Materialism in Anthropological Theory

shadows_004Materialism is one of the tenets of anthropological theory, along with functionalism, processualism, post-modernism, agency, and evolution. Since its establishment by Karl Marx and Friederick Engels during the 1800s Materialism has continually dominated academic discussions amongst Anthropological intellectuals. Materialism has three main subcategories: dialectical materialism, cultural materialism, and political economy.  The latter two subcategories are heavily influenced by dialectical materialism, which is widely considered the predecessor of the two.  All subcategories of materialism share in commonality their they stress on the importance in the human need to draw resources and materials from nature in order to sustain life (Salzman 2001: 62). Four theorists are responsible for the bulk of the current materialist theories commonly referenced. They are Karl Marx & Friederick Engels (dialectical materialism), Marvin Harris (cultural relativism), and Eric Wolf (political economy).   This essay will examine these four theorists approach to explaining their particular perspective on materialism.

Karl Marx and Friederick Engels are 19th century German scholars that collaborated extensively together on their work. The summation of their ideas is often referred to simply as Marxism. An important concept in Marxism is dialectical materialism. Dialectic refers to the process of change, which is constant and ever shifting (Erikson & Murphy 2010: 11).  The dialectic change in the world produces a constant sequence of transformations that Marx and Engels call the “thesis-antithesis-synthesis” (Erikson & Murphy 2010:11).  This viewpoint holds history can be seen as a continuous struggle of opposing economic classes with uneven access to resources (Erikson & Murphy 2010: 11). This is the age-old narrative of the have and the have-nots, or as Marx and Engels refers to the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, which has existed since the age of Antiquity (Erikson & Murphy 2010: 11). Marx and Engels developed this theory as a means to addressing the plight of the industrial working class of capitalist societies (Erikson & Murphy 2010: 10; Patterson 2009:54). All individuals in a society have social needs, such as healthcare and rest that are usually only available to the privileged, the bourgeoisie (Patterson 2009: 46).  Marx & Engels (1888) say this of the industrial working class,

The proletariat, the modern working class, developed–a class of laborers, who live only so long as they find work, and who find work only so long as their labor increases capital.  These laborers, who must sell themselves piecemeal, are a commodity, like every other article of commerce, and are consequently exposed to the vicissitudes of competition, to all the fluctuations of the market… Owing to the extensive use of machinery and to divisions of labor, the work of the proletarians has lost all individual character, and, consequently, all charm for the workman.  He becomes an appendage of the machine, and it is only the most simple, most monotonous, and most easily acquired knack, that is required of him. (25-26)

The eventual outcome of the gross maltreatment of the proletariat working class by the bourgeoisie is the following: the destruction of factory equipment, unionization, and ultimately the overthrowing of ruling bourgeoisie class (Marx & Engels 1888:26-27). Thus bringing forth, the commencement of socialism in that society.  A fate that Marx and Engels consider a inevitable end result of all capitalist societies (Erikson & Murphy 2010: 10). On a global scale the disparity of the have and have not can also be observed. Marx & Engels (1888) state,

Modern bourgeois society with its relations of production, of exchange and property, a society that has conjured up such gigantic means of production and of exchange, is like the sorcerer who is no longer able to control the power of the nether world whom he has called by his spells (25).

That is more developed countries taking advantage of lesser-developed countries by monopolizing their resources. This may ring eerily familiar, because in social studies we know this by names such as colonialism and mercantilism.

 The next theorist of discussion is Marvin Harris.  Cultural materialism is one of Harris’ major theories. Cultural materialism holds that cultural beliefs, practices, and institutions that appear illogical are best understood in terms of material realities (the social, economic, and political systems) in which they live (Salzman 2001:50).  Overall, the goal of cultural relativism objective is to explain cultural phenomenon through an account of its origin, maintenance, and change of the global inventory of socio cultural differences and similarities (Salzman 2001: 57). When explaining cultural phenomena Harris emphasizes two distinctions: the difference between etic and emic and the difference between behavioral and mental processes (Salzman 2001: 51).  The etic point of view is the outsider’s perspective, while the emic point of view is the participant’s perspective (Salzman 2001: 51).  These two distinctions produce four positions: Emic/Behavioral, Etic/Behavioral, Emic/Mental, and Etic/Mental (Salzman 2001: 53).  Harris also makes use of infrastructural determinism and historical analysis in his emphasis of cultural materialism.  Infrastructural determinism holds that,

Behaviors of people in economic production and biological reproduction tend to determine human behavior in family life and politics, and these tend to determine behavior and ideas in religion, philosophy, and other symbolic realms. (Salzman 2001: 50).

Simply speaking, this means that the infrastructure of production and reproduction controls the organization of domestic and political life, which helps shape the superstructure of symbols, myths, religion, etc. (Salzman 2001: 50-51).  Harris’ use of historical analysis to explain cultural phenomena such as the sacredness of cattle in India, the abomination of pigs in the Middle East, the potlatch—redistributive economy amongst the Kawakiutl of the Northwest Coast of North America, and the European witchcraft trials that occurred between 15th-17th century (Salzman 2001:55-56).

The last of all the theorists is Eric Wolf, who stressed the importance of political economy.  It should be noted that often the terms historical materialism and political economy are used synonymously, however the two terms do not necessarily mean the same thing. There is a subtle difference between the two, but for the purpose of this paper this subtle difference in meaning is irrelevant. Political economy is the combined study of economics, political science, sociology, and anthropology (Salzman 2001: 57).  A major concept of Wolf’s political economy is material relations; how people interact with nature in the course of production, how interaction with one another and differential production results in classes, and how the interaction with centers of power that use coercive force shape production and social relations (Salzman 2001: 58). A political economy perspective is helpful in seeing beyond the artificial confines of stratified societies/cultures and instead focusing on the connections created by network international flows of people, goods, influence, and power (Salzman 2001: 58).  Wolf defines three main modes of production: kin-ordered mode, a tributary mode, and a capitalist (Salzman 2001: 63). In the kin-ordered mode of production beliefs about kinship define social relationships that are used to draw on nature in making a living; in the tributary mode of production political processes are used to organize production such as the mobilization of labor and transformation of nature; and in the capitalist mode of production the means of production are monopolized by those with monetary wealth resulting in those without access to the means of production having to sell their labor to make a living (Salzman 2001: 63).Wolf uses Political economy theories to explain organization and social structure of the Basieri, North American Fur trappers, and the South American rubber tappers (Salzman 2001: 59-61, 63-65).

Now that the details of three subcategories of Materialism and the theorists that back them have been extensively discussed it is important to mention some common critiques of Materialism as a whole. Firstly, the three subcategories mentioned are highly contentious amongst each other.  For example many Marxists believe much of the explanations provided by cultural materialists like Harris are ludicrous. I would have to agree with this critique, because for example much of the explanation provided about the origins of the sacredness of cattle seemed imposed and lacking convincing evidence. Simultaneously, cultural materialists also criticize Marxist dialectical materialism   as being to focused on  “metaphysical mystification” which they deem unscientific (Salzman 2001: 131). Other fields in Anthropology Theory such as Processualists and Transactionalists complain that materialism underestimates the agency of the individual and credits determination to be mainly a result of economy and ecology, while Postmodernists complain that materialists falsely claims a objective worldview perspective which is actually them looking at societies through their own cultural lens (Salzman 2001:131).



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