Sociocultural Systems: Principles of Structure and Change

Macrosociology: The Study of Sociocultural Change

Macrosociology: Four Modern Theorists

A Commentary on Malthus" 1798 Essay as Social Theory

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In the Classical Tradition: Modern Social Theorists

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Marvin Harris [1927-2001]


The Cultural Materialist Research Strategy

By Frank W. Elwell


The major principle of cultural materialism, called the “Primacy of the Infrastructure,” states that “the mode of production and reproduction (infrastructure) probabilistically determines (strongly influences) political and domestic structure, which in turn probabilistically determines the behavioral and mental superstructure. Harris used to call it the principle of “Infrastructural Determinism” but too many criticized him for being overly deterministic, so he softened it some. This principle is based on a reformulation of the insights of Karl Marx (production) and T. Robert Malthus (reproduction). Harris’s unique contribution is in clearly defining both population and production variables (eliminating the “dialectic” from Marx and the moral angst from Malthus) and in combining and interrelating these two powerful forces in the infrastructure.

The primacy of the infrastructure is a research strategy. When attempting to explain or understand a widespread practice, event, or belief, Harris advocates that your first step should be to look to the phenomena’s relationship to infrastructural practices. Societies are very stable systems. The most likely outcome of any change in the system is resistance in other sectors of society. While the infrastructure is considered to be of primary importance, the structure and superstructure are not mere reflections of infrastructural processes, but are in interaction with the infrastructure. They are capable of exerting system maintaining negative feedback thereby deflecting, dampening, or extinguishing most system change. The result is either the extinction of the innovation or slight compensatory changes that preserve the fundamental character of the whole system. But there are times when change is rapid and fundamental--revolutionary in character. In general, sociocultural change that releases more energy from the environment is likely to be swiftly adapted. So while infrastructural - environmental relationships are central in explaining sociocultural change, Cultural Materialism also recognizes the importance of structures and superstructures in determining the speed, and character of change.

There is a basic imbalance between our ability to have children and our ability to obtain energy for their survival. The link between sociocultural systems and individual behavior is through individual cost/benefit decisions regarding sexual behavior, children, work, and living standards. There are several "selective principles" operating at the individual level that guide these decisions. These selective principles are the bio-psychological cost/benefit calculus that serves to guide human behavior within a given sociocultural system. The selection process responsible for sociocultural evolution therefore operates on the individual level.

According to Harris, there are four basic bio-psychological selective principals: “1) People need to eat and will generally opt for diets that offer more rather than fewer calories and proteins and other nutrients; 2) People cannot be totally inactive, but when confronted with a given task, they prefer to carry it out by expending less rather than more human energy; 3) People are highly sexed and generally find reinforcing pleasure from sexual intercourse; 4) People need love and affection in order to feel secure and happy, and other things being equal, they will act to increase the love and affection others give them” (1979, 63). Since we are relatively free from biological drives and pre-dispositions, we learn the vast repertoire of human behavior through the socialization process. So, while the needs are universal, the ways in which societies meet these needs are highly variable. The entire sociocultural system rests on the way society exploits its environment to meet the bio-psychological needs of its population.

But it is not the simple calculation of the greatest good for the greatest number of people that accounts for sociocultural change. Many changes are more satisfying to some members of society than to others. Infrastructural change that enhance the position of elite are likely to be amplified and propagated throughout the system. Sociocultural materialism is in agreement with Marx when he states: "The ideas of the ruling class in each epoch are the ruling ideas.” The elite are able to impose direct economic and political sanctions to get their way.  Elite also encourage ideas and ideologies favorable to their position. The amount of power and control exercised by elite varies across societies and through time.

One of the first tasks of a Cultural Materialist analysis is to attempt to identify the elite, gauge the amount of power that they wield, and uncover their biases and assumptions when analyzing sociocultural systems. A society’s infrastructure is the primary cause of stability and change in its structure, and the structure, in turn, is the primary cause of stability and change in its superstructure. That is, infrastructural conditions are the primary causes of a society’s basic patterns of interpersonal behavior, and these behavioral patterns in turn call forth specific patterns of thought that justify and interpret behavioral realities.

Ideas therefore find their origin in the concrete behavior patterns systematically engaged in by members of a society, and these patterns of behavior originate in conjunction with the infrastructural conditions whereby people solve the basic problems of human existence. Ideas, of course, interact with (promote, dampen, affect) material conditions--but they seem to have a natural affinity for people in similar material conditions.

The materialist approach is a means of explaining both social stability and change. Changes in modes of thinking ordinarily depend upon prior changes in patterns of behavior, and these latter changes are themselves largely products of prior infrastructural changes. Through the principle of primacy of the infrastructure, cultural materialism provides a logical set of research priorities for the study of sociocultural life. It directs the investigator to begin the search for causes of sociocultural phenomena with the examination of infrastructural conditions. It is likely that these conditions will provide the key to explaining the phenomenon in question. If a diligent search fails to reveal the causal impact of infrastructural factors, an investigator then turns to the examination of structural conditions--then going to superstructural causation. It is a research strategy uniquely suited to exploring short-term sociocultural stability and change -- or the long-term social evolutionary process itself.


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 The Cultural Materialist Research Strategy you should use the following format:

Elwell, Frank W., 2013, "The Cultural Materialist Research Strategy," Retrieved August 31, 2013, [use actual date]


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