Cultural Materialism: The Struggle for a Science of Culture Paperback – 28 Sep 2001
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Harris achieves a standard of theoretical exposition that is rare in anthropology.--Bruce Trigger "Science "
The most important anthropological statement of the nature and meaning of cultural anthropology that has thus far appeared.--Ashley Montagu, highly acclaimed social scientist, Columbia University "Psychology Today "
About the Author
Marvin Harris is in the department of anthropology at the University of Florida.
Top customer reviews
Harris defends his perspective in an admirably clear and logically consistent manner. Drawing on Malthus he points out that because of the potential for human populations to increase exponentially, populations are faced with starvation unless they control their rate of reproduction. Unfortunately for most of human history the means of family planning have been ineffective, unpleasant or dangerous. To take one example, infanticide has sadly still not vanished from the world we live in. Human beings have not, therefore, had the luxury of refusing to adapt to their environment. The imperative to maximise the extraction of nutrients from the environment shapes the whole of the organisation of societies. Thus whatever the putative reasons through which actors justify cultural practices, rituals and norms, the explanation more often than not is related to the practical needs and interests of human agents. The belly has priority over the life of the mind. Anthropologists, therefore, should not take the mystifications of culture at face value, but seek to unveil the function of particular cultural tropes. Indeed, such mystifications frequently serve the interests of powerful actors, in whose interest it is to obscure and naturalise inequalities, rather than the majority of participants in a culture. A misguided form of tolerance can lead social scientists to lend support for oppressive practices.
Harris uses his theoretical framework to develop an account of the general dynamic of human history from hunter-gather societies, through patriarchal chieftanates, to the earliest states and empires. It is difficult to do full justice to this account, taking in as it does the emergence of bride-prices as a result of inequality between family lineages, dowries and female infanticide as a consequence of inequality and overpopulation, the caste system and meritocratic empires as two distinct but stable systems which are the product of different patterns of rainfall. Harris's perspective suggests that for many thousands of years human beings have been `kicking the can down the road', avoiding drastic Malthusian collapse through technological solutions which eventually increase the human burden on the environment. Attempts to resist and overthrow the hierarchies which emerged through innovations such as agriculture have frequently been tamed and co-opted by old or new elites, as in the case of the world religions and Soviet communism.
Much of the book is devoted to hammering home Harris's arguments against a variety of different perspectives in anthropology. This part of the book may not have dated so well, as anthropology and social theory has moved on in the last two decades. However due to the `cultural turn' in social science many of the problems Harris points out have only become more entrenched in the years since the book was published. Harris's arguments are always sharp and accompanied by an exquisitely dry humour as he lances positions which he categories as obscurest or anti-scientific. Thus there is much in this work of social theory that remains very valuable.
`Cultural Materialism' is a major and much overlooked scholarly work that systematically provides the foundations for the account of human cultures advanced by Harris in his popular anthropology work Cows, Pigs, Wars & Witches: The Riddles of Culture (Vintage) as well as by other scholars such as Jared Diamond in the brilliant Guns Germs & Steel: The Fates of Human Societies. As the world's population surpasses 7 billion and commodity prices continue to rise, a perspective which regards the problems of scarcity and inequality as central in human affairs is long overdue for a reappraisal.
Most helpful customer reviews on Amazon.com
He begins by discussing science in general; its beginnings, evolution and application. At the end of the chapter he says something which resonates throughout the rest of the book and his work. This statement provides a window into the character of Marvin Harris like nothing else Ive read. He says, "No other way of knowing is based on a set of rules explicitly designed to transcend the prior belief systems of mutually antagonistic tribes, nations, classes, and ethnic and religious communities in order to arrive at knowledge that is equally probable for any rational human mind. Those that doubt that science can do this must be made to show that some other ecumenical alternative can do it better. Unless they can show how some other universalistic system of knowing leads to more acceptable criteria of truth, their attempt to subvert the universal credibility of science in the name of cultural relativism, however well intentioned, is an intellectual crime against humanity."
Throughout the first part he discusses his theory. Beginning with the epistemological underpinnings of the theory and ending with application he thoroughly explains and attempts to preempt any questions that might arise. In the second half of the book he compares his theory to other anthropological explainations and descriptions of human behavior and ideas. He discusses sociobiology, Marxism, structuralism and psychological approachs to humans. He ends with a critique of postmodernism or obscurantism as he calls it in this book.
His theory is basically that we are motivated primarily by a few basic biopsychological drives. These drives lead us to produce things and reproduce ourselves. Production and reproduction, in relation with the environment, lead to the organizational structures and the symbols and ideologies of particular societies. This is a system. As such all of the parts feed back into each other so that a change in one part usually leads to a change in all other parts. The primary way change occurs in the system, however, is through alterations in the modes of production and reproduction or because of changes in the environment. This is because these are the only things that are tied directly to our basic biopsychological needs.
It is a shame that anthropology has lost Marvin Harris and his scientific, multi-linear evolutionary theories and wandered into the abyss of postmodernist, interpretationist mishmash.
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