April 27, 2013
Cultural Materialism: A strategy of thought
There are number of theories throughout the field of anthropology that helped establish new ways of thinking about culture. Cultural materialism is one of these theories. It is an effective strategy that helped many anthropologists “[understand] the causes of differences and similarities among societies and cultures.” (Marvin Harris 1979)Though it is often questioned, cultural materialism has been one of the most powerful theoretical positions in modern American anthropology and continues to be so even today. First, we will analyze the definition of cultural materialism. Then, we will discuss when and where it emerged and why. Afterwards, we will highlight the key founders of this form of anthropological analysis. Finally, we will examine the criticisms of this theory in anthropology.
Cultural materialism is the main idea behind neo-functionalism. Neo-functionalism is an ecological-materialistic approach in anthropology that focuses on the necessity of cultures to adapt to their environment in order to survive. The goal of this method was to explain the “ways in which particular cultural beliefs, practices and institutions allowed populations to maintain and reproduce successfully within specific physical, political, and economic environments.” (McGee and Warms) Cultural materialism focuses on the belief that cultural traits are linked to environmental circumstances.
In the late 1940s and the 1950s, a new evolutionary approach emerged in America. This theory was more advanced and developed than the former evolutionist theory, which suggested that cultures followed a single universal sequence of development. The first appearance of the theory of cultural materialism was among the work of Karl Marx. Karl Marx argued that humans must create a means of subsistence to distinguish themselves from animals, which “indirectly influences their actual material...