Lacking commitment to any single theory, many social scientists today spin out seemingly endless explanations and mini theories that contribute little understanding to what is going on. This site is old-fashioned in the sense that it is openly committed to a theoretical scheme. Cultural materialism is an ecological- evolutionary systems theory that attempts to account for the origin, maintenance and change of sociocultural systems.

The foundation of Harris' theory of Cultural Materialism is that a society's mode of production (technology and work patterns, especially in regard to food) and mode of reproduction (population level and growth) in interaction with the natural environment has profound effects on sociocultural stability and change. Societies are systems, Harris asserts, and widespread social practices and beliefs must be compatible with the infrastructures of society (the modes of production and reproduction and their interaction with the environment).  The infrastructure represents the ways in which a society regulates both the type and amount of resources needed to sustain the society. 

A good deal of Harris' work, therefore, is concerned with explaining cultural systems (norms, ideologies, values, beliefs) and widespread social institutions and practices through the use of population, production, and ecological variables.  The infrastructure represent technologies and practices by which sociocultural systems adapt to their environments.  Because this activity is so crucial to the survival of individuals and sociocultural systems, Harris maintains, the adoption of these technologies will have tremendous impact on human institutions and cultural values and beliefs. 

Harris fully explores the impact of productive and reproductive factors on social institutions (such as the family, the workplace, religion) and widespread ideals, ideologies and beliefs (feminism, eating taboos, cow worship). However, contrary to some assertions, Harris does not claim that structural and superstructural factors are merely dependent upon a society's infrastructure.  Rather, he sees structural and superstructural factors in interaction with population level and production processes.

Harris' framework is capable of integrating a diverse range of theoretical insights and empirical observations within its scope.  In particular, Harris' concept of structure and superstructure can be further developed to incorporate more diverse sociological and anthropological theory (see Elwell, 1999).  But his insistence that relationships between population and production are at the base of all sociocultural systems, and that this base must necessarily have a profound effect on the rest of the system, are the core of Cultural Materialist theory.



Theoretical Roots:

Marvin Harris has been influenced by many classical theorists, but he is especially beholden to T. Robert Malthus and Karl Marx. Malthus for his work on the relationships between population and food- production, as well as the effects of population growth on both the environment and the rest of the social system.  Karl Marx for placing the forces of production at the foundation of the social system.

Ironically, both Malthus and Marx are probably the two most maligned and misunderstood of the classical theorists.  Like many do with Harris, there is a tendency for critics to mangle and then quickly dismiss their work.  (Actually, Marx had a good deal to do with the misrepresentation of Malthus' theory.)  However, again like Harris, both are far more subtle and prescient than their critics give them credit for. 

Two sites on these critical classical theorists:

T. Robert Malthus

Karl Marx

Web Essays:

Cultural Materialism Organization

Macrosociology: Four Modern Theorists, includes an essay on the Marvin Harris's Cultural Materialism

Cultural Materialism by Catherine Buzney & Jon Marcoux

American Materialism by Elliot Knight & Karen Smith

Cultural Materialism: A Book Review by Danny Yee

Quotes from Cultural Materialism by Jon Mattox

Wikipedia Article on Harris

Other Books on CM

Brief Biography:

The brief biography of Harris in the online encyclopedias all read pretty much the same.  Here is a typical entry:

"Harris, Marvin, 1927, American anthropologist, b. New York City, grad. Columbia (A.B., 1949; Ph.D., 1953). A member of the faculty of Columbia (195281), he was chairman of the anthropology dept. (196366). He then became a graduate research professor of anthropology at the Univ. of Florida in Gainesville (1981). Harris's major research has consisted of community studies in Latin America and ethnologies of Africa. He was very influential in the development of the theory of cultural materialism. He wrote Patterns of Race in the Americas (1964), The Rise of Anthropological Theory (1968), Cannibals and Kings (1977), America Now (1981), Cultural Materialism (1979), Good to Eat (1986), and Our Kind (1989)."


DIED. MARVIN HARRIS, 74, provocative mainstream anthropologist who promoted "cultural materialism," the idea that human social life forms in response to practical problems; in Gainesville, Fla. Among his theories: Aztec cannibals were protein-deprived; warfare was a way of curbing populations when protein became scarce; and a necktie signaled that a man was above physical labor. Time Magazine, Milesones, November 12, 2001.

Marvin Harris Dies; Anthropologist, Educator, Writer 

By Myrna Oliver
Los Angeles Times
Wednesday, October 31, 2001; Page B07 

Marvin Harris, 74, an anthropologist who espoused a number of controversial theories about the evolution of human cultures, among them the idea that Aztecs practiced ritualistic human sacrifice and cannibalism because they needed animal protein, died Oct. 25 in Gainesville, Fla., after hip surgery.

Dr. Harris wrote 17 books detailing his observations about the global processes that account for human origins. He taught cultural anthropology at Columbia University and the University of Florida. He was also chairman of the general anthropology division of the American Anthropological Association. 

Dr. Harris, who was born in Brooklyn, developed a guiding philosophy that human habits develop to fill basic needs in the most economical way. He called his theory "cultural materialism" and used the phrase as the title of a book published in 1979.

"Westerners think that Indians would rather starve than eat their cows. What they don't understand is that they will starve if they do eat their cows," he once told Psychology Today. "During droughts and famines in India, farmers who succumb to the temptation to kill their cows seal their [own] doom; for when the rains come they will be unable to plow their fields."

Other theories espoused by Dr. Harris:

Jews and Muslims ban eating pork because pigs eat the same food as humans and provide nothing in return but bacon and ham, while sheep, goats and cattle eat grass but provide wool, milk and labor as well as protein.

The Yanomamo of the South American rain forest wage war because overhunting produces food shortages.

Dogs are considered unfit to eat in North America and areas where they are needed to hunt other animals supplying abundant protein, but are delicacies in countries that have little game or other edible animals.

Over the centuries, horses have been good to eat or bad to eat, depending on the need for them as beasts of burden and modes of travel.

Appliances and other machines break because manufacturing executives today worry more about the bottom line and finding a better job than about product quality.

Other anthropologists and observers had almost as many opinions about Dr. Harris as he had about why people behave as they do. Smithsonian magazine called him "one of the most controversial anthropologists alive." The Washington Post described him as "a storm center in his field," and the Los Angeles Times accused him of "overgeneralized assumptions."

Yet reviewers found his book-length theories "witty and cogent," "such fun to read" and "marvelously readable" and considered him "sure of his ground and articulate."

Dr. Harris earned his bachelor's degree and doctorate from Columbia University and taught there from 1952 to 1980, serving as chairman of its Anthropology Department for three years. For the past two decades, he was a graduate research professor at the University of Florida.

In 1971, Dr. Harris published "Culture, People and Nature: An Introduction to General Anthropology," which is widely used as an anthropology textbook.

But most of his books were aimed at mainstream audiences. They often had titles as intriguing as the theories they documented: "Cows, Pigs, Wars and Witches," "Cannibals and Kings," "Good to Eat," "The Sacred Cow and the Abominable Pig." In his 1981 book, "America Now: Why Nothing Works," the anthropologist recommended radically decentralizing the economy.

He is survived by his wife and daughter.

2001 The Washington Post Company


Referencing this Site

The Introduction,  Harris' Cultural Materialism PowerPoint, and the essay A Sociological Revision are copyrighted by Frank Elwell. Should you wish to quote from any of this material the format should be as follows:

Elwell, Frank, 2001, Marvin Harris's Cultural Materialism, Retrieved June 1, 2006 (use actual date),