HARRIS, MARVIN (1927–2001), U.S. anthropologist. Born in New York City, educated at Columbia University (A.B., 1949; Ph.D., 1953), Harris taught at Columbia from 1952 to 1981 and was graduate research professor at the University of Florida from 1981 until his retirement in 2000.
Marvin Harris was one of the originators of the anthropological theory known as cultural materialism and is perhaps the scholar most closely associated with it. He first proposed this approach in his book The Rise of Anthropological Theory (1968), which rejected the then dominant structuralist approaches associated with *Durkheim and *Levi-Strauss and their followers, which attribute changes in cultural development to changes in ideas rather than to material necessity. Cultural materialism, in attempting to account for the evolution of sociocultural systems, holds that the values and practices of a culture develop from the interaction of technology, the environment, population levels, and basic biological needs. Institutions like religion, law, or kinship systems – or human sacrifice, or the prohibition against eating cows or pigs – must have some function that gives a society a material advantage in its environment, or they would not have developed. Critics claim that cultural materialism is too deterministic and reductive, trying to explain too many diverse cultural phenomena too simply, but its fundamental insight – that societies are shaped by their material needs – has been incorporated into anthropological discourse, though the theory as a whole remains somewhat controversial. Its primary intellectual ancestors are Marx and Malthus, but it draws upon other sources as well.
Harris was concerned to participate in public debate, and most of his books were in fact written for a nonscholarly audience. Among his works for the general public are Cows, Pigs, Wars, and Witches: The Riddles of Culture (1974), Cannibals and Kings: The Origins of Cultures (1977), Cultural Materialism: The Struggle for a Science of Culture (1979), Why Nothing Works: The Anthropology of Daily Life (1983), Good to Eat: Riddles of Food and Culture (1986), and The Sacred Cow and the Abominable Pig (1987). His more scholarly work includes Town and Country in Brazil (1956), Portugal's "Wards": A First-Hand Report on Labor and Education in Moçambique (1958), Minorities in the New World: Six Case Studies (1958), The Nature of Cultural Things (1964), Patterns of Race in the Americas (1964), The Rise of Anthropological Theory: A History of Theories of Culture (1968), Death, Sex, and Fertility: Population Regulation in Preindustrial and Developing Societies (1987, with Eric B. Ross), Food and Evolution: Toward a Theory of Human Food Habits (1987, with Eric B. Ross), and Theories of Culture in Postmodern Times (1999).
[Drew Silver (2nd ed.)]