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Cultural Materialism : Marvin Harris

In proposing cultural materialism as a theoretical paradigm, Marvin Harris adapted multilayered models of determinism associated with Leslie White and Julian Steward. For Harris all societies had an infrastructure, corresponding to Steward’s culture core consisting of technology, economics, and demography- the systems of production and reproduction without which societies could not survive. Growing out of infrastructure was structure – social relations, forms of kinship and descent, patterns of distribution and consumption. The third layer was superstructure: religion, ideology, play – aspects of culture which allow the cultures to survive. Harris’s key belief was that in the final analysis infrastructure determines structure and super structure. Harris took issue with theorists like Max Weber who argued for the prominent role of religion in changing society. Weber did not argue that Protestantism had caused capitalism. He contended that the individualism and other traits associated with early Protestantism were especially compatible with capitalism and aided its spread. Harris would have countered that given the change in economy, some new religion compatible with the new economy would appear and spread with that economy since infrastructure always determines in the final analysis. Harris’s books include The Rise of Anthropological Theory (1968) and Cultural Materialism : The struggle for a science of culture ( 1979). He insisted that anthropology is a science; that science is based on explanation which uncovers relations of cause and effect and that the role of science is to discover causes to find determinants. 

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