Anthropologist Marvin Harris was born in 1927 in Brooklyn, New York. He studied anthropology at Columbia University (BA 1949; PhD 1953) and joined the faculty there in 1952, where he remained until 1981, after which he moved to the University of Florida in Gainesville. He died in Florida in 2001.

Harris has done some interesting work on the history of anthropology, but his main contribution to his chosen profession was his theory of cultural materialism, a kind of blending of Malthus with Marx. From the former, he adopted the idea that population size is related to food-production techniques, and that population growth can have a profound effect on society and the environment; from the latter, the idea that the forces of production are at the foundation of a social system. Harris recast these ideas to argue that the mode of production - a society's technology, especially as it relates to food production, as well as how labour and food distribution are organized - and the mode of reproduction - population level and growth - interact with the environment to structure a culture in a fundamental way. He calls the interface between the modes of production and reproduction and the environment a society's infrastructure, and argues that on this basis the other parts of society - its structure and superstructure - are formed. Under the rubric of structure he includes such things as family, domestic economy, hierarchy, and the division of labor; under superstructure, art, religion, and philosophy. A nice layer cake model of a sociocultural system, recognizable to anyone who has studied Althusser.

On this basis Harris looked at a whole range of practices in cultures around the world, taking a generalist, almost ethnological approach to cultural theorizing that is rare in modern anthropology, which favours deep ethnographic study of one culture or region. Let's take a few of Harris' more controversial examples so you can get a flavour of how his theory works.

Why, inquiring minds want to know, don't Hindus eat cows? In Harris' view, it's because it makes good ecological sense for them not to. Cows are used as draft animals, to drag a plow, necessary for planting crops. Cows give milk, a vital source of protein for poor Indians. Cows give dung, used as fertilizer and fuel. Cows make calves, thereby ensuring that more cows will exist in the future to do these same tasks. And in India, at least, cows graze on any old stubble they can find, unlike pampered western cows raised for beef. So, argues Harris, it is more rational in an economic sense for Hindus to keep their cows alive instead of killing them and eating them; the return is greater that way.

On the one hand, this is an attractive theory. It counters the argument that Hindus are superstitious ninnies who are behaving irrationally in refusing to slaughter their cows for beef curry - an argument all to common among westerners impatient with non-western lifeways. On the other hand, it reduces a complex religious tradition to a matter of protein. Harris must postulate that at some time in the distant past, many individuals realized - probably in some inchoate way - that it made sense not to eat cows, so they stopped doing it. Presumably, some clever theoretician came up with a religious justification for this practice so that would live on in the culture and ensure that future generations wouldn't make a terrible mistake by eating their cows.

Other Harris arguments: the Aztecs practiced human sacrifice because the elite needed protein, so engaged in cannibalism. Jews banned eating pork because pigs required a cooler moister environment than the dry areas the early Jews lived in. Ultimately, all culture seems reducible by Harris to an adaptation to a particular ecological circumstance.

Harris' approach makes sense in an etic way, as opposed to an emic way. The words were coined by Kenneth Pike from phonetic and phonemic, and can be read as analogous to objective and subjective (though Harris would dispute this). To look at a culture etically is to look at it scientifically, from an outsider's point of view. To look at it emically is to see it from an insider's point of view. Generally (though not always) anthropologists are outsiders; they come from another culture or subculture to study "the natives" in their own environment. What "the natives" think they are doing is revering cows; what Harris thinks they are doing is adapting to their environment. Both might be right, but I prefer a perspective which attempts to integrate people's own view of what they are doing into my anthropological theorizing. And I'm not so fond of reductionist theorizing.

Books by Harris, many of which are very readable:
and years of anthropological studies

There's another (not so) famous Marvin Harris, who's also known as "The Singing Truck Driver". He lives in Chattanooga, TN, and you can order any one of his five tapes, "The Way Home is Through the Cross", "Thinking About Home", "For Every Valley There's a Lily", "Blessed Assurance", and "No One Ever Cared for Me Like Jesus" by writing to him. His address is at I swear I am not making this up.

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