Cultural Materialism

Cultural Materialism

Cultural Materialism stems from anthropology which is the study of human beings. Culture, a broad concept that encompasses cultural materialism refers to socially conditioned activities and thoughts associated with social groups and populations. Materialism on the other hand refers to technological and economic factors that play a significant role in the molding of society. It exists as dialectical, historical and cultural (Rogers 10).

Cultural materialism is a school of thought which emphasizes on understanding human culture by examining visible material conditions such as food supply, climatic and geographic variation. It is fundamental in expounding a clear understanding of the causes of differences and similarities among cultures and societies (Milner 8). The main premise of this theory is that human social life is a response to practical problems of earthly existence. It opposes strategies that deny the legitimacy of the feasibility of scientific accounts of human behavior. This approach backs Marx’s original strategy by breaking away from the Hegelian notion of all systems evolving through a dialect of contradictory negations and adding reproductive pressure and ecological variables.

Culture Materialism can also be classified into three levels that is, infrastructure, structure and the superstructure. The infrastructure is composed of the production modes that is, technology and practices initiated to expand, maintain and limit population, the structure entails domestic and political environments while the superstructure is the recreational and aesthetic products and services (Milner 14).

Cultural materialism tends to be at odds with idealism which as idealists believe in the transcend ability of ideas while materialists believe that culture does not and should not transcend its material trappings. It therefore plays a vital role in bridging the gap between Marxism and Post- Modernism.

This approach despite providing sufficient limelight on the integration of culture and materialism faces criticism due to various reasons. First of all, Marxists argue that this concept fails to address the influence of structure on infrastructure, for example, the influence of organizational patterns such as governments on resources which is currently not the case as structure to some extent influences the infrastructure (Gelinas 45).

Secondly from Gelinas’ view, post modernists believe that relying on ‘etic’ which is mostly behavioral is inappropriate in the study of culture (45). Idealists on the other hand criticize cultural materialists for ignoring belief and genetics and base their foundation on the level of significance of the ‘emic’ which should be more than the cultural materialists allow. It is essential to note therefore that both Marxists and Post modernists allow for extreme use of either one of the two, that is, thought and behavior while they fail to balance the appropriate application of both components for better conceptualization.

Thirdly, Cultural materialism is seen as too simplistic and fails to consider spiritual and intellectual influences on society which are intangible in nature thus cannot be adequately accounted for only materially (Milner 28).

Two writers known to have significantly contributed to the documentation and elaboration of cultural Materialism from different perspectives are;

Raymond Williams.

Marvin Harris.

Raymond Williams backed this theory by integrating structures of feeling which are values that change and are formed as humans live and interact with the material world. These values challenge dominant ideological forms and create an implication that values are organic and dynamic. Thus cultural materialism embraces change while giving variations in perspective based on our choice to suppress or reveal readings of past actions (Rogers 42).

Williams further extrapolated the understanding of the relationship between culture and society through his essay ‘Culture is Ordinary’. In order to clarify this, he borrowed Marxist’s tenet of culture being interpreted in relation to its underlying production system and glossed it with culture being a way of life and that arts, are a part of a social structure which economic change radically affects. Culture is political as the social process addressed through political analysis is embedded in culture (Rogers 56).

William’s explains that political analysis acts as a specialized framework used to understand culture as a whole way of life. The aspects of radical criticism, politics being cultural, political struggle that takes the shape of cultural forms are expressed largely by Williams in his work. The solutions to these lie in the recognition of limited but available space for viable alternatives, the need for national identity as well as incorporation of new technology such as the internet as useful media for communication necessary to drive the change.

Cultural materialism has also been discussed at length by Marvin Harris who defines culture as composing of religion, politics, art, science, superstition, language, the social structure among others, and materialism encompassing materiality which is fundamental to reality (Gelinas 68). His concept of cultural materialism is basically borrowed from anthropological teachings especially Marxist’s materialism. According to him, cultural materialism aims to explain the cultural organization, symbolism and ideology within the materialistic framework of infrastructure, structure and superstructure as earlier defined.

In addition, the infrastructure which consists of fundamental human survival elements is further divided into two subcomponents; the production and reproduction modes. The structure consists of the domestic and political economy while the superstructure consists of shared cognitive and ideological patterns and societal behaviors. The development of a synergy amongst these components is strengthened by the Principle of Infrastructural Determinism. It takes into consideration the role of the infrastructure as the basis of the socio-cultural life as well as the foundation for the structure. The structure then asserts a strong influence on the superstructure. The knock on effects of these relationships could operate backwards but with less frequency and significance (Milner 50).

The basis of Harris’ Cultural materialism is on the belief that anthropology exists as a science which is governed by law hence infrastructures should subsequently be governed by rules and regulations ( Milner 54).

Several sociological terms can be related to Cultural Materialism. These include;

Anthropology, a social science which covers the study of traditional cultures as well as the evolution of species.

Infrastructural determinism, a major principle introduced by Harris who explains the relationship between the infrastructure, structure and super structure and their respective order in the overall structure (Gelinas 73).

Marxism, a modern social theory that derives its main components from Marx’s ideologists. This theory greatly as envisioned by Rodgers 63, emphasizes class struggle and material causation.

Society which is a group of people living in a distinct territory is subjected to a common system of political governance, and share a common culture.

Class, refers to socioeconomic differentiations between groups of individuals which create variations in their life opportunities and power.

The theoretical framework refers to a collection of interrelated concepts. A theoretical framework incorporates concepts and explains the relation of one concept to another. A sociological theoretical framework takes into consideration social aspects or concepts in theories and interrelates them (Gramberge 22). These concepts or variables are then subjects to hypothesis testing to determine their dependability.

Culture and materialism are basic concepts considered in the social sphere. Cultural Materialism takes into consideration the external environment composed of the physical/ biological environment, the political and technological environment which influences cultural changes (Gramberge 43). Culture is molded by factors such as customs, beliefs, taboos, geographical locations among others. These make up the subset of the cultural concept that forms the dependent variable. Materialism on the other hand focuses on the conditions that humans are exposed to such as economic and technological changes which are independent and hence act as driving forces for cultural dynamicity.

The sociological theoretical framework also incorporates the infrastructure, structure and superstructure as basic social variables. These are then hypothetically tested to prove the relationship amongst them to come up with a well founded theory.

Culture, materialism, infrastructure, structure and superstructure are concepts that relate to cultural materialism.

Cultural Materialism is a theory that has been developed recently and still faces challenges from idealists and post- modernists. However, cultural materialism sheds light on the perception of the need to incorporate rules and regulations in scientific explorations. In addition, the interrelationship between the infrastructure, structure and superstructure gives an appreciation of the importance of interactions and mutual dependence of life’s spheres both emic and etic (Gelinas 88).

From Raymond William’s perspective, the need to embrace change is essential to pave way for personal growth. This however is left to humans to choose. Making the right choices offers future opportunities for development. Criticism should also be embraced wholesomely for specific changes to take place.

Works Cited

Gelinas, Grace. The Encyclopedia of Socio-cultural Anthropology. London; New York: Routledge.1997.

Rogers, Danny. Cultural Materialism: the science of culture. Iowa: University of Iowa.


Milner, Andrew. The Essence of Cultural Materialism.UK: Sage.2000.

Gramberge, Krisberg. Theoretical Framework: sociology in perspective. Melbourne: Harcourt Brace.2001.