Cultural Materialism: Food for Thought or Bum Steer? [and Comments and Replies]
In its specific theories Harris's cultural materialism has often proven illuminating. As a model of and method for studying culture, however, it is seriously flawed. One of the dilemmas it faces is the conflict between its epistemology and the assumption of infrastructural determinism: if empirical science is a superstructural concomitant of a particular infrastructure, then it can be neither more valid than any other view norcausally or practically significant. A similar dilemma surrounds the existence of long-lived superstructural components such as incest prohibitions: if ideas have functions, then ideological change can produce infrastructural changes; if, on the other hand, ideas simply serve as "feedback," it is impossible to explain selective retention of particular ideas over long periods of time. The problem of determining the proper unit of analysis is also central for cultural materialism. A focus on cultures or populations obscures the importance of conflicting interests in stratified societies, yet the relegation of emic and mental events to superstructure precludes explanation that would focus on the individual.
Published Article/Book Citation
Current anthropology, 25:5 (1984) pp.pp. 639-653.