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Cultural Materialism: The Struggle for a Science of Culture

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Cultural Materialism, published in 1979, was Marvin Harris's first full-length explication of the theory with which his work has been associated. While Harris has developed and modified some of his ideas over the past two decades, generations of professors have looked to this volume as the essential starting point for explaining the science of culture to students. Now available again after a hiatus, this edition of Cultural Materialism contains the complete text of the original book plus a new introduction by Orna and Allen Johnson that updates his ideas and examines the impact that the book and theory have had on anthropological theorizing.

381 pages, Hardcover

First published January 1, 1979

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About the author

Marvin Harris

40 books190 followers
American anthropologist Marvin Harris was born in Brooklyn, New York. A prolific writer, he was highly influential in the development of cultural materialism. In his work he combined Karl Marx's emphasis on the forces of production with Malthus's insights on the impact of demographic factors on other parts of the sociocultural system. Labeling demographic and production factors as infrastructure, Harris posited these factors as key in determining a society's social structure and culture.

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5 stars
55 (39%)
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46 (33%)
3 stars
31 (22%)
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4 (2%)
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Displaying 1 - 8 of 8 reviews
Profile Image for Chuck.
12 reviews8 followers
April 3, 2008
I never fail to meet a conservation practicioner who has not reported what an eye-openner it was to read Jared Diamond's book Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies. Diamond has popularized a whole area of Anthropology that has a long research tradition going back to at least Julian Steward in the 1950s. It is unfortunate that very few conservation minded folks are aware, much less well versed, in the cultural materialist research strategy. A large portion of Diamond's notions had previously been explored, if not developed, in cultural materialist (CM) and cultural ecology literature.

While I believe Harris' book Cultural Materialism is a must read, a good place to begin reading about the cultural materialist research strategy is Harris' 1977 book Cannibals and Kings: The Origins of Culture. Copies of the book are available on the web for as little as $5.

Some practicioners of world systems research such as Christopher Chase-Dunn and Tom Abel have incorporated cultural materialist research and theories into their work. The result is a robust and coherently organized body of explanatory ideas that link history to a well rounded foundation of sociocultural elements that populate the human condition.

Cultural Materialism, published in 1979, was Marvin Harris's first full-length presentation of the CM theory. Harris developed and modified his ideas over the folowing two decades. I highly recommend this book to undergraduate and graduate students in the social sciences and to anyone who wishes to understand how causality might be operating in the world. The book is readily available used or in a new softcover edition that contains an newly written introduction by Orna and Allen Johnson.

Profile Image for Alex Lee.
894 reviews107 followers
May 8, 2021
While I was trained in cultural materialism in my undergraduate years, decades ago, I have never read a text that was explicitly arguing for this approach over others despite my being introduced to a variety of other approaches.

Years later, I read this text. It's pretty thorough in that Harris basically runs through a kind of shopping list of any particular approach which might be able to explain culture.

The thing is, while the text is pretty detailed, Harris basically argues that his approach, cultural materialism, is more complete, flexible and realistic than other approaches... where other approaches (methods) fall short is that they fail to do what cultural materialism does. You can be sure too that Harris can't cover the whole gambit of what these other approaches can and can't do, but he offers no point of comparison other than cultural materialism as the "be all" solution. This is a little like someone who likes Ayn Rand argue that other philosophies fail because they aren't Randian, and in that sense it is highly problematic.

If I were to write this book (and I am not sure I would) -- but wanted to convey that cultural materialism was the best, I would give some background/history as to how this approach developed vs how other approaches developed along with assessing them with examples. While Harris offers some history, he doesn't seem completely aware of the how different approaches were developed with as different responses to various problems and that is also baggage that needs to be contended with.

Instead Harris, while starting off somewhat philosophical, eventually abandons this approach and only cites examples and shows where cultural materialism might be able to offer "more" to explain what other approaches cannot. This doesn't really address the philosophical gaps -- the structural problems/limits in how these different methodologies are, but Harris, in the last one hundred pages, doesn't seem too concerned about providing this deeper critique, he only wishes to cram in examples and convince people by sheer force. So that last part gets kind of boring. Harris could have used a more philosophical approach, but I am not sure he knows exactly how to do that, even though he's obviously well versed in anthropological methods.

I think this book would be a good introduction to cultural materialism, but it isn't really a definitive exploration of the subject matter. It would be good read for a smart college student, but a truly critical approach would need additional considerations and texts.
Profile Image for Taylor Ahlstrom.
Author 3 books3 followers
March 9, 2023
Holy density, batman.

With that out of the way, I have a lot of thoughts on this book. First of all, cultural materialism as a philosophy is the best I've heard to describe how cultures and societies become what they become as a function of their environments. There were many parts throughout the book that were incredibly eye-opening and will certainly inform my understanding of human and cultural development for the rest of my life. FIVE STARS for the theory. Minus two stars for the reasons below.

One, I don't care how academic you are or who your audience is, there is just no need to ever write with the sesquipedalian density that Harris employs page after page after page for 381 pages. I've never gotten to use sesquipedalian in a sentence before, so thanks for that, Harris. Perhaps it's because my job as a writer is to make things more accessible, I'm highly sensitive to writers who appear to make themselves intentionally inaccessible. As I was reading in bed, I would often read a paragraph out loud to my husband just to show him how utterly ridiculous a sentence with eight 5-syllable words sounds.

But that's not really my main criticism. My biggest beef is that he spends most of the book systematically defending cultural materialism against any competing theories like structuralism or dialectical materialism in a way that feels somewhat like a angsty teenager. He provides overly specific examples where these other theories fail and cultural materialism succeeds, which is fine, but they feel incredibly cherry-picked and unbalanced as any sort of respectable criticism. He bashes opposing theories as if they're the dumbest thing he's ever heard (the book is admittedly full of what I can only describe as "hilarious academic burns") and then goes on to say "see, cultural materialism is obviously the best all the time." For all its verbose, academic grandeur, the book is somehow still lacking in a robust, professional comparison and critique across the history of development of sociological and anthropological theory. It reads more like a proud, defensive, entitled (white) man saying "I'm right and you're wrong, nanny nanny boo boo."

But great theory.
Profile Image for Roberto Yoed.
637 reviews
May 3, 2022
Básicamente 'La Naturaleza de las cosas culturales' en un lenguaje más digerible y accesible.

Si tienes duda de las teorías, enfoques, autores, temáticas, variables, influencias, etc. que yacen detrás del materialismo cultural, este es tu libro. De igual forma, si quieres ver como Harris destruye poco a poco todos los postulados de los estructuralistas, idealistas y deterministas, entonces también debes leer este libro.

Sin embargo, para nosotros los marxistas-leninistas hay un elemento irreconciliable puesto que este libro sigue con las críticas sinsentido y poco fundamentadas en contra de Hegel, Engels, Lenin y Stalin.

Profile Image for Jacob.
16 reviews1 follower
December 13, 2016
Excellent, clear introduction, summary and defense of etic infrastructural research strategies.
Profile Image for Jluisr.
6 reviews2 followers
December 27, 2016
Como todas las obras de Harris, muy entretenidas, sorprendentes, cautivadoras, pero en muchas ocasiones con teorías muy discutibles que sólo él (o su escuela) parece sostener.
Profile Image for Joanne Payton.
8 reviews17 followers
January 27, 2012
Harris is enjoyably pugnacious when it comes to discussing his rivals. His section on Levi-Strauss had me laughing out loud.
Displaying 1 - 8 of 8 reviews

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