Thursday, September 10, 2009

Anthropological Theory: Materialism

Today I have decided to continue with the Anthropological Theory posts. Today's topic is Materialism. I have found that it pops up a lot in Anthropological research as one of many tools.

Materialism is one of the major anthropological perspectives for analyzing human societies. Materialism is a position that the physical world can impact and set constraints on human behavior. The materialists believe that human behavior is part of nature and therefore, it can be understood by using the methods of studying natural science. Materialists do not necessarily assume that material reality is more important than mental reality. However, they give priority to the material world over the world of the mind when they explain human societies. This doctrine of materialism started and developed from Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, who were social thinkers. 

To learn more about Marx, follow the link. For more information about Engels, follow the link. Also check out this link.

Once Anthropologists embraced the ideas put forward by Marx and Engels, they developed the theory of Cultural Materialism. That is,
"Cultural Materialism is a theoretical paradigm that stresses the empirical study of sociocultural systems within a materialist infrastructure-structure-superstructure framework. The term cultural materialism was coined by Marvin Harris in his foundational text, The Rise of Anthropological Theory (1968). The aim of cultural materialism is best described by Harris who wrote that "[t]he task of cultural materialism is to create a pan-human science of society whose findings can be accepted on logical and evidentiary grounds by the pan-human community" (Harris 1979: xii). In accordance with these lofty aims, the paradigm combines many schools of anthropological thought including social evolutionary theory, cultural ecology, and especially Marxist materialism"
The notable Anthropologists who have contributed to this theory are: Marvin Harris, R. Brian Fergusson,">Martin F. Murphy, Maxine L. Margolis, and, Allen Johnson

Another habit of Anthropology is to build up theoretical schools of thought based on location. To this end, there is such a thing as American Materialism. It "holds that there are three levels within culture --- technological, sociological, and ideological --- and that the technological aspect of culture disproportionately molds and influences the other two aspects of culture." (Source)


Anonymous. 2009. "Overview of Materialism". eMuseum. Available online:

Harris, Marvin 1968 The Rise of Anthropological Theory. New York, Crowell.

Marcoux, Jon. 2001. "Cultural Materialism". Department of Anthropology College of Arts and Sciences The University of Alabama: Anthropological Theories: A Guide Prepared by Students for Students. Dr. M.D. Murphy (ed.) Available online:

Wikipedia. 2009. Picture credits of Marx and Engels.

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