Material Culture

Material Culture:

It encompasses all the physical objects produced by members of any particular culture. These range from the purely utilitarian to the highly esoteric. Early anthropology focused on the collection of such artifacts as a way to place societies in schemes of evolutionary stages, but this approach fell out of favour with the rise of functionalism. The study of material culture remains central to archaeology because such artifacts provide the main body of data in that field. Design, arrangements of material objects, accompanying symbolic meanings ranging from the minute study of objects to cultural concept of space are all inspired by the anthropological focus on material culture.


As a theoretical paradigm material culture studies embraces materialism. Materialism includes a variety of social theories that share certain critical assumptions: (1) that the existence of a real physical world sets constraints for, and has a significant impact on, human behavior; (2) that human behavior is part of nature and can be understood by using the kinds of method that the natural sciences employ in understanding nature. Materialists do not necessarily assume that material reality is "more real" than mental or subjective reality, but in the process of causal explanation they give priority to the objective material world over subjective reality or the world of the mind. in the social sciences the grandfather of all materialist doctrines is that of the nineteenth-century social thinkers Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, who developed the "Materialist Interpretation of History," now generally known as "historical materialism." Historical materialism divides all societies into base and superstructure. The base involves those elements essential to carrying out economic production, the "forces of production," which for Marx and Engels generally meant technology, although they also included the human physical environment. When these were combined with the modes of ownership of the productive forces, known as the "relations of production," they created a distinct MODE OF PRODUCTION. Atop the mode of production sits the superstructure, consisting primarily of politics and ideology   but in the broadest sense, including all of the remaining institutions of society. In 1845 6 Marx and Engels (1947) used their concept of mode of production to periodize human history, identifying four main stages of historical development, which they called primitive communism, SLAVERY (or the ancient stage), feudalism, and CAPITALISM. They predicted that capitalism would eventually be superseded by a socialist mode of production.  

Cultural materialism:

The materialist doctrine of Marx and Engels has lived on in the thinking of modern Marxists and been modified by them. Numerous anthropologists have drawn on Marxist materialism. These include the archaeologist V. Gordon Childe (1936) and the cultural anthropologist Leslie White (1943), both of whom have had a major impact on modern anthropology. Historical materialism has also had a major impact in anthropology through its incorporation into Cultural Materialism, a theoretical approach developed by Marvin Harris (1979) and his followers.
Cultural materialism identifies three major components to all human societies, what Harris called the "universal pattern." All societies can be divided into infrastructures, structures, and superstructures. The infrastructure consists of those natural and cultural elements fundamental to human adaptation and survival. It has two subcomponents, the mode of production and the mode of reproduction. The mode of production includes technology, work patterns, features of the geographic or physical environment, and technoenvironmental relationships. It is basic to economic adaptation. The mode of reproduction consists of those things relating to the propagation of the species and is primarily demographic. It includes birth rates, death rates, size and density of population, rates of population growth, and technology relating to birth and population control. is best known for the way in which it links infrastructure, structure, and superstructure. In Harris's terms, these three sociocultural components are related through the Principle of Infrastructural Determinism. This principle asserts that the infrastructure provides the basic foundation of sociocultural life and is laid down first; it then exerts a strong determining influence on the formation of the structure, which in turns exerts a strong determining influence of its own on the formation of the superstructure. Harris stressed that the causal relationships between these components are probabilistic, and room is left for causal influence to operate in the reverse direction; that is, from superstructure to structure to infrastructure. However, it is assumed that causal influences flow in this reverse direction much less often and much less significantly. Harris has also formulated an argument as to why infrastructure should have the causal importance it does. In his view, infrastructure has causal priority because it involves those things that relate most fundamentally to human survival and physical well-being, aspects of life that humans must grapple with before they become concerned with matters relating to social organization and ideology.

A small class on material culture (bilingual, meant for my students)

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