I have significantly modified Harris's brand of cultural materialism (see Harris, 1979, 46-76 for comparison). Specifically, I have abandoned Harris's structural concepts and substituted the sociological dichotomy of primary and secondary group structure; and I have incorporated the Weberian concept of human action into Harris's concept of superstructure.  I did this for a number of reasons:
  • As a cultural anthropologist, Harris is very concerned with describing/explaining sociocultural practices and beliefs. In other words, his focus is almost exclusively on structures and superstructures as dependent variables--to be explained by infrastructural processes.  While Harris frequently argues that structures and superstructures interact with infrastructural processes, his theory has a difficult time generalizing these interactions.  The modifications made here of Harris's structure and superstructure will allow a much stronger emphasis upon structural and superstructural feedback in determining sociocultural stability and change. This, I believe, is essential in attempting to capture the systemic character of sociocultural systems.
  • The primary-secondary group dichotomy is relatively simple to grasp (Harris's structural dichotomy is not), and comprehensive in describing two basic types of structures in human societies.
  • Weber's typology of motivators of human action have been substituted for Harris's concept of superstructure for similar reasons. The typology represents an inclusive list that cuts across all sociocultural systems;  it is thus more powerful in describing relationships between the various components of the social system. It also enables us to incorporate Weber's posited relationship between bureaucracy and human thought and action.
  • The synthesis of the primary-secondary typology and Weber's theory of action into cultural materialism enable it to encompass one of the fundamental evolutionary processes in human societies. This shift has been variously described as a movement from mechanical to organic solidarity (Durkheim), Gemeinschaft to Gesellschaft (Tonnies), increasing complexity of structure (Spencer), and the increasing division of labor (almost all sociologists). Weber generalized this important evolutionary trend as the growth of rationalization that has been discussed in this paper; I believe his general theory of increasing rationalization is one of the most powerful tools we have for understanding sociocultural systems.
By synthesising Weber's concepts and theory into the structure and superstructure--without doing violence to Harris's basic ecological theory--cultural materialism is greatly strengthened. In practical terms, the theory is now better equipped to deal with the most pressing problems of our time--growing inequality within and between nations, the destruction of community, growing dehumanization, environmental degradation--all of which must be understood in the context of the entire sociocultural system. In effect, the synthesis with Weber is one of merging material and ideational theory --a synthesis that is long overdue.

©Frank Elwell