Cultural Materialism:

A Sociological Revision

by Frank Elwell
Rogers State University

Adapted from Industrializing America: Understanding Contemporary Society through Classical Sociological Analysis, 1999, Westport Connecticut: Praeger Press.

It is my belief that the social sciences would benefit from an explicit theory that integrates the insights of the disciplines in a comprehensive yet understandable fashion. Such a theory would be useful in our teaching, our research and in our attempts at making our discipline accessible to a broader audience. I believe that Cultural materialism, a perspective that is capable of synthesizing the insights of numerous social observers, could serve such a function.  The perspective is sufficiently broad and flexible so as to encompass the work and views of a significant proportion of social scientists.  At the same time, I believe the theory can provide the theoretical discipline needed to systematize our observations of social life.

The intent of this essay is to introduce students to a variant of Cultural materialist theory, which I call Sociocultural Materialism. In America, social theory is about as popular as a root canal. In fact, I suspect that many students would prefer root canal work rather than endure another discussion of functionalism or conflict theory. Perhaps this is due to the fact that social theory has increasingly become divorced from social reality.  But cultural materialism is both easily comprehensible and lends itself readily to understanding our world.  As a social theory, it offers a usable, coherent, and comprehensive framework that summarizes the complex web of interrelationships that make up social systems.  As a contemporary theory, it is based on social insights of the past as well as recent empirical findings.  It is an attempt to account for the origin, maintenance and change of societies.

Social reality is just too complex to grasp without a working outline that points to the interrelationships of social structure and culture.  A theory is needed that informs observers how society is organized, how it changes over time, and how this structure and change affect human behaviors. Without adequate theory popular understanding becomes confused; reform chaotic; democracy a sham.  Social theory, while not popular, could be one of the most relevant subjects of our time.

Biopsychological Needs

Sociocultural materialism begins with the assertion that individual human beings are motivated to satisfy several bio-psychological needs. While the needs are universal, the ways in which people meet these needs as well as the extent to which these needs are met, are highly variable. Mankind is relatively free from biological instincts, drives and predispositions.  Rather than relying on instinctual behavior, the vast repertoire of our social behavior is learned. Sociocultural systems thus have dramatic impact on how people satisfy these biopsychological needs.

According to Harris (1979) there are four biological and psychological needs that concern us:

  • People need to eat and will generally opt for diets that offer more rather than fewer calories and proteins and other nutrients.
  • 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.
  • People are highly sexed and generally find reinforcing pleasure from sexual intercourse.
  • 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.
Harris justifies this list with two observations. First, humans share these biopsychological needs with other primates; thus, its universality is virtually assured. Second, the list should be judged not on its inclusiveness but on the adequacies of theories it helps to generate. There are, of course, other biopsychological needs--sleep, elimination of waste come immediately to mind. But rather than enumerate all, the focus is on a parsimonious list of assumptions needed to account for the similarities and differences of human behavior.

It is through socialization and interaction that we learn culturally approved ways of satisfying these biopsychological needs. Of course, in American society many people have been so successful in satisfying the need for food and reduced energy expenditure that many of us are opting for restricted diets and exercise. That this goes counter to our biopsychological predisposition is evidenced by the fact that both take an extreme amount of discipline on the part of the individual (discipline that many of us are unable to master). That people are highly sexed cannot be denied when compared to other primates (though I understand that pygmy chimps make us look like pikers). That this sex drive is channeled by culture so that we learn varying ways of sexual satisfaction also is well established in the literature. Of the four needs, only one needs further explanation, the fourth or the need for affection. Goldschmidt (1990), an ecological anthropologist, believes that the human need for affection is so important that he makes it the centerpiece of his anthropology. Citing the work of Harlow (1959) on rhesus monkeys and Spitz (1965) on affect starved human infants he concludes that satisfaction of this need for affection is critical for both psychological and physical health. It is this affect need of infants that is the central mechanism in the socialization process in which the infant internalizes the culture of the group.

In adult life the affect need is satisfied through acquiring social prestige. "As I am using the term here, it is a quality a person has; a quality that is conferred upon him by others by virtue of his attributes, actions, competence, comportment and the like. It is not, of course, a finite quantity; one can have more or less of it; one can acquire some or lose a bit through performance or circumstances. In this definition, prestige adheres to the individual as a result of the evaluations made by the community, by his public; it does not inhere in the qualities or acts themselves. It is something the individual seeks, for having prestige conferred upon him serves his self-esteem, satisfies that need for positive affect that I see as so central an element in human sociality. Having achieved it by whatever means, an individual is most likely to want to advertise the fact, hence status symbols" (Goldschmidt, 1990, pp. 31-32). This need for prestige is universal, though what qualities or actions are awarded prestige varies from one culture to another or in the same culture through time--in effect, it varies with cultural values.  Individuals also vary in their talents, opportunities and commitments, hence the need for affect produces further social differentiation and inequality. But it is this need for affect that is behind the individual's compliance with sociocultural needs and demands. It is also the cohesive glue that keeps the individual committed to the community or subculture with whom he shares his values.

Finally, Goldschmidt introduces the concept of "career" to keep the focus on the individual as a motivated actor in the sociocultural system: "The individual career is the lifetime pursuit of satisfactions, both physical and social. The central feature of a career is a person's contribution to the production, protection and reproduction necessary for the community's continued existence, but it includes other valued activities that help to define the self in the context of the existing social order" (p. 3). While the focus of this work is on the sociocultural system of industrialism we will return to this concept of the human career in considering the interaction of this system with the individual.

Individual's meet their biopsychological needs through interaction with others, through sociocultural systems. The entire sociocultural system rests on the way society exploits its environment to meet the biopsychological needs of its population. While the needs are universal, the ways in which societies meet these needs as well as the extent to which these needs are met vary between societies and through time.

The Universal Structure of Sociocultural Systems

On the bottom of this page you will see a "map" that is at the center of this essay. All pages eventually lead to this map, the icon that will take you there looks like this: .The map represents the "Universal Structure of Sociocultural systems," meaning that all societies, from hunting and gathering through industrial are organized along the same lines--though the focus of this work is on industrial society.  By clicking over the map you can link to the details of the theory--both how society is structured (the rectangles on the map) and how it changes or evolves (the arrows) through time.

It has occurred to me that the web might be an ideal place to present a sociocultural theory in that the hyperlinks allow one to truly capture the system like character of society. But perhaps not.  So, you have an option.  Either use the map below to follow system connections or use the  button at the bottom of each page to follow the theory in a more traditional format.

The Universal Structure of Societies

Move the mouse over the outline and click for more details.




Should you wish to quote from this material the format should be as follows:
Elwell, Frank, 1999, Cultural Materialism: A Sociological Revision, Retrieved June 1, 2002 (use actual date),

 ©Frank Elwell, 1999
Return to Harris' Cutural Materialism