cultural materialism

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cultural materialism A macro-theory in anthropology which holds that most aspects of human culture can be explained in material terms. Its most systematic formulation will be found in the two closing chapters of Marvin Harris's exhaustive survey of the development of anthropological theories of culture (The Rise of Anthropological Theory, 1968). Harris, an American anthropologist, claimed that his purpose in writing the book was ‘to reassert the methodological priority of the search for the laws of history in the science of man’, specifically to prove that ‘the analogue of the Darwinian strategy in the realm of socio-cultural phenomena is the principle of techno-environmental and techno-economic determinism’. This holds that similar technologies applied to similar environments tend to produce similar arrangements for the production and distribution of goods, which in turn tend to support similar sorts of social groupings, who organize and explain their activities in terms of similar systems of beliefs and values. In this fashion, the principle assigns research priority to the study of the material conditions of socio-cultural life, in much the same way (according to Harris) as the principle of natural selection accords priority to the study of differential reproductive success. He claims that this makes the former a ‘statement of a basic research strategy’ rather than a specific ‘law of society’. Critics have observed that, despite Harris's attempts to avoid historicism and to exclude any reference to the Hegelian dialectic, his materialist approach to the study of culture shares the same characteristics as the materialism of Marx and Engels; namely, that as a concrete research strategy it soon falls foul of empirical findings that falsify its basic premiss, and as a pseudo-law of history it must be framed at such an abstract level that it claims everything but says nothing.