Marvin Harris (1927-2001), American anthropologist, was known for his theoretical contributions to the concept of cultural materialism. His theoretical perspective of cultural materialism, though not a unifying theory of culture, sought to explain variations and commonalities among human cultures. As reflected within previous ethnographic research, the development and advancements of various human cultures exhibit many similarities and differences. Amid documenting these cultural characteristics, anthropologists have formulated various theoretical perspectives to account for these cultural aspects. The comparison of cultures, especially in a spatiotemporal framework, has inherited epistemological and teleological problems. These problems are revealed in the paradigm shifts seen within the history of cultural anthropology. Harris understood these philosophical problems and developed a unique approach to, and interpretation of, humankind’s cultural material existence.
Harris questioned the theoretical basis for the idea and evaluation of culture. In cultural materialism, he viewed cultural structure and its components in terms of expressed culture (all aspects) within the process of selection. Focusing on infrastructure, structure, and superstructure, the symbiotic relationships provide the basis for cultural stasis, cultural advancements, and diversification. Lacking an ascribed ontology and teleology, this unique perspective encompasses all aspects of time—for example, synchronic and diachronic— within a social and evolutionary framework. Expressed infrastructural differences between etic/ emic modes of production and domestic/political economy are believed to be dynamic variants of the superstructure; albeit the stability of the superstructure appears to remain more dependent on the infrastructure. This would be reflected on the rates of change and the appearance of any contradictions seen between infrastructure components and their related superstructure. These structures, when juxtaposed with social hierarchy, provide a sustaining and practical benefit for its members. Although social and economic equality is elusive, social power (which would include empowerment) was stated as one of the selective forces of social dynamics that influence the complex nature of both infrastructure and superstructure.
Human culture is both unique and complex. From sociobiology to postmodernism, the wide range of theoretical constructs was seen by Harris as a set of segmented perspectives that lack a comprehensive view. Though Harris never claimed cultural materialism as a comprehensive accounting of culture, his modified Marxist approach attempted to provide the best explanation for the conditions of human culture. The categories of infrastructure and superstructure are seen to provide the best possible avenues for objective study, although the exact relationship of the parts to the whole is tenuous and unpredictable. The concept of time, in an evolutionary framework, can be depicted as a fluid continuum by which material culture reflects human behavior. In this manner, his theoretical perspective never claimed to be a social manifesto. Harris defended science (with all its limitations) and human dignity and value from the metaphysical implications of contending cultural theories. His theoretical perspective and social awareness had a profound influence on cultural anthropology and the understanding of human nature and culture.
David Alexander Lukaszek
See also Anthropology; Evolution, Cultural; Evolution,
Social; Morgan, Lewis Henry; Tylor, Edward Burnett;
White, Leslie A.
Harris, M. (1980). Cultural materialism. New York: Vintage
Harris, M. (1991). Cannibals and kings: Origins of culture. New York: Vintage Books.
Harris, M. (1999). Theories of culture in postmodern times. Thousand Oaks, CA: AltaMira.