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Marvin Harris [1927-2001]


Harris on the Universal Structure of Societies

By Frank W. Elwell


Cultural materialism is a systems theory that attempts to account for the origin, maintenance, and change of societies. Marvin Harris (1927-2001), a cultural anthropologist, is responsible for the most systematic statement of cultural materialist principles. The perspective is based on two key assumptions about societies. First, the various parts of society are interrelated; when one part of society changes, other parts must also change. This means that an institution, such as the family cannot be looked at in isolation from the economic, political, or religious institutions of a society. Viewing society as a system of interrelated parts is at the core of most sociological theory. Difference in most theories is in terms of organizing principles. The second assumption of CM is that the foundation of the sociocultural system is the environment.

Like all living organisms, Humans must draw energy from their environment. The environment is limited in terms of the amount of energy and raw material it contains, and the amount of pollution it can tolerate. The need to draw energy out of the environment in order to satisfy the biological needs of its people is the first and central task of any society. Therefore, each society must ultimately exist within the constraints imposed by its environment. The environment consists of the physical, biological, and chemical constraints to which human action is subject. Chief among these constraints is the availability of natural resources. A further constraining factor is the amount of pollution created by society. While mankind can modify these constraints, they cannot be escaped. According to Cultural Materialism, all human societies are patterned along similar lines. Based on an environment, all can be classified as having an Infrastructure, Structure and a Superstructure.

A society’s infrastructure is its most basic component in the sense that without it physical survival is literally impossible. All societies must exploit the natural environment to survive. The environment includes the physical, chemical and biological constraints to human action. It involves such things as types of soils, the nature of plant and animal life, and the availability of natural resources. It is the external environment to which sociocultural systems must adjust. Adjustment takes place through the infrastructure of societies. The material infrastructure consists of the technology and social practices by which a society fits in to its environment. Infrastructure is the principal interface between a sociocultural system and its environment.  All societies must life within the constraints of the natural environment (depletion and pollution). While these constraints can be modified, they cannot be escaped. It is through the infrastructure that society manipulates its environment by modifying the amount and type of resources needed.

The infrastructure consists of two parts, the “mode of production,” and the “mode of reproduction.” The mode of production consists of the technology and social practices used to draw energy and raw materials from the environment and fashion them for human use. The mode of reproduction refers to the demographic factors of human populations such as the size and density of the population, its growth, decline or stability, and its age and sex composition are important in determining the amount and type of resources needed from the environment. Demographic factors also include techniques of population regulation or birth control, mating patterns, sexual behavior, infanticide, and other behaviors aimed at controlling destructive increases or decreases in population size. In general, the modes of production and reproduction are attempts to strike a balance between population level and the consumption of energy from a finite environment.

It is upon this environmental-infrastructural foundation that the remaining parts of the social system are based. The social structure refers to actual behavior patterns, as opposed to images or mental conceptions about those patterns--what people actually do, not what they say or do. Each society must maintain secure and orderly relationships among its people, its constituent groups, and with neighboring societies. The threat of disorder, Harris asserts, comes primarily from the economic processes which allocate labor and the products of labor to individuals and groups. Thus Harris divides the social structure into two parts: the “Political Economy,” and the “Domestic Economy.”

The political economy consists of groups and organizations that perform the functions of regulating production, reproduction, exchange, and consumption within and between groups and sociocultural systems. Examples include:

      Political organizations, factions, military,

      Corporations, Division of labor, police,

      Education, media, taxation, urban, rural hierarchies, war, class, caste,

      Service and welfare organizations,

      Professional and labor organizations.

The domestic economy consists of the organization of reproduction, basic production, exchange and consumption within domestic settings (such as households, camps, apartments). Examples include:

      Family structure, domestic division of labor, education, age and sex roles,

      Community, domestic discipline, hierarchies, sanctions,

      Voluntary organizations,

      Friendship Networks,

      Some religious groups.

In sum, the social structure consists of all human groups and organizations responsible for the production and allocation of all biological and psychological needs to the society’s population. Elite groups and hierarchies exist throughout all social structures, and it is their needs that have the highest priorities.

Given the importance of symbolic processes, Harris also posits the universal existence of a superstructure. Again, Harris divides this component into two parts, “Behavioral,” and Mental. Whereas the structure refers to behavior, the superstructure refers to mental thought. It includes beliefs (shared assumptions of what is true and false), values (socially defined conceptions of worth), and norms (shared standards or rules regarding conduct.

The Behavioral Superstructure includes recreations activities, art, sports, empirical knowledge, folklore, and other aesthetic products including art, music, dance, literature, rituals, advertising, sports, games, hobbies, and the practice of science. The mental superstructure involves the patterned ways in which the members of a society think, conceptualize, and evaluate their behavior. Examples include religious ideology, the products of science and  art (symbolic images or representations having esthetic, emotional, or intellectual value), ritual, sports, empirical “knowledge.” Harris posits that these mental categories actually run parallel to the universal behavioral components of the social structures--that is, there are belief systems that serve to justify and encourage behavior in each of the three components of society. However, for the sake of simplicity he designates them as the “Mental Superstructure” by which he means “the conscious and unconscious cognitive goals, categories, rules, plans, values, philosophies, and beliefs about behavior elicited from the participants or inferred by the observers” (Harris 1979, 54).

All sociocultural systems, according to Harris, have these three major components: Infrastructure, Structure, and Superstructure. The major principle of Cultural Materialism, or the Primacy of the Infrastructure, concerns the relationships among these components.

For a more extensive discussion of Harris’s theories refer to Macro Social Theory by Frank W. Elwell.  Also see Sociocultural Systems: Principles of Structure and Change to learn how his insights contribute to a more complete understanding of modern societies.

Book Cover


Elwell, F. (2006). Macrosociology: Four Modern Theorists, Boulder: Paradigm Publishers.

Elwell, F. (2013), Sociocultural Systems: Principles of Structure and Change. Alberta: Athabasca University Press.

Harris, M. (1981). America Now: The Anthropology of a Changing Culture. New York: Simon and Schuster.

Harris, M. (1977). Cannibals and Kings: The Origins of Cultures. New York: Vintage Books.

Harris, M. (1974). Cows, Pigs, Wars and Witches: The Riddles of Culture. New York: Vintage Books.

Harris, M. (1979). Cultural Materialism: The Struggle for a Science of Culture. New York: Random House.

Harris, M. (1971). Culture, Man, and Nature: An Introduction to General Anthropology

Harris, M. (1989). Our Kind: Who We Are, Where We Came From, and Where We Are Going. New York: HarperCollins.

Harris, M. (1968). The Rise of Anthropological Theory. New York: Crowell.

Harris, M. (1998). Theories of Culture in Postmodern Times. Walnut Creek: AltaMira Press.


To reference Harris on the Universal Structure of Society you should use the following format:

Elwell, Frank W., 2013, "Harris on the Universal Structure of Society," Retrieved August 31, 2013, [use actual date]

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