CULTURAL MATERIALISM: The Struggle for a Science of Culture by Marvin Harris

CULTURAL MATERIALISM: The Struggle for a Science of Culture

By
Email this review

KIRKUS REVIEW

Parsimony is the pearl of great price in Marvin Harris' cultural materialism. The Columbia Univ. anthroplogist believes that the aim of the research strategy he has developed is to derive more from less. ""Less"" is a measurable set of demographic, technological, economic, and environmental phenomena which constitute the ""infrastructure"" of a given society. Further, infrastructure can be deduced from an examination of ""etic"" versus ""em/c' data. The words are coined from phonetic--the possible sounds that the human speech apparatus permits; and phonemic--the sound combinations which form meaningful units in any language. Etic data are what the observer can measure objectively, while the emic relates to what goes on in people's heads: ideas, myths, rules which the anthropologist learns or infers, and then uses to construct a theory of culture. No, says Harris: the emic derives from the eric; structure and superstructure come from infrastructure. His program for anthropology is thus directly analogous to the Watson-Skinner program for psychology: the psychologists eschewed the ""mental,"" and by observing and measuring overt human behavior, derived laws of learning and behavioral change. For anthropology, the etic/infrastructural analysis determines cultural change and evolution. Readers of Cannibals and Kings 0977) will be familiar with some of Harris' conclusions--like protein shortage accounting for putative Aztec cannibalism. Here they will learn that Maya culture collapsed because of overcropping and prolonged drought in the marginal land of Yucatan; that the cow became sacred in India to conserve a valuable resource; that male-dominated warrior-priest hierarchies were associated with grain and ruminant economies in Africa and Asia. Needless to say, many specialists regard Harris as a supreme reductionist, arrogant or ignorant of nuances, and even question his ""etics""--e.g. were the Aztecs in fact cannibals? But the meat of Harris' book is not so much a development of cultural materialism--with its emphasis on production and reproduction--as it is an attack on alternative theories: cultural idealism; structuralism, cognitivism, Marxism in various forms, sociobiology, eclecticism, obscurantism (as exemplified by Carlos Castaneda). Much of this is invigorating/infuriating reading, guaranteed to raise the hackles. But one wonders why, at this late date, anthropology has developed a form of radical extremism that seems as doomed as its counterpart in psychology, behaviorism. Perhaps a meta-anthropologist would care to explain.

Pub Date: June 11th, 1979
ISBN: 0759101353
Publisher: Random House