The guides to anthropological theories and approaches listed below have been prepared by graduate students of the University of Alabama under the direction of Dr. Michael D. Murphy.  As always, !Caveat Retis Viator! (Let the Net Traveller Beware!)

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American Materialism

Elliot Knight and Karen Smith

(Note: authorship is arranged stratigraphically with the most recent author listed first)

Basic Premises:

Materialism, as an approach to understanding cultural systems, is defined by three key principles, cultural materialism, cultural evolution, and cultural ecology, and can be traced back at least to the early economists, Karl Marx and Frederick Engels (see Principal Concepts).

These basic premises, defined below, have in common attempts at explaining cultural similarities and differences and modes for culture change in a strictly scientific manner. In addition, these three concepts all share a materialistic view of culture change. That is to say, each approach 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.

Materialism is the "idea that technological and economic factors play the primary role in molding a society" (Carneiro 1981:218). There are many varieties of materialism including dialectical (Marx), historical (White), and cultural (Harris). Though materialism can be traced as far back as Hegel, an early philosopher, Marx was the first to apply materialistic ideas to human societies in a quasi-anthropological manner. Marx developed the concept of dialectical materialism borrowing his dialectics from Hegel and his materialism from others. To Marx, "the mode of production in material life determines the general character of the social, political, and spiritual processes of life. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but on the contrary, their social existence determines their consciousness" (Harris 1979:55). The dialectic element of Marx’s approach is in the feedback or interplay between the infrastructure (i.e., resources, economics), the structure (i.e., politcal makeup, kinship), and the superstructure (i.e., religion, ideology). The materialistic aspect or element of Marx’s approach is in the emphasis placed on the infrastructure as a primary determinate of the other levels (i.e., the structure and the superstructure). In other words, explanations for culture change and cultural diversity are to be found in this primary level (i.e., the infrastructure).

Marvin Harris, utilizing and modifying Marx's dialectical materialism, developed the concept of cultural materialism. Like Marx and White, Harris also views culture in three levels, the infrastructure, the structure, and the superstructure. The infrastructure is composed of the mode of production, or "the technology and the practices employed for expanding or limiting basic subsistence production," and the mode of reproduction, or "the technology and the practices employed for expanding, limiting, and maintaining population size" (Harris 1979:52). Unlike Marx, Harris believes that the mode of reproduction, that is demography, mating patterns, etc., should also be within the level of the infrastructure because "each society must behaviorally cope with the problem of reproduction (by) avoiding destructive increases or decreases in population size" (Harris 1979:51). The structure consists of both the domestic and political economy, and the superstructure consists of the recreational and aesthetic products and services. Given all of these cultural characteristics, Harris states that "the etic behavioral modes of production and reproduction probabilistically determine the etic behavioral domestic and political economy, which in turn probabilistically determine the behavioral and mental emic superstructures" (Harris 1979:55,56). The above concept is cultural materialism or, in Harris' terms, the principle of infrastructural determinism.

Cultural evolution, in a Marxian sense, is the idea that "cultural changes occur through the accumulation of small, quantitative increments that lead, once a certain point is reached, to a qualitative transformation" (Carneiro 1981:216). Leslie White is usually given credit for developing and refining the concept of general cultural evolution and was heavily influenced by Marxian economic theory as well as Darwinian evolutionary theory. To White, "culture evolves as the amount of energy harnessed per captia per year is increased, or as the efficiency of the instrumental means of putting the energy to work is increased" (Bohannan and Glazer 1988:340). Energy capture is accomplished through the technological aspect of culture so that a modification in technology could, in turn, lead to a greater amount of energy capture or a more efficient method of energy capture thus changing culture. In other words, "we find that progress and development are effected by the improvement of the mechanical means with which energy is harnessed and put to work as well as by increasing the amounts of energy employed" (Bohannan and Glazer 1988:344). Another premise that White adopts is that the technological system plays a primary role or is the primary determining factor within the cultural system. White's materialist approach is evident in the following quote: "man as an animal species, and consequently culture as a whole, is dependent upon the material, mechnaical means of adjustment to the natural environment" (Bohannan and Glazer 1988).

Julian Steward developed the principal of cultural ecology which holds that the environment is an additional, contributing factor in the shaping of cultures. Steward termed his approach multilinear evolution, and defined it as "a methodology concerned with regularity in social change, the goal of which is to develop cultural laws empirically" (Bohannan and Glazer 1988:321). In essence, Steward proposed that, methodologically, one must look for "parallel developments in limited aspects of the cultures of specifically identified societies" (Hoebel1958:90). Once parallels in development are identified, one must then look for similiar causal explanations. Steward also developed the idea of culture types that have "cross-cultural validity and show the following characteristics: (1) they are made up of selected cultural elements rather than cultures as wholes; (2) these cultural elements must be selected in relationship to a problem and to a frame of reference; and (3) the cultural elements that are selected must have the same functional relationships in every culture fitting the type" (Bohannan and Glazer 1988:321).

Points of Reaction:

Materialism, in anthropology, is methodologically and theoretically opposed to Idealism. Included in the latter are culture and personality or psychological anthropology, structuralism, ethnoscience, and symbolic anthropology. The many advocates of this idealistic approach "share an interest in psychological phenomena, and they tend to view culture in mental and symbolic terms" (Langness 1974:84). "Materialists, on the other hand, tend to define culture strictly in terms of overt, observable behavior patterns, and they share the belief that technoenvironmental factors are primary and causal" (Langness 1974:84). The contemporaneous development of these two major points of view allowed for scholarly debate on which approach was the most appropriate in the study of culture.

Leading Figures:

  • Karl Marx (1818-1883)
  • Frederick Engels (1820-1895)
  • Leslie White (1900-1975)
  • Julian Steward (1902-1972)
  • Marvin Harris (1927-2001)

Key Works:

  • Bloch, Maurice 1975 Marxist Analyses and Social Anthropology. London, Malaby Press.
  • Godelier, Maurice 1977 Perspectives in Marxist Anthropology. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.
  • Harris, Marvin 1968 The Rise of Anthropological Theory. New York, Crowell.
  • Harris, Marvin 1979 Cultural Materialism: The Struggle for a Science of Culture. New York, Random House.
  • Marx, Karl and Friedrich Engles 1848 Manifesto of the Communist Party. New York, Washington Square Press.
  • Nonini, Donald M. 1985 Varieties of Materialism. Dialectical Anthropology 9:7-63.
  • Ross, Eric, ed. 1980 Beyond the Myths of Culture: Essays in Cultural Materialism. New York, Academic Press.
  • Sahlins, Marshall D. and Elman R. Service 1988 Evolution and Culture. The University of Michigan Press.
  • Steward, Julian 1938 Basin-Plateau Aboriginal Sociopolitical Groups. Bureau of American Ethnology, Bulletin 120.
  • Steward, Julian 1955 Theory of Culture Change: The Methodology of Multilinear Evolution. Urbana, University of Illinois Press.
  • Steward, Julian 1968 The Concept and Method of Cultural Ecology. In Evolution and Ecology: Essays on Social Transformation, edited by Jane C. Steward and Robert F. Murphy. Urbana, University of Illinois Press.
  • White, Leslie 1949 The Science of Culture. New York, Grove Press.
  • White, Leslie 1959 The Evolution of Culture. New York, McGraw-Hill.

Principal Concepts:

Mode of Production: "a specific, historically constituted combination of resources, technology, and social and economic relationships, creating use or exchange value" (Winthrop 1991:189). This concept was initially defined and refined by Marx and Engels. For these economists, a "mode of production must not be considered simply as being the production of the physical existence of the individuals. Rather, it is a definite form of activity of these individuals, a definite form of expressing thier life, a definite mode of life on their part" (Winthrop 1991:190). With respect to specific, historical, precapitalist socities, the mode of production manifests as a combination or interplay between individuals, their material enviroment, and their mode of labor.

A similar definition proposed by Maurice Godelier, an anthropologist, states that the mode of production is "a combination -- which is capable of reproducing itself -- of production forces and specific social relations of production which determine the structure and form of the process of production and the circulation of material goods within a historically determined society" (Winthrop 1991:190). In addition, a particular society is not restricted to one particular mode of production; that is to say, "any given society at a particular historical juncture may involve multiple modes of production in a specified articulation" (Winthrop 1991:190).

Winthrop notes that this particular concept (i.e., as defined above), though discussed often, is not consistently applied. Particularly with respect to cultural evolution and cultural materialism, the application of the concept differs from the above definitions in two ways: (1) "most evolutionary studies assume that a social form can be characterized by its technology, that is, that technological processes determine economic relations" and (2) "such studies treat each society in terms of a single mode of production" (Winthrop 1991:191).

Law of Cultural Development: "culture advances as the amount of energy harnessed per captia per year increases, or as the efficiency or economy of the means of controlling enery is increased, or both" (White 1959:56).

Culturology: the field of science which studies and interprets the distinct order of phenomena termed culture (White 1959:28). This term was developed by Leslie White because he believed that cultures should be explained, not in terms of pyschology, biology, physiology, etc., but in terms of culturology (i.e., the study of culture). During this time in anthropology, the notion of society was being developed and becoming a key focus of study. White believed that the primary focus of study in anthropology should be culture and not society. In addition, explanations for cultural development and change should come from anthropology and methodological approach should be scientific.

General Cultural Evolution: "the successive emergence of new levels of all-round development" (Sahlins and Service 1988:28). To White and others, general evolution is based on the amount of energy capture and deals with "C"ulture, per se. Again, quoting White, "culture advances as the proportion of nonhuman energy to human energy increases" (1959:47). In addition, this concept is characterized by the progression from lower to higher orders of organization. In other words, changes in the complexity and organization of cultural forms is a result of changes in the amount of engergy capture. When general evolution is discussed, culture is viewed as a closed system. "That is, culture is taken out of particular and historic contexts" (Sahlins and Service 1959:46).

Specific Cultural Evolution: the historical sequence of particular cultures and their lines of development. Unlike general cultural evolution, specific evolution is based on the efficiency of energy capture with respect to specific cultures. That is to say, a particular culture in a given envirnoment maybe less complex, both technologically and socially, in the general evolutionary scheme; however, this particular culture may, at the same time, be the best adapted (i.e., most efficient at harnessing energy) to their environment. This concept is analogous to biological evoultion, in that, specific evolution can be viewed as historical, phylogentic lines of descent (Sahlins and Service 1959:16). General evolution, on the other hand, can be viewed as ordered complexity of living organisims.

Law of Cultural Growth: "culture develops as the efficiency or economy of the means of controlling energy increases, other factors remaining constant" (White 1959:55).

Culture Core: "the constellation of features which are most closely related to subsistence activities and economic arrangements" (Winthrop 1991:47). This concept was developed by Juliand Steward in his 1955 publication "Theory of Culture Change."

Cultural materialism considers that all socio-cultural systems consist of three levels: infrastructure, structure and superstructure:

1. Production
2. Reproduction

1. Domestic economy
2. Political economy

1. Behavior
2. Mental



1. Mode of Production: the technology and the practices employed for expanding or limiting basic subsistence production, especially the production of food and other forms of energy.

2. Mode of reproduction: the technology and the practices employed for expanding, limiting and maintaining population size.



1. Domestic Economy: Consists of a small number of people who interact on an intimate basis. They perform many functions, such as regulating reproduction, basic production, socialization, education, and enforcing domestic discipline.

2. Political economy: These groups may be large or small, but their members tend to interact without any emotional commitment to one another. They perform many functions, such as regulating production, reproduction, socialization, and education, and enforcing social discipline.



1. Behavior Superstructure

Art, music, dance, literature, advertising


Sports, games, hobbies


2. Mental superstructure




(Harris 1979:52-53)


The method of Cultural Ecology "has three aspects: (1)the analysis of the methods of production in the environment must be analyzed, and (2)the pattern of human behavior that is part of these methods must be analyzed in order to (3) understand the relationship of production techniques to the other elements of the culture" (Bohannan and Glazer 1988:322).



Sources and Bibliography:

  • Bohannan, Paul and Mark Glazer, editors 1988 High Points in Anthropology. McGraw-Hill, Inc., New York.
  • Carneiro, Robert L. 1981 Leslie White. In Totems and Teachers, edited by Sydel Silverman. Columbia University Press, New York.
  • Harris, Marvin 1968 The Rise of Anthropological Theory: A History of Theories of Culture. Thomas Y. Crowell Company, New York.
  • Harris, Marvin 1979 Cultural Materialism: The Struggle for a Science of Culture. Vintage Books, New York.
  • Hoebel, E. Adamson 1958 Anthropology: The Study of Man. McGraw-Hill Book Company, New York.
  • Kautsky, Karl 1906 Ethics and the Materialist Conception of History. 
  • Langness, L. L. 1974 The Study of Culture. Chandler and Sharp Publishers, New York.
  • Levinson, David and Melvin Ember, eds. 1996 Encyclopedia of Cultural Anthropology. Henry Holt and Company, New York.
  • McGee, John R. and Richard L. Warms 2004 Anthropological Theory: An Introductory History. McGraw Hill, New York.
  • Netting, Robert M. 1986 Cultural Ecology. Waveland Press
  • Sahlins, Marshall D. and Elman R. Service 1988 Evolution and Culture. University of Michigan Press.
  • Scupin, Raymond and Christopher R. Decorse 2000 Cultural Anthropology: A Global Perspective. Prentice Hall, Upper Saddle River.
  • Silverman, Sydel, ed. 1981 Totems and Teachers: Perspectives on the History of Anthropology. Columbia University Press, New York.
  • Silverman, Sydel 2003 Totems and Teachers: Key Figures in the History of Anthropology. Alta Mira Press.
  • Seliger, Martin 1979 The Marxist Conception of Ideology: A Critical Essay. Cambridge University Press.
  • Sutton, Mark Q. 2009 Introduction to Cultural Ecology. Alta Mira Press
  • Torrance, John 2008 Karl Marx's Theory of Ideas. Cambridge University Press.
  • White, Leslie 1959 The Evolution of Culture: The Development of Civilization to the Fall of Rome. McGraw-Hill, New York.
  • Winthrop, Robert H. 1991 Dictionary of Concepts in Cultural Anthropology. Greenwood Press, New York.

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