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Cultural Anthropology Essay, Research Paper
Anthropologist Marvin Harris in known for his strong conviction based on cultural materialism. He writes widely and is famous for his books, which appeal to the popular masses. His fundamental belief is that the means of production and reproduction cause other aspects of culture such as organization or art. He goes through a causal chain which can all be relate to the urges to eat and reproduce. Although this is a highly simplified way to describe his theory of cultural materialism most of his written work concentrate on the way a culture exploits its environment, and how this creates all other aspects of culture. He explains every behavior by placing it in the context of how it functions in society. He takes bits and pieces of culture to create a functional whole. He believes that what integrates everything is culture
Marvin Harris earned has doctorate at Columbia University where he taught until 1981, before moving to the University of Florida. His first book “Town and Country” was based on fieldwork in Minas Velhas Brazil1. This book examined the effect on a remote center, Minas Velhas when it expanded into a regional center. The center quickly floundered when the Minas failed to maintain continuous food production. Town and Country was an example of things to follow. In his research he tended to concentrate on infrastructure. Harris defines infrastructure as technological, economic, demographic and environmental activities and conditions directly related to sustaining themselves and reproduction. He bases his analysis on these ideas. Another popular works include “The Rise of Anthropological Theory,” which is an
analysis and critique of western scholars. He feels that “at this particular moment in the development of anthropological theory critical judgements deserve priority over polite ones. Harris believes that a culture’s uniqueness is not a result of historical particularism as Franz Boaz believed. Rather he feels that theories hold great value. Harris believes strongly in cultural materialism.
In the introduction of the ” Rise of Anthropological Theory,” Harris compares cultural materialism as comparable to Charles Darwin’s selection. He also explains that cultural materialism is not idealized and evolutionary. He does not concentrate his studies on the singularity of each culture. Rather Harris wishes to apply the following. “The principal of techno-environmental and techno-economic determinism. He holds that “similar technologies applied to similar environments tend to produce similar arrangements of labor in production and distribution, and that these in turn call forth similar kinds of social groupings, which justify and co-ordinate their activities by means of similar systems of values and beliefs. Translated into a research strategy, the principle of techno-environmental, techno-economic determinism assigns priority to the study of the material conditions of sociocultural life, much as the principle of natural selection assigns priority to the study of differential reproductive success2.” Harris identifies this position as cultural materialism. In the introduction of “The Rise and Anthropological Theory”, he states that he wants to apply the cultural materialist model, and that anthropologists failure to do so has sheltered the reality. Harris believes that the focal point of a cultural study should not be that of reality against the ideas and beliefs of a culture group. Rather he believes that there are two sets of distinctions that must be made.
Firstly there should be a distinction between behavioral events such as motions made by a particular individual’s body. Behavioral events include all the motions made by an individual’s body and the environmental effects it produces. In addition to behavioral there are also intellectual events. These are considered to be thoughts and feelings that humans experience. Harris describes the movement of the body as a unit of observation. He feels that the movement of the body is an important part of behavior and culture3. He wanted to take an unmistakable and depersonalized ideal of culture. He feels that language often holds double meaning so he left out linguistic verification given by informants. Harris contrived vocabulary that expressed different classes of behavior. The smallest form of visible of behavior he called actons, habitual action are called actonemes. An example of an actone would be picking up a glass opening of the mouth and the liquid vanishing in the mouth. From these basic units more complexity follows. Such detailed description is tedious and expensive. Harris acknowledges this but feels that to be consistent and scientific cultural taxonomy is necessary.
Another set of distinctions must be placed upon the different ways of viewing a culture. The first is the emic view. The emic view is that of the people who live and experience their culture. The etic view places the observers as judges. Kenneth Pike coined etic and emic4. By using the endings of the words “phonetic” and phonetics. Phonetics is the description of the speech sounds that are produced by human beings. Phonemics is sorting out these sounds in order to arrive at the distinction. Harris applies these to culture. Etic allows a culture to be classified to find meaningful structure of a particular culture. “Etic is a classificatory, emics reflect the internal structural relationships found in specific cultural systems.” The scholar studying from the etic standpoint must generate scientifically productive theories about the causes of sociocultural differences and similarities. When feeling, meaning or purpose arise the observation is no longer scientific. Harris feels that emics deal with the psychological state of the actor and his own view of his behavior is clouded by their personal interpretations. Etic is scientific. The observer is removed hence free to make an interpretation that may unfortunately be offensive to the cultures’ way of life. The etic view often takes away the sacred nature of many ceremonies, ideals and traditions. Harris feels the bottom line is that etic and emic serve a function. He believes that there are specific categories to human activity and thought. Harris does slightly safeguard his opinions on the value of etic being the most important way of study. He claims that both etic and emics are valuable part of culture analysis. However there should be knowledge that etic and emic lead to completely different interpretations.
The universal structure of sociocultural systems pushed upon by cultural materialism is based on predictable biological and psychological states of human groups5. Harris feels that there are specific categories to human activity and thought. First are the means of meeting food requirements. This is the etic behavioral mode of production. Second is the need to ensure that enough reproduction occurs to sustain the population, the etic behavioral mode of reproduction. Lastly there are actions taken by each society to secure order within their group and with other groups. This is called the etic of behavioral domestic life, economies and the etic behavioral political economies. Harris also adds another etic category called behavioral superstructure. It concentrates on the value of symbolic processes for example art, ritual or sport.
Harris combines these categories together. Production and reproduction are placed under the heading of infrastructure6. Infrastructure includes all of the practices used in expanding or restricting basic subsistence production, mainly the production of food and other types of energy within the limitations of a specific environment. Infrastructure also encompasses the technology and customs used for increasing, restricting and maintaining reproduction. Structure combines the domestic economy and the political economy. It includes the organization of the production and reproduction; trade and consumption within a group. Above this is the larger scale controls placed on groups which regulate reproduction, production, trade and consumption between different groups. This applies to small-scale bands and to large state organized groups. Behavioral superstructure is also added. It contains art; music, dance, literature, rituals, games, and sports. The result is a tidy set of categories, infrastructure, structure and superstructure. The final category includes all things that fail to fit into the model. They are referred to as the mental and emic structure. Harris feels that this model should be followed. By concentrating on infrastructure, a large body of knowledge would be created with law like generalization. The premise holds that changes in infrastructure appear in the structure and super structure of a society. Harris not only applies these ideas to the evolution of people throughout time, he also applies these laws to present day societies. The following are several examples of how cultural materialism functions in both the past and the present. The final interpretations are based on his etic view of culture.
Anthropologist Noel T. Boas gives an excellent hypothetical example of how the environment and the way humans exploit and adapt to it has an effect on all of the cultural attributes of a group7. A group of pre-historic humans lived on the edge of the glaciers in the Far North. A group of the tribes’ hunters tracked a drove of caribou that attempted to escape across a snowfield. A similar herd escaped from this same group of hunters the prior year when two of the hunters became temporarily blind from the intense glare of the sun reflecting off of the snow. This year one of the groups had carved eye masks that limited the amount of light entering the eye to a single slit. The way the slits angled up resembled that of a fox. The hunters tied them on and were able to hunt the caribou across the snow without the glare of the sun preventing them from killing the prey. Their caribou fed the entire tribe during a time of the year when other food sources were scarce, safeguarding the group from near-starvation. Because the hunters had worn their new fox masks as a mark of triumph when they returned with their meat to the village, it was clear to the shaman that that the spirit of the fox had directed them to the caribou. From this time on, the shaman declared that he would confer with the spirit of the fox before each hunting party left the village. He planned a redemption ceremony to pay homage to the fox for the spring. The men in the original hunting party and their close male kin adopted the fox as their animal totem. This action effectively removed them from the wolf clan and meant that the impending marriage of one of the hunters daughters to a man from the bear clad had to be postponed. Only after long discussions by the elders was it agreed upon that the fox and wolf were spiritually close, and that a member the new fox clan would be permitted to marry a member of the bear clan, their traditional marriage partners.
Cultural changes result in response to environmental challenges. Culture functions as a safeguard to protect individuals reproductive and economic interests in a society. Through social organization and work production the groups benefited and held the culture together. The sharing of these common cultural traits solidified the social bonds. Language served as the mode of passing information from one group to another or from generation to generation. This was accomplished through myth, and epics. The ability to communicate information about their environment was vital to the survival of the group.
The Sacred Cows of India is a very well known study among anthropology students. It serves as an example of the cultural materialist approach. He attempts to prove that religious laws prohibiting Hindus from eating cows serve a purpose. Harris has often noted that students are perplexed by the Hindu’s refusal to eat meat even in to face of poverty and starvation8. While the ban on eating beef seems mal adaptive and counterproductive, it is not. The cow is considered sacred in India. There are religious symbols that exemplify its importance. There are also laws that protect the cows from slaughter.
Harris feels that infrastructure is what made the cow sacred. As the population of humans increased so did the need to protect the cow. (In the past cows were a part of sacrificial rites, beef was eaten for ceremonial purposes.) By 200AD the feasts were eliminated, and only the nobles were allowed to eat meat. By 1000AD all Hindus were banned from the consumption of beef9. To prevent the killing, taboos were formed, religion and law arose to discourage consumption. By protecting the cows Indians safeguard many aspects of their existence. Harris feels that by not killing the cows there is an increased possibility of oxen being born. Oxen are important for agricultural work. Indian cattle do not drain the system the way Western cattle do. They eat inedible remains of crops, provide dung as fertilizer and fuel for heat and cooking. Harris feels that the elimination of consumption occurred over a long period of time. Likely the Hindu people began to notice that the farmers who saved their cows to produce oxen were the ones who survived natural disasters. Those who simply ate beef suffered in the long run. They were not protected from natural disasters. The sacredness of the cow is not just an ignorant belief that stands in the way of progress, but like all concepts of the sacred and their protection, this one affected the physical world. It defines the relationships that are imported for the maintenance of society.
In ancient Europe and Asia, the pursuit for food was the central part of their lives. For thousands of years hunting served as the main source of food. Approximately 13,000 ago global warming resulted in the end of the last ice age. The changes in habitat such as loss of grazing land resulted in an ecological catastrophe. The numbers of big game animals such as woolly mammoths, woolly rhinoceros and the bison decreased drastically. In addition to these environmental changes predation had an effect on the population levels of large game. The extinction of these big game animals concluded in the beginning of the Mesolithic period. During the Mesolithic people began to collect protein from other sources such as fish, shellfish and deer. Anthropologist Kent Flannery refers to the diverse hunting and gathering of food resources as “broad spectrum” therefore the end of the ice age played a part in the extinction of large game animals, forcing human population to diversify the types of food they ate10.
Similar environmental events occurred in North and South America between 11,000-8000BC. Harris feels that these extinctions in the Americas occurred with the sharp rise of population that, and the need to continue to maintain their dietary standards. With the decline of megafauna, the North and South Americans adapted with similar means of subsistence as in Europe and Asia. Harris feels that the Techaucan valley serves as an excellent example of changes in subsistence that transpired in North America. Between 7000-5000BC the people of the Techaucan valley hunted horses and antelope to extinction. They then moved on to jackrabbits and giant turtles, which were also rendered extinct. By 800 BC they were fully sedentary based on agriculture. However the amount of calories derived from animal proteins decreased sharply. This forced an intensification of agricultural and new hunting technologies. New efficient hunting technologies included lances, spear throwers, darts and the bow and arrow. As the depletion of animal populations continued to decrease, the primary mode of production became intensified plant production. Gathering had originally been the primary means of obtaining plants. The intensification of farming lead to an increase of technology. Horticulture was followed by agriculture, which relied on irrigation. Despite the intensification by using hunting and agriculture techniques there were depletions. This resulted in an overall downfall of nutritional levels.
The Middle Eastern villages went through a different scenario. They gathered seeds, wild barley, wheat and grasses. The seeds ripened in late spring for a three-week period. The “broad spectrum” hunters and gathers built their permanent residences to allow for grain storage and production. For example prehistoric hunters and collectors known as Nuftians carved out depressions at the front of their rock shelters laid stone pavements and built stone around their hearths. Other sites date to 12,000 years old. The evidence shows that there was grain cutting and roasting.
Harris points out that the New World sequence differs form the Old World sequence. It wasn’t until 5,400BP that the population of the Techaucan valley built permanent houses, yet these houses were only used at certain times of the year. The people still collected plants for food use11. Harris believes that the different phases of agriculture should not be attributed to diffusion. Harris says when hunting and collecting turn to agriculture it’s not because of ideas, but because of cost/benefits. Agriculture is not necessary if all needs from a few hours of hunting. The reason for these two sequences is in the different kinds of plants and animals that existed after the depletion of the large game.
In the Middle East their combinations of plants and animals was such that by becoming sedentary they elevated their intake of plants and animals. Agriculture has no value if everything needed takes two hours to collect. The areas that Middle Eastern agriculture appeared had wild wheat, barley, peas and lentils. In addition the area held precursors to domestication of pigs, cattle and goats. The Middle Eastern populations settled in areas surrounded by fields of lush grains. The animals were forced to venture closer to the villages as they depended on these sources for food. Therefore the hunters no longer had to search for protein sources they were in their back year. Harris feels that the animals ate a substantial amount of grain, this lead to a need to increase the production. Harris feels that this theory demonstrates why the domestication of plants and animals occurred at different times.
In Mesoamerica the hunter- gatherers of Techucan made use of grains such as amaranth and maize. Their means of seed collection was labor efficient, like agriculture, it did provide a storable surplus. Yet the people from the Techuacan settlements did not set up their towns near the amaranth and corn. The domestication of animals in Techuacan did not coincide with the domestication of amaranth and corn because all domesticatable animals became extinct as a result of the climate change and overkill. When the people of Tehuacan wanted animal proteins they had to be more mobile and follow the prey, which consisted of deer, rabbit, turtles and other small animals. This explains the unwillingness to invest large amounts of time and energy into permanent settlements, roasting pits or storage facilities. Hence the people postponed living complete village life until they had exhausted even smaller animals long after they had domesticated many species of plants.
Harris believes that the depletion of resources in the New World had consequences that set them on a slower path of agricultural development. Domestication of animals in the Middle East let to new technologies such as ploughs increased transportation12. The “faunal endowments” of the different hemispheres had other positive consequences. Village life resulted in higher quality nutrition, which increased lactation periods hence, the spacing between offspring increased. This stands as an excellent example of infrastructure, the mode of production and reproduction. How the environment and the means of exploiting it can lead to different results in the causal chain of cultural materialism.
Another theory than Harris has formulated concentrated on the idea of tribal warfare. In a cross cultural study of tribal warfare Harris defines warfare as “an organized form of inter group homicide involving combat teams of two or more persons, including feuding and raiding13.” Harris feels that warfare is a way of regulating population size, not only because of the deaths in battle, but through female infanticide. Harris believes that cultures that practice war activities tend to favor the birth of boys who are the preferred warriors. He points out that aggressive tribes have the advantage over less aggressive tribes. In the study by Harris found that the ratio of fourteen-year-old and under was 127 boys to 100 girls. He feels that the spread of warfare was a result of the expansion of plant cultivation. With the increase of carbohydrates and fats in their diet, female fertility increased and more pregnancies occurred. Harris feels that in cultures where birth control methods are not available to regulate population, female infanticide occurred. Infanticide rates rise when war occurs. This example exemplifies how food production and reproduction are related and combined under the heading infrastructure.
Harris uses cultural materialism to describe the rise and fall of archaic societies. According to Harris the movers have been practicing the same economic cycle. Population pressures result in higher production, which depletes the environment, leading to the need for new innovation of production. Harris uses the Maya of Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula to illustrate his theory of cultural materialism. Many archeologists have attempted to explain out how (between 300 – 900AD) Maya cultures supported themselves on only slash and burn cultivation14. Harris shows that the economy was more productive than once believed. The Maya environment was less rich in resources than the surrounding areas yet they were able to sustain a large population. Harris’ ideas have often been criticized. By far one of the most shocking ideas is that Aztecs turned to cannibalism for their protein intake. Harris believes that the reason there were so many sacrifices was directly related to the lack of domesticated animals, which were needed to increase food. Hence the rise in population coupled with the lack of food resulted in a taste for cannibalism. This satisfied the populations hunger. Harris believes that with the highly populated centers, the inhabitants were prone to food crisis and famines. Therefore human sacrifice had both a religious purpose and a material result.
Marvin Harris feels that one issue that shines out in the ethnographic record is the need for prestige and power15. He notes that groups often compete for land, power and prestige. The competition often reaches the level of obsession. The most extraordinary attempts at seeking status occur in British Colombia where the potlatch is practiced. The goal of the potlatch was to give away and destroy as much wealth as possible. A powerful chief for instance may destroy great amounts of food, clothing and money in an attempt to gain status and admiration from his competitors. Marvin Harris attempts to prove that the Kwakiutl potlatch was not an irrational activity. Instead the activities were based on definite economic and ecological conditions. The Kwakiutal used to live near the shore and rainforest. They sustained themselves through hunting fishing and gathering. The chief of Kwakiutl had inherited power therefore felt insecure in his position. This resulted in a need to prove and solidify their position as chief. The objective of the potlatch was for the host chief to give his rival chief and followers obscene amounts of valuable gifts. The guests would then be obligated to overshadow the former host. Preparation for the potlatch required the collection of food, skins, blankets and other possessions. Guests were then encouraged to devour vast amounts of food. The guest would also receive irrational amounts of gifts. The guest chief and his followers would then pledge to get even. There was an endless flow of prestige and valuables. Anthropologist Ruth Benedict believed that “The object of all Kwakiutl enterprises was to show oneself superiority to one’s rivals16.” Harris strongly disagrees. He points out that the Kwakiutl potlatch occurs in similar forms in all parts of the world. Unlike Benedict he feels that it functioned as a way to food transfer from centers of high productivity to less fortunate villages. It had a practical purpose. Competitive feasting can be understood in an evolutionary perspective. Tribes often participate in reciprocity with their tribes and other tribes. The mighty potlatch chiefs used their followers to do the work. Although the Kwakiutl were not agricultural their mode of production was still intense. Harris feels that the potlatch functioned as a way to intensify production. As a result the Kwakiutl possessed rank and were even known to have slaves.
Not only does Marvin Harris attack culture traits of Non Western societies of the past and present. He also explores present day Western Society. In “Our Kind” he attempts to explain the reason that Westerners become overweight or “fat17″. Harris feels that the reason for the high percentage of overweight people is due to our inability to know when we have had enough. As he explains natural selection has yet to select against people who have clogged arteries. He feels that in the past those who had higher status had more available food so they had abundant body weight. Healthy weight was associated with being an elite. Being skinny, having less access to food for the poor. Now the poor are overweight and the rich tend to be thin and in shape. Harris feels that weight control requires education and proper diet. According to Harris the poor have less access to proper information and lack the monetary funds to buy healthy food. He adds that foods high in fat and sugar are less expensive, therefore more accessible to the poor. It is true that a lean body is associated with status in Western Society.
. Marvin Harris is a writer who is not only known by anthropology students. His books appeal to the popular mass. I can definitely see why his writings appeal to such wide range of people. He manages to sum up every issue, problem, or dilemma humans in history, pre-history and in the present. Everything fits into place with cultural materialism. Unfortunately by only concentrating on the means of production and reproduction, the importance of all other aspects of culture seem trivial. In his analyses he does not give equal time to structure and superstructure. Because he wants anthropology to be scientific he focuses on the two universal aspects of being human, the need to eat and the need to reproduce. Why is it okay to ignore important aspects of culture if anthropology is a science? Variable must always be considered. With culture there are an extreme amount of variables. At times an audience may feel that he is leaving out important facts so that his theories fit into a neat package. Perhaps anthropology does not have to be a science to be taken seriously. In addition all of the analyses are based on Harris’ etic view. His own cultural background clouds his own view. Who is to say which etic is right? He also studies Western cultures, how is it possible for him to hold a position of etic? I suppose that he has an ability to remain objective unlike others in western culture. Perhaps anthropology does not need to be a science, is it really a problem to have anthropology considered humanity. Since the 1970s anthropologists have divided into two major schools of thought. Those who feel anthropology is humanity and those like Marvin Harris who feels that it is a natural science.
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