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Materialism is one of the major anthropological perspectives for analyzing human societies. Materialism is a position that the physical world can impact and set constraints on human behavior. The materialists believe that human behavior is part of nature and therefore, it can be understood by using the methods of studying natural science. Materialists do not necessarily assume that material reality is more important than mental reality. However, they give priority to the material world over the world of the mind when they explain human societies. This doctrine of materialism started and developed from Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. Marx and Engels presented an evolutionary model of societies based on the materialist perspective. They argued that societies go through the following stages in order from tribalism to feudalism to capitalism to communism. Their work drew little attention from anthropology in the early twentieth-century. However, since the late 1920s, anthropologists have increasingly come to depend on their materialist explanations for analyzing societal development and some inherent problems of capitalist societies. Anthropologists who heavily rely on the insights of Marx and Engels include neo-evolutionists, neo-materialists, feminists, and postmodernists.

The theoretical school of Neomaterialism developed soon after Neoevolutionism emerged in the late 1930s. Neomaterialism was strongly influenced by Neoevolutionism, which asserted that material conditions determine other aspects of societies. Although both theories focus on surrounding environments of societies, they took different approaches. While Neoevolutionists considered environments to be independent forces that shape culture, Neomaterialists examined relationships between populations and environments. The Neomaterialists claimed that societies function to maintain a balance between human activities and the productive capacity of the environment. Neomaterialism was extremely popular in the 1970s and 1980s. This approach continues to be the most powerful and enduring theoretical positions within modern American anthropology.

Marvin Harris (1927-2001, The United States)

Marvin Harris, developed the approach of Cultural Materialism (a form of neo-materialsim), which explains culture based on the practical problems of earthly human existence. Cultural Materialism identifies three universal components in all societies: infrastructure, structure, and superstructure.

The infrastructure consists of fundamental elements for human survival and has two subcomponents: the mode of production and the mode of reproduction. The structure consists of domestic and political economy. The superstructure consists of shared cognitive and ideological patterns and behaviors in the society. Harris analyzed relationships among these three components of societies and argued that they are related through the “Principle of Infrastructural Determinism.” This principle asserts that the infrastructure is the basic foundation of sociocultural life and that it determines the formation of the structure. Then the structure asserts a strong influence on the formation of the superstructure. Harris stressed that the flow of these causal relationships could operate in the reverse direction, from superstructure to infrastructure. However, opposite flow happens with less frequency and is less significant. Harris also explained an explanation on why the infrastructure is so important for sociocultural life. In his view, the infrastructure has priority over the other structures because it directly relates to human survival and physical well-being. Only after basic needs are met, can humans become concerned with social organization and ideology. Harris’ Cultural Materialism approach was based on his belief that anthropology is a science. Since science is based on laws, anthropology should focus on infrastructures because they are governed by laws.

Roy A. Rappaport (The United States, 1926-1997)

Roy A. Rappaport was a cultural materialist who explained cultural phenomenon in terms of material factors among people and the surrounding natural environment. One of his famous books, Pigs for the Ancestors, was an example of his cultural materialistic approach. This book describes the role of a religious ceremony among Tsembaga, a community of horticulturalists in New Guinea. This community conducted a ritual, called kaiko, when they won new land from warfare. In the ceremony, the Tsembaga planted ritual trees on the border of new territory and slaughtered a large number of pigs for pork. The Tsembaga explained to Rapapport that they slaughter pigs in order to offer the pork to their ancestors, and they plant ritual trees in order to create a connection with ancestral souls on their new land. In addition to describing Tsembaga’s point of view, Rappaport calculated caloric exchanges among the community, the natural environment, and neighboring populations.

As a result of this calculation, Rappaport found that the kaiko ritual was articulated with the ecological relationship among people, pigs, local food supplies, and warfare. Warfare and the succeeding kaiko ritual occurred every couple of years and this cycle corresponds with the increasing pig population. In other words, the ritual kept the number of pigs within the capacity of the natural environment and prevented land degradation. At the same time, the kaiko ceremony distributed surplus wealth in the form of pork and facilitated trade among people.

Rappaport’s analysis on kaiko ritual is typical of cultural materialist point of view. In general, religious ceremonies are strictly cultural and can be explained in terms of values and other non-material concepts. However, Rappaport revealed how the kaiko ritual is interrelated with material aspects of the Tsembaga society and their surrounding natural environment.

19th-century Evolutionism | Historical Particularism | Functionalism | Culture and Personality | Neoevolutionism | Materialism and NeoMaterialism | Structuralism | Symbolic Anthropology | Postmodernism