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What is cultural materialism?

American Anthropological Association

The Preface to CULTURAL MATERIALISM: The Struggle for a Science of Culture

Cultural Materialism is the strategy I have found to be most effective in my attempt to understand the causes of differences and similarities among societies and cultures. It is based on the simple premise that human social life is a response to the practical problems of earthly existence. I hope to show in this book that cultural materialism leads to better scientific theories about the causes of sociocultural phenomena than any of the rival strategies that are currently available. I do not claim that it is a perfect strategy but merely that it is more effective than the alternatives.

In its commitment to the rules of scientific method, cultural materialism opposes strategies that deny the legitimacy or the feasibility of scientific accounts of human behavior - for example, humanist claims that there is no determinism in human affairs - and it opposes the currently popular attribution of the malaise of industrial society to too much rather than too little science. Cultural materialism, with its emphasis upon the encounter between womb and belly and earth and water, also opposes numerous strategies that set forth from words, ideas, high moral values, and aesthetic and religious beliefs to understand the everyday events of ordinary human life. Aligned in this regard with the teachings of Karl Marx, cultural meterialism nonetheless stands apart from the Marx-Engels-Lenin strategy of dialectical meterialism. Condemned by dialectical materialists as "vulgar materialists" or "mechanical materialists," cultural materialists seek to improve Marx's original strategy by dropping the Hegelian notion that all systems evolve through a dialectic of contradictory negations and by adding reproductive pressure and ecological variables to the conjunction of material and conditions studied by Marxist-Leninists.

Although significant numbers of anthropologists have adopted the cultural materialist strategy, most of my colleagues continue to prefer one of several available alternatives. The most popular of these denies the need to have a definitive strategy at all. This I call the strategy of eclecticism. Eclectics argue that the strategic commitments of cultural meterialism or any of the other self-identified strategies such as dialectical materialism or structuralism prematurely close off possible sources of understanding. To be an eclectic is to insist that all research strategies may be relevant to the resolution of some puzzles and and that it cannot be foretold which strategies will be the most productive in any given case. Eclecticism presents itself as the defender of the "open mind." Yet eclecticism represents as much of a closed strategic commitment as any of its rivals. To uphold all options indefinitely is to take a definitive strategic position. Moreover, it is not a conspicuously open-minded attitude to insist a priori that better scientific theories will result from the use of more than one strategy per problem. This claim actually happens to be wrong. It is not eclecticism but the clash of strategic options, eclecticism among them, that is the guarantor of an open mind. In arguing for the superiority of cultural materialism, therefore, I have no intention of advocating the annihiliation of rival strategies. I insist only that the systematic comparision of alternative strategies be an intergral part of the scientific enterprise.

Eclecticism reigns triumphant because it seems no more than common sense that there must be a little bit of trugh in each of the rival isms, and that none can contain the whole truth. I disagree, however that it is common sense to abandon the quest for the possibility of larger truths in order to settle for the certainty of smaller ones. I also disagree that it is common sense to suppose that the alternative strategies are equally well endowed with truth and nonsense. No strategy has the whole trugh, but the whole truth is not the sum of all strategies.

Although I did not invent "cultural materialism," I am responsible for giving it its name (in The Rise of Anthropoligical Theory). Let me explain why I chose these two words and not some others. By the mid-1960s many colleagues shared my conviction that as long as anthropologists underestimated the importance of Karl Marx, there could be no science of human society. Marx had come closest in the nineteenth century to being the Darwin of the social sciences. Like Darwin, Marx showed that phenomena previously regarded as inscrutable or as a direct emanation of deity could be brought down to earth and understood in terms of lawful scientific principles. Markx did this by proposing that the production of the material means of subsistence forms "the foundation upon which state institutions, the legal conceptions, the art and even the religious ideas of the people concerned have evolved, and in the lights of which these things must therefore be explained instead of vice versa as has hitherto been the case" (see p. 141). The "materialism" in "cultural materialism" is therefore intended as an acknowledgement of the debt owed to Marx's formulation of the determining influence of production and other material processes.

Now I am aware that a strategy which calls itself materialism runs a special risk of being dismissed by the general public as well as by the academic professorate. Materialism is a dirty word among the young, who aspire to be idealistic in their thought and behavior. Materialism is hwat happens to you when you abandon your ideals and sell out. (Never mind that the more money people make, the more likely they are to think of themselves as idealists.) But cultural materialists have idealistic motives just like everyone else. ANd as for pure, unselfish devotion to humankind, rightly or wrongly, a large segment of world opinion today ranks Marx as the equal or superior of Jesus Christ. Needless to say, the technical distinction between cultural materialism and idealism has has nothing to do with such invidious comparisions. It refers exclusively to the problem of how one proposes to account for sociocultural differences and similarities. Despite the negative images the word "materialism" evokes, I would be intellectually dishonest not to use it.

It was also obvious when I began to write The Rise of Anthropological Theory in 1965 that a genuine science of society would not develop, Marx or no Marx, as long as Marxist-Leninists (and other social scientists) continued to avaoid or ignore the facts and theories of modern anthropology. Marx's strategic assumptions, like Darwin's are burdened with ninteenth-century philosophical concepts which reduce their plausibility and usefulness for twentieth-century anthropologists. Because Marx's materialism is wedded to Hegel's notion of dialectical contradictions, Engels gave it the name "dialetical materialism." Under Lenin, the dialectical tail was made to wag the materialist dog. Marxism-Leninism came to represent the triumph of dialectics over the objective and empirical aspects of Marx's scientific materialism.

Cultural materialism is a non-Hegelian strategy whose epistemological assumptions are rooted in the philosophical traditions of David Hume and the British empiricists - assumptions that led to Darwin, Spencer, Tylor, Morgan, Frazer, Boas, and the birth of anthropology as an academic discipline. Yet cultural materialism is not a monistic or mechanical alternative to dialectics. Rather, it is concoerned with systemic interactions between thought and behavior, with conficts as well as harmonies, continuities and discontinuities, function and dysfunction, positive and negative feedback. To drop the word "dialectical" is not to drop any of these interests - it is simply to insist that they must be pursued under empriical and operation auspices rather than as adjuncts to a political program or as an attempt to express one's personal.

Now for the cultural part of cultural materialism. The word "cultural" comes to the fore because the material causes of sociocultural phenomena differ from those which pertain strictly to inorganic or organic determinisms. Cultural materilsim, for example, stands opposed to biological reductionist materialisms such as those embedded in racial, sociobiological, or ethological explanations of cultural differences and similarities. And the term "cultural" conveys more adequately than such alternatives as "historical" or "sociological" the fact that the phenomena to be explained are human, synchronic as well as diachronic, and prehistorica as well as historic. "Cultural" also draws attention to the fact that the strategy in question is a distinctive product of anthropology and its subfields - that it is a synthesis which seeks to transcend disciplinary, ethnic, and national boundaries.

The task of cultural materialism is to create a pan-human science of society whose findings can be accepted on logical and evidentiary grounds by the pan-human community. In view of increasing national, ethnic, and class interests in subordinating science to politics and to short-term sectarian benefits, I must confess that the prospects for a pan-human science of society appear dimmer today than at any time since the eighteenth century. I cannot therefore appeal to the reader to follow my brief for cultural materialism in the name of the jubilant enlightenment. I make no utopian claims. I merely ask all those who fear the onset of a new dark age to join together to strengthen the barriers against mystificaiton and obscurantism in contemporary social science.