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The term Cultural materialism refers to two separate scholarly endeavours:

  1. It is an anthropological research paradigm championed most notably by Marvin Harris.
  2. It is a Marxist theory of literature.

In spite of the influence of Marx on both endeavors, there is no real overlap between the two forms of cultural materialism.


Cultural Material is an anthropological research orientation. "It is based on the simple premise that human social life is a response to the practical problems of earthly existence" (Harris 1979:xv).

It was influenced by the writings of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, yet it is a materialism distinct from Marxist dialectical materialism. As well, it is distinct from philosophical materialism. Thomas Malthus' work encouraged Harris to consider reproduction of equal importance to production. The research strategy was also influenced by the work of earlier anthropologists including Edward Tylor and Lewis Henry Morgan who, in the 19th century, first proposed that cultures evolved from the less complex to the more complex over time. Leslie White and Julian Steward and their theories of cultural evolution and cultural ecology were instrumental in the reemergence of evolutionist theories of culture in the 20th century and Harris took inspiration from them in formulating cultural materialism. It was in 1968 with Harris' The Rise of Anthropological Theory, a wide-ranging critique of Western thinking about culture, that he first proposed the name.

Epistemological principles

Cultural materialism is a scientific research strategy and as such utilizes the scientific method. Other important principles include operational definitions, Karl Popper's falsifiability, Thomas Kuhn's paradigms, and the positivism first proposed by Auguste Comte and popularized by the Vienna Circle. The primary question that arises in applying the techniques of science to understanding the differences and similarities between cultures is how the research strategy "treats the relationship between what people say and think as subjects and what they say and think and do as objects of scientific inquiry" (Harris 1979:29). In response to this cultural materialism makes a distinction between behavioral events and ideas, values, and other mental events. It also makes the distinction between emic and etic operations. Emic operations, within cultural materialism, are ones in which the descriptions and analyses are acceptable by the native as real, meaningful, and appropriate. Etic operations are ones in which the categories and concepts used are those of the observer and are able to generate scientific theories. The research strategy prioritizes etic behavior phenomena.

Theoretical principles

Cultural materialism asserts that sociocultural phenomena usually do not emerge at random, through the interplay of ideas, or because of particular social structures, but rather probabilistically result from pressures in the relationships between a population, its economy, its technology, and its environment. Cultural materialism recognises four universal components of sociocultural systems:

  • Etic and behavioral Infrastructure, comprising a society's relations to the environment, which includes their etic and behavioral modes of production and reproduction (material relations).
  • Etic and behavioral Structure, the etic and behavioral domestic and political economies of a society (social relations).
  • Etic and behavioral Superstructure, the etic and behavioral symbolic and ideational aspects of a society, e.g. the arts, rituals, sports and games, and science (symbolic and ideational relations).
  • Emic and mental Superstructure, including "conscious and unconscious cognitive goals, categories, rules, plans, values, philosophies, and beliefs" (Harris 1979:54) (meaningful or ideological relations).

Within this division of culture, cultural materialism argues for what is referred to as the principle of probabilistic infrastructural determinism. The essence of its materialist approach is that the infrastructure is in almost all circumstances the most significant force behind the evolution of a culture. Structure and superstructure are not considered "insignificant, epiphenomenal reflexes of infrastructural forces" (Harris 1979:72). The structure and symbolic/ideational aspects act as regulating mechanisms within the system as a whole.

The research strategy predicts that it is more likely that in the long term infrastructure probabilistically determines structure, which probabilistically determines the superstructures, than otherwise. Thus, much as in earlier Marxist thought, material changes (such as in technology or environment) are seen as largely determining patterns of social organization and ideology in turn.

Disagreement with Marxism

In spite of the debt owed to the economic theories of Marx and Engels, cultural materialism rejects the Marxist dialectic which in turn was based on the theories of the philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel.

As Harris said in his Cultural Materialism: The Struggle for a Science of Culture

Ruling groups throughout history and prehistory have always promoted the mystification of social life as their first line of defense against actual or potential enemies. In the contemporary political context, idealism and eclecticism serve to obscure the very existence of ruling classes, thus shifting the blame for poverty, exploitation, and environmental degradation from the exploiters to the exploited. Cultural materialism opposes cultural idealism and eclecticism because these strategies, through their distorted and ineffectual analyses, prevent people from understanding the causes of war, poverty and exploitation. Cultural materialism opposes dialectical materialism for the very same reasons. As a political ideology, Marxist-Leninist dialectical materialism attempts to advance the struggle against exploitation by promoting a scientifically unjustifiable sense of certainty about the future. But the same sense of certainty gives additional opportunities for the perpetuation of exploitation by the new ruling classes, providing these new classes with an elaborate ideology for justifying the self-serving obfuscation of the exploitative aspects of the state systems they control. Disparagement of positivist epistemologies can lead to the dialectical inevitability of even the most misguided analysis. Cultural materialism holds that the elimination of exploitation will never be achieved in a society which subverts the empirical and operational integrity of social science for reasons of political expediency. Because without the maintenance of an empiricist and operational critique, we shall never know if what some call democracy is a new form of freedom or a new form of slavery. (Harris 1979:158)

Literary theory

In literary and culture theory, materialism as a nascent discipline has attracted a post-Marxist character. Jonathan Dollimore and Sinfield authors of Political Shakespeare began this methodology. This includes an analysis of any historical material, (literature included) within a politicized framework.

The four characteristics of this method are:

  • Historical context
  • Theoretical method
  • Political commitment
  • Textual analysis

Cultural materialists go beyond Marxism in that they focus on the marginalized rather than just focusing solely on class conflict. In this sense it is more radical and subversive.

Cultural materialists maintain moral ethic and material base of Marxism but do not subscribe to its teleological aims. An important cultural materialist was Raymond Williams.

Literary theory.

Cultural materialism is a theoretical movement which emerged in the early 1980s along with new historicism. The term was coined by Raymond Williams, who used it to describe a theoretical blending of leftist culturalism and Marxist analysis. However, while Marx tended to generalize about the clash of historical forces and to concentrate mainly on class struggle, cultural materialists deal with specific historical documents and attempt to analyze and recreate the zeitgeist of a particular moment in history. Williams viewed culture as a ‘productive process’, part of the means of production, and cultural materialism identifies what he called ‘residual’, ‘emergent’ and ‘oppositional’ cultural elements.

Cultural materialists believe that hegemonic structures in society will appropriate canonical and historically important texts, such as Shakespeare and Austen, and utilize them in an attempt to validate or inscribe certain values on the cultural imaginary. Alan Sinfield and Jonathon Dollimore have had considerable influence in the development of this movement, and their work Political Shakespeare is considered to be a seminal text. Sinfield and Dollimore have identified four defining characteristics of cultural materialism as a theoretical device:

   • Historical context
   • Close textual analysis
   • Political commitment
   • Theoretical method.

By forming their analysis of the material in question, cultural materialists seek to draw attention to the processes being employed by contemporary power structures, such as the church, the state or the academy, to disseminate ideology. To do this they explore a text’s historical context and its political implications, and then by close textual analysis note the dominant hegemonic position. They then suggest the possibility of the rejection and/or subversion of that position. British critic Graham Holderness accurately defines cultural materialism as a ‘politicized form of historiography’.

In its insistence on engaging with issues such as gender, sexuality, race and class, cultural materialism has had an impact in the field of literary studies, especially in Britain. Cultural materialists have found the area of Renaissance studies particularly receptive to this type of analysis. Traditional humanist readings often eschewed consideration of the oppressed and marginalized in textual readings, but cultural materialists routinely consider such groups in their engagement with literary texts, thus opening new avenues of approach to issues of representation in the field of literary criticism.


Barry, P 2002, Beginning theory: an introduction to literary and cultural theory, Manchester University Press, Manchester. Brannigan, J 1998, New historicism and cultural materialism, Macmillan, Houndsmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire & London. Dollimore, J & Sinfield, A 1994, Political Shakespeare: essays in cultural materialism, 2nd Edition, Manchester University Press, Manchester. Milner, A 1993, Cultural materialism, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne. MilnerA & Browitt, J 2002, Contemporary cultural theory, 3rd Edition, Allen & Unwin, Crows Nest. Price, B 1982, ‘Cultural Materialism’, American Antiquity, vol. 47, no. 4, pp.639-653. Rivkin, J & Ryan, M 1998, Literary theory: an anthology, Blackwell Publishers, Massachusetts. Ryan, K 1996, New historicism and cultural materialism: a reader, St. Martin’s Press, New York

Wikipedia links

  • Maxine Margolis
  • Jerald T. Milanich

External links

Cultural Materialists:

es:materialismo cultural
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