Cultural Anthropology

All about Cultural Anthropology Theories

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Anthropological Theory 101

The discipline of anthropology, at it's broadest, encompasses the holistic study of human beings not only cross-culturally, but throughout human history and prehistory. It's holistic emphasis also implies that anthropology studies all aspects of human culture, from artifacts and technology, to patterns of social organization, to ideology, religion, values and beliefs.

While this is true of the larger discipline, however, it is not necessarily true of individual scholars. Like any social science, anthropology has evolved a number of theoretical orientations, paradigms, or research programs which are designed for answering the types of questions which individual scholars, and groups of scholars (or "schools of thought") are interested in pursuing.

Introductory textbooks commonly divide anthropological theory into two broad camps: materialist approaches and idealist approaches. The contrast between the two camps is as old as that between the arts or humanities, and the sciences. It also effects how individual scholars approach anthropological subject matter at both a theoretical and methodological level.

If humans are viewed primarily as material beings, and their cultures as patterns of material exchange, we have a materialist approach. Such an approach is consistent with viewing the discipline of anthropology as being one of the sciences, and with scientific methodology.

If humans are viewed primarily as actors, and their cultures as a pattern of meaning, belief and interpretation, we have an idealist approach. Such an approach is consistent with viewing the discipline as being one of the arts, or humanities, and with their methodologies.

There is, however, a third position as well. This position is known variously as "holistic interactionalism," or "ecological holism" (Dudgeon 2008a). It argues that "the choice...of anthropology - to be either one of the sciences or one of the humanities - is unnecessary and mistaken. Anthropology is properly a synthesis of the two" (Rappaport 1979).

The present article will briefly review theoretical orientations within each of these three broad schools of thought, with reference to representative scholars from each.

1. Materialist Approaches:

Materialist approaches to cultural anthropological theory include early cultural ecology, political economy, and cultural materialism and their variants. Understandably, materialist approaches are quite common in both physical anthropology and archaeology because these subfields deal directly only with physical remains. Consequently, they tend to be more scientific in approach, and less interpretive. Materialistic approaches are also common, however, in cultural anthropology in the study of recent and contemporary cultural variation.

Both cultural ecology and political economy began to come into the discipline in the late 1960s to early 1970s, both emphasizing a focus on material exchanges and material factors in the study of culture. The central concept in political economy is that of "modes of production."

A mode of production is, in a nut shell, the material, and socio-political system through which society provisions itself. It includes not only the technologies employed in the production of various goods (food, clothing, tools, buildings) but also the means by which products are distributed in society, which class controls access to the means of production, and the social means they employ to maintain their power (laws, courts, police, armies).

In general, political economy argues that material factors largely determine patterns of social organization and ideology. In other words, they propose that a change in the mode of production will cause changes in patterns of social organization and belief as well.

Representative works include those of Marshall Sahlins (1972), Eric Wolf (1982) and Richard Robbins (2005).

Cultural materialism is most closely associated with the work of Marvin Harris (1979). It builds on political economy by adding a materialist approach to ecology to the foregoing. Harris proposed that societies can be viewed as divided into the infrastructure (material, ecological and demographic factors), the structure (patterns of social organization) and the superstructure (patterns of belief, or ideology).

Cultural materialism also proposes what Harris called "the principle of infrastructural determinism." What this means is that material factors are viewed as largely determining patterns of social organization, which largely determine patterns of belief.

All materialist approaches will tend to focus on the concrete and the measurable, largely to the exclusion of ideas and patterns of belief, and to view themselves as scientific. After all, from this perspective, ideas are not causally relevant, because they are determined by material factors.

2. Idealist Approaches:

Idealist approaches to cultural anthropological theory include structuralism, interpretive or symbolic anthropology, postmodern approaches and their variants. Such approaches are much more common in cultural anthropology than in archaeology because there are living people to question about their beliefs, and living behaviors to be observed. What all share is a tendency towards viewing human behaviors as a "text" to be interpreted.

Structuralism is most closely associated with the theoretical orientation of French anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss (1966). Much of his work involved an analysis of the patterns of "opposition" in the "texts" of oral history and mythology, in an attempt to understand the underlying "structure" of human thought.

The interpretive anthropology of Clifford Geertz (1973) is a good example of symbolic approaches. His approach encouraged us to view patterns of behavior, or "focused gatherings" as texts. The job of the anthropologist was then to "read" or interpret the significance of these events, or patterns of behavior, for the people who participated in them.

Postmodern approaches, such as that of James Clifford (1988) or George Marcus and Micheal Fischer (1986) share a similar emphasis on the interpretation of the meaning of cultural events, literature and art. They also add a "reflexive" self-examination of the process of cultural interpretation itself, and the recording of those interpretations in ethnographic form.

In general, then, all idealist approaches tend to employ a methodology more akin to the humanities, and to consider anthropology to be one of the arts. They suggest a more qualitative approach, where material factors are considered primarily in terms of what they mean to the participants of the culture under study, as opposed to their "objective" significance to scientific inquiry.

Much of the postmodern literature, for example, contains an explicit attack on science as a foundationalist and positivist "meta-narrative." This literature argues that science is simply one more interpretation among others, and questions its "privileged" status in the academy. Some would argue that postmodern anthropology has little relevance to ecological and other material issues as a consequence.

3. Holistic Interactionalism:

Holistic interactionalism, or ecological holism, is most closely associated with the works of Gregory Bateson (1979) and his followers (Rappaport 1979; Dudgeon 2008a). This school argues that anthropology, because of its holistic orientation, is necessarily a synthesis of a materialist and idealist understanding.

In other words, it suggests that the discipline of anthropology should not choose to be /either/ a materialist, scientific study, /or/ an interpretive, humanistic study. Rather, eco-holism suggests that our goal is really to understand the /patterns of relationship/ between the ideal and material worlds, especially through the mediation of patterns of social organization.

A common way of approaching this is to view ideology, or meaning, as a smaller pattern of relationship within a larger pattern of social organization. Social organization, in turn, is seen as a smaller pattern contained within a larger pattern of material and ecological relationships (Dudgeon 2008b). In this way, not only can ecological and social patterns of relationship be compared to one another within and between societies, both can also be compared to the dominant patterns of belief of various societies as well.

Unlike materialist approaches to ecology such as cultural materialism, eco-holism also views causality in a much more complex manner. Rather than a linear pattern of determination of the superstructure and structure by the infrastructure, this view proposes a pattern of complex "feedbacks" between the three "levels" of socio-cultural systems, where ideas are just as causally relevant as energy.

Eco-holism is also closely associated with appropriate cultural scale theory (Schumacher 1973; Bodley 2001) in the social sciences, and with ecological philosophy more generally.


Cultural anthropologists have approached their common subject matter from a variety of theoretical perspectives, each suited to the understanding of different types of questions.

Materialist approaches consider themselves scientific, and are best suited to understanding the material and measurable aspects of human behavior. Idealist approaches consider themselves interpretive, and are best suited to attempting to understand the meaning of human behavior, and especially the meaning of that behavior to the participants of the culture under study.

As its followers would argue, however, only eco-holism offers the opportunity for a truly holistic synthesis of these two areas of study. The complex pattern of interaction /between/ the ideal and the material is the central focus of study from this perspective, as well as the question of whether patterns of belief, social organization and technological production are consistent with, or inconsistent with ecological patterns of relationship.

Consequently, it is also the most relevant to an understanding of the ecological crisis which contemporary industrial society currently faces. In fact, its followers argue that eco-holism makes anthropological knowledge centrally relevant to its solution, as well, by making available knowledge of alternative patterns of belief and patterns of social organization practiced by societies with more sustainable lifestyles than our own.

References, addition readings:

Gregory Bateson (1979) Mind and Nature: A Necessary Unity. Bantam.

John H. Bodley (2001) Anthropology and Contemporary Human Problems. Mayfield Publishing Company.

James Clifford (1988) The Predicament of Culture. Harvard University Press.

Roy C. Dudgeon (2008a) The Pattern Which Connects: An Eco-holist Critique of Postmodernism. Pitch Black Publications.

Roy C. Dudgeon (2008b) Common Ground: Eco-holism and Native American Philosophy. Pitch Black Publications.

George E. Marcus and Michael M. J. Fischer (1986) Anthropology As Cultural Critique, University of Chicago Press.

Clifford Geertz (1973) The Interpretation of Cultures. Basic Books.

Marvin Harris (1979) Cultural Materialism: The Struggle for a Science of Culture. Vintage Books.

Roy A. Rappaport (1979) Ecology, Meaning and Religion. North Atlantic Books.

Richard H. Robbins, (2005) Global Problems and the Culture of Capitalism. Allyn and Bacon.

Claude Levi-Strauss (1966) The Savage Mind. University of Chicago Press.

Marshall Sahlins (1972) Stone Age Economics. Chicago: Aldine Publishing Company.

E. F. Schumacher (1973) Small is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered. Harper and Row.

Eric R. Wolf (1982) Europe and the People Without History. University of California Press.

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