Another good example of cultural materialism at work involves the study of women’s roles in the post-World War II United States. Maxine Margolis studied this phenomenon using empirical evidence and her finding’s were interpreted in the classic cultural materialist mode. The 1950’s was a time when ideology held that the duties of women should be located solely in the home (emic thought); however, empirically, Margolis found that women were entering the workforce in large numbers (actual behavior) (Margolis 1984). This movement was an economic necessity that increased the productive and reproductive capabilities of U.S. households (Margolis 1984). Furthermore, Margolis argues that the ideological movement known as "feminism" did not cause this increase of women in the workforce, but rather was a result of this movement by women into the workforce (Margolis 1984). Thus here we see how the superstructure is determined by the infrastructure as ideology changed to suit new innovations in the infrastructure.

For more examples see Ross 1980.


Cultural Materialism can be credited with making a challenge to anthropology to be more scientific. Rather than rely solely on native explanations of phenomenon, Harris and others urge analysts to search deeper using empirical and replicable methods. Cultural materialism can also be credited for its optimism in believing that culture change can be studied across geographic and temporal boundaries in order to get at so-called universal, nomothetic theories. Harris’ work, in some cases (1966, 1977), shows that logical, scientific explanations for cultural phenomena such as India’s beef taboos are possible without invoking mystical or ephemeral causal factors such as are present in structuralist or functionalist interpretations.

A good example of what useful information can result from a cultural materialist approach to culture can be found in William Rathje’s garbage project (Rathje 1992). Rathje is an archaeologist who wanted to test many of the assumptions archaeologists have in dealing with waste from the past. In pursuit of this aim, Rathje excavated modern landfills in Arizona and other states taking careful measurements of artifact frequencies. One of the many things he did with this data was to test the difference between stated alcohol consumption of informants and actual alcohol consumption (based on refuse evidence). In order to do this, Rathje selected a sample of households from which he collected and analyzed refuse. He also gave those households a questionnaire that asked questions relating to alcohol consumption. After analyzing what people said they drank and what was actually found in the refuse, Rathje found a significant discrepancy between stated and actual alcohol consumption (Rathje 1992). This case study demonstrates that wholly emic analyses of cultural phenomena may be overlooking vital information that can only be uncovered by taking an etic approach.


Criticisms of cultural materialism are plentiful in anthropology. As with all of the different paradigms in anthropology (e.g., functionalism, structuralism, and Marxism), cultural materialism does have its flaws. Cultural materialism has been termed "vulgar materialism" by Marxists such as J. Friedman because opponents believe cultural materialists’ empirical approach to culture change is too simple and straight forward (Friedman 1974). Marxists believe that cultural materialists rely too heavily on the one-directional infrastructure-superstructure relationship to explain culture change, and that the relationship between the "base" (a distinct level of a sociocultural system, underlying the structure, in Marxist terminology) and the superstructure must be dialectically viewed (Friedman 1974).

Idealists such as structuralists (e.g., Durkheim and his followers) argue that the key to understanding culture change lies in the emic thoughts and behaviors of members of a native society. Thus, they argue that there is no need for an etic/emic distinction (Harris 1979: 167). To idealists, the etic view of culture is irrelevant and full of ethnocentrism; furthermore, they argue that culture itself is the controlling factor in culture change(Harris 1979: 167). Culture, in their view is based on a panhuman structure that is embedded within the brain, and cultural variation is the result of each society filling that structure in their own way (Harris 1979: 167).

Postmodernists also argue vehemently against cultural materialism because of its use of strict scientific method. Postmodernists believe that science is itself a culturally determined phenomenon that is affected by class, race and other structural and infrastructural variables (Harris 1995: 62). In fact, some postmodernists argue that science is a tool used by upper classes to oppress and dominate lower classes (Rosenau 1992: 129). Thus, postmodernists argue that the use of any science is useless in studying culture, and that cultures should be studied using particularism and relativism (Harris 1995: 63). This is a direct attack on cultural materialism with its objective studies and cross-cultural comparisons


Barfield, Thomas. 1997 The Dictionary of Anthropology. Oxford, Blackwell.

Earle, Timothy. 1997 How Chiefs Come to Power. Stanford, Stanford University Press.

Fergusson, R. Brian. 1995 Infrastructural Determinism. In Science, Materialism, and the Study of Culture. Edited by Martin Murphy and Maxine Margolis, pp. 21-38; Gainesville, University of Florida Press.

Friedman, J.. 1974 "Marxism, Structuralism and Vulgar Materialism." Man 9: 444-469. 

Harris, Marvin 1966 "The Cultural Ecology of India’s Sacred Cattle." Current Anthropology 7:51-66.

Harris, Marvin. 1979 Cultural Materialism: The Struggle for a Science of Culture. New York, Random House.

Harris, Marvin. 1980 History and Ideological Significance of the Separation of Social and Cultural Anthropology. In Beyond the Myths of Culture: Essays in Cultural Materialism. Edited by Eric B. Ross, pp. 391-405; New York, Academic Press.

Harris, Marvin 1995 Anthropology and Postmodernism. In Science, Materialism, and the Study of Culture. Edited by Martin Murphy and Maxine Margolis, pp. 62-80; Gainesville, University of Florida Press.

Harris, Marvin. 1996 "Cultural Materialism." In Encyclopedia of Cultural Anthropology. Edited by David Levinson and Melvin Ember, pp. 277-281; New York, Henry Holt and Co.

Johnson, Allen and Timothy Earle. 1987 The Evolution of Human Societies: From Foraging Group to Agrarian State. Stanford, Stanford University Press.

Margolis, Maxine. 1984 Mothers and Such: Views of American Women and Why They Changed. Berkley, University of California Press.

Murphy, Martin. 1991 Dominican Sugar Plantations: Production and Foreign Labor Integration. Westport, CT. Praeger Publishing

Murphy, Martin, and Maxine Margolis, eds. 1995 Science, Materialism, and the Study of Culture. Gainesville, University of Florida Press.

Paynter, Robert, and John W. Cole. 1980 "Ethnographic Overproduction, Tribal Political Economy, and the Kapauku of Irian Jaya." In Beyond the Myths of Culture: Essays in Cultural Materialism. Edited by Eric B. Ross, pp.61-96; New York, Academic Press.

Rathje, William L.. 1992 Rubish! The Archaeology of Garbage. New York, Harper Collins.

Rosenau, Pauline. 1992 Post-Modernism and the Social Sciences: Insights, Inroads, and Intrusions. Princeton, Princeton University Press.

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