Cultural Materialism

Cultural Materialism

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The notion that environment can and does determine the way in which people navigate through the ecosystem in which they pursuing optimization of survival by adapting to the specifics of the environment in which they live is the principle thought of cultural materialism. Leading anthropologist Marvin Harris believing that theses actions are then turned into cultural thought, the thought is then solidified by attaching a religious ideology. Culture is the way in which humans adapt to an environment. Harris (1966) argues that cultural acts such as the “prohibition of killing cattle should be understood in relation to the role that cattle play in the production of food crops, fuel and fertilizer” (Mcgee, 2003;285). The large brained individual has the ability to formulate complex thought that has proven to be the ultimate environmentally adapted defense mechanism, culture. Such cultural adaptations give great purpose to ways of living, for example, the Turkana of Kenya and the pastoral relationship with cattle. Because milk is their primary source of nutrition, Turkana rarely slaughter cattle, they also apply rules to when and who can consume a cow.
Marvin Harris explains the Hindu ideology as a form of cultural materialism. Due to the multifaceted purposes the Indian sacred cattle are forbidden from slaughter. The purpose of cattle in Hindu India according to Harris is outside of the realm of the Hindu ideology. Purposes include dung as fuel and manure, milk, traction, beef and hide. The secondary benefits are therefore similar to that of pastoral Turkana and their animal culture and treatment. Harris’ point would be that secondary products create a dependence of cyclical relationship in which religion acts as the glue that bins the law to the people and the product. Cultural materialism therefore indicates that there is a utilization of the benefits of the ecosystem in order to sustain life by cultural group that inhabits that ecosystem. An example would be the notion of “unclean” in Judaic and Muslim pig taboos.
Judaic and Muslim pig consumption law stems from the ecological cost analysis. The once presumable beneficial animal became a burden once the ecology the near east diverged from its original landscape. Toward the end of the last ice age, the emergence of agriculture led to forest reduction and grassland expansion, equivocal to the reduction of the natural pig habitat. Swine, monogastrics like humans, became competition in the rapidly changed environment that could barely provide enough sustenance for the human population, this led to the stigmatization of swine as unclean.

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The Bible and Quran reinforce this cultural perspective. Roy Rappaport, a functionalist, describes a similar situation in which seasonal ritual pig killings take place as a cybernetic feedback system regulatory method. The rainy season of Papua New Guinea brings not only a surplus of greenery but also a multiplication of pig that can deplete resources in the forest. The pigs are then ritually killed to maintain equilibrium. These examples indicate that taboos are present to maintain populations.
Religion not only contends to be the foundation of specific taboos it is a Marxist perspective of a means for social control. However, it is the meaning behind the social control that can be debated by the contrasting theoretical perspective of ideation or interpretive anthropology. Ideational perspective addresses the taboos given to food as culturally relative, it is the way in which the people perceive ideas of clean and unclean that justify the rules given to consumption of certain products. Mary Douglas proclaimed that reality is culturally defined and they are learned through socialization and enculturation. It can be said that Douglas believed, “Shared symbols promote social solidarity and provide mechanisms for social control…religious ideas about purity and pollution symbolize beliefs about social order” (Mcgee, 2003;525-527). Unlike materialism, there is a reason for taboos, but observing each culture and separately identifying the meaning given to a certain aspect address that. It is important, as Geetz teaches to do a thick description of each observed culture due to the fact that as an outsider our Etic perspective can never be Emic. Harris, who openly states that his entire analysis is based on an etic perspective, generalizes the explanation food taboos.
Douglas believes that material conditions do not determine cultural norms, belief, taboos, etc (class notes Anth 466 2011). Judaic pork prohibition is a classification of reality, the classification drives the behavior, it is the emphasis--cultural meaning that drives the action. Classifiscations are set to regulate what is and what is not acceptable. Socially, some ideas are set and taken on as acceptable notions of what can and cannot be eaten, what is “unclean” or clean. It is these ideas which shape the rules, which if not followed is viewed as disgusting or wrong. Socialization and interactions help distributed this social thought. As opposed to materialism, pig prohibition is not due to the material sustainable world, but due to the particular cultural worldview on the cleanliness of pigs. Religion is first in and thought is first in the ideational perspective not the product as in cultural materialism. “Biblical texts classify all animals in Genesis (animals that soar in the sky; swim in the water; or jump, walk or hop or land), also specify that clean, edible animals ‘chew the cud’ and have ‘cloven hoofs’ (cattle, sheep and goats – clean, pigs – unclean) .”
Consumption, production and redistribution of food are determined by power. Power is generally given to and represent religious ideologies and the ability to control people, what better way to control a population than their means of survival, food. The paradigm perspectives of ideational and materialism theories address several ways in which this is done. The reasoning behind rules about food can be attributed to either theoretical perspective. However, in the modern world, the access to foods and the “open-market” foodways can make the functionalist perspective of materialism irrelevant. Still some commodities are more difficult to attain, hence why in the US certain products are much more expensive than others. In regards to the cultures mentioned in this paper by Mary Douglas, Marvin Harris and others it would seem that when comparing the two perspectives they are not as mutually exclusive as they would like to be. Environmental pressures, the ultimate cause, dictate resource availability, which effects operational components and requires adapting to that environment. Once certain components prove to be successful, rules are established to make those successes widespread knowledge that is to be taught from generation to generation in order to maximize fitness. Socialization, the proximate cause, occurs when the thought and meaning given to items as bad, unclean, polluted, or sacred is passed on and becomes social thought. Eventually, no one questions the notion of a when a plate is considered dirty; an understanding is developed and learned from and early age. The proximate cause is the rationalization of cultural thought and symbols resulting in laws and taboos, which then gain support through religious or socio-political authority and influence.

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