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Can culture be boiled down to material motive?

 
 
Reply Sat 21 Aug, 2010 05:33 am
Marvin Harris seemed to think so. he thought so to the point of publishing that the "Indian Sacred Cow" is sacred because of the lack of combustibles on that subcontinent, and cow dung filled that niche. Granted that is an extreme example of what is called Cultural Materialism (definition below). However I see so often people explaining away cultural institutions through psychology and economics, and I'm prone to do it myself. I assume that most of it can, or can at least come up with Guns Germs and Steele type scenarios which could explain them. What say you?

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cultural_materialism_(anthropology)
Cultural materialism is an anthropological research orientation. "It is based on the simple premise that human social life is a response to the practical problems of earthly existence" (Marvin Harris).[1]
It was influenced by the writings of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, yet is a materialism distinct from Marxist dialectical materialism, as well as from philosophical materialism. Thomas Malthus' work encouraged Harris to consider reproduction of equal importance to production. The research strategy was also influenced by the work of earlier anthropologists ... who, in the 19th century, first proposed that cultures evolved from the less complex to the more complex over time.

Cultural materialism is a scientific research strategy and as such utilizes the scientific method. Other important principles include operational definitions, Karl Popper's falsifiability, Thomas Kuhn's paradigms, and the positivism first proposed by Auguste Comte and popularized by the Vienna Circle. The primary question that arises in applying the techniques of science to understand the differences and similarities between cultures is how the research strategy "treats the relationship between what people say and think as subjects and what they say and think and do as objects of scientific inquiry" (Harris 1979:29). In response to this cultural materialism makes a distinction between behavioral events and ideas, values, and other mental events. It also makes the distinction between emic and etic operations. Emic operations, within cultural materialism, are ones in which the descriptions and analyses are acceptable by the native as real, meaningful, and appropriate. Etic operations are ones in which the categories and concepts used are those of the observer and are able to generate scientific theories. The research strategy prioritizes etic behavior phenomena.

Theoretical principles

Etic and behavioral Infrastructure, comprising a society's relations to the environment, which includes their etic and behavioral modes of production and reproduction (material relations).
Etic and behavioral Structure, the etic and behavioral domestic and political economies of a society (social relations).
Etic and behavioral Superstructure, the etic and behavioral symbolic and ideational aspects of a society, e.g. the arts, rituals, sports and games, and science (symbolic and ideational relations).
Emic and mental Superstructure, including "conscious and unconscious cognitive goals, categories, rules, plans, values, philosophies, and beliefs" (Harris 1979:54) (meaningful or ideological relations).
Within this division of culture, cultural materialism argues for what is referred to as the principle of probabilistic infrastructural determinism. The essence of its materialist approach is that the infrastructure is in almost all circumstances the most significant force behind the evolution of a culture. Structure and superstructure are not considered "insignificant, epiphenomenal reflexes of infrastructural forces" (Harris 1979:72). The structure and symbolic/ideational aspects act as regulating mechanisms within the system as a whole.
The research strategy predicts that it is more likely that in the long term infrastructure probabilistically determines structure, which probabilistically determines the superstructures, than otherwise. Thus, much as in earlier Marxist thought, material changes (such as in technology or environment) are seen as largely determining patterns of social organization and ideology in turn.

 
Khethil
 
  2  
Reply Sat 21 Aug, 2010 07:15 am
@GoshisDead,
Hey Gosh,

I enjoyed Marvin Harris' writing (and reviewed one of his books at this link.).

GoshisDead wrote:
Marvin Harris seemed to think so. he thought so to the point of publishing that the "Indian Sacred Cow" is sacred because of the lack of combustibles on that subcontinent, and cow dung filled that niche.

Well, it was about a whole lot more than dung. But yes, ultimately he did make a strong case that most of these were born of practical/material considerations more than anything else. Its a broad view that tries to bring us down to "common needs" as the motivating factor (or basis) for a lot of happenings and myths in our world.

In any case, to the question: My initial inclination is to say: "No, not all culture can be boiled down to a material motive". The problem is this may be one of those propositions that can't be disproved.

- Yes, I'd say most cultural norms did evolve with material considerations

- But I'd also say that since culture concerns collectives, and collectives are virtually always concerned - at least in part - with material considerations, that the "nature of this beast" says that one will ALWAYS be able to draw any cultural aspect back down to at least some some materialistic implication.

I tried to come up with various cultural aspects which don't seem to have a materialistic aspect. Unfortunately, for each one I come up with; almost anything can be connected to a material concern. Even if this is the case, I'm not sure it means much. Cultures evolve in, around and in the material world - this is unavoidable. Therefore that these 'things' (whether they be rocks, lizards or bras) are a part of that culture seems a bit banal.

... not sure I've addressed your core question, but hoping I've hit close.

Thanks
jgweed
 
  1  
Reply Sat 21 Aug, 2010 07:48 am
As a research orientation, as long as it is not reductionist, this perspective might help to partially explain human phenomena at some levels, but it is subject to the same criticisms as has been Historical Materialism. As causes, both etic and emic "operations" have explanatory value, even though it may be that the former are bettek, e.g. more objective data, for scientific study. If the orientation is careful to distinguish and define a social group under investigation, it may account for similarities among the members, but has a difficult time accounting for the differences.
0 Replies
 
GoshisDead
 
  2  
Reply Sat 21 Aug, 2010 12:30 pm
@Khethil,
Yes I simplified Harris' argument laid out in the research. What doesn't convince me is that just because there is a correlation between most cultural institutions and a material need or want, that it means that one is causal of the other. And yet in my own research I have even been able to make credible correlations between grammatical features and changes in the material world in real time.

I wrote a study on one language that had a feature that relies on a grammatical suffix or pro-form noting the physical location of all nouns/pronouns in a sentence while at the same time employing a tense aspect system that had an evidential system noting if the speaker saw something happen, heard that it happened, or has no real evidence that the verb happened.

While attempting to revive this language somewhat, some of the fluent speakers started using it on the telephone. This ripped apart those features and within months rearranged them in a way that could operate in an environment where the speaker and the subject were not near enough to share the location and veracity of the evidence.
Khethil
 
  1  
Reply Sat 21 Aug, 2010 01:21 pm
@GoshisDead,
GoshisDead wrote:
Yes I simplified Harris' argument laid out in the research. What doesn't convince me is that just because there is a correlation between most cultural institutions and a material need or want, that it means that one is causal of the other.

Yea, agreed. The cause or correlation could only be determined on a case-by-case basis, and most of those facts are long gone and/or forgotten. Still, my gut says that this Practical Basis for Cultural norms is more likely than not.

Thanks
0 Replies
 
manored
 
  1  
Reply Sat 21 Aug, 2010 03:33 pm
Most of the opening post was too complicated and involved too much references I didnt know for me to understand well, but I got the basic idea, I believe.

I would say that culture cant be completly boiled down to material motives. Just like with biologic evolution, there seens to be a factor of randomness that creates parts that dont really help survival, but at the same time arent hardzarous enough to be immediatly eliminated.

I think one good example would be human sacrifices. I can see a connection to a material need here, which would be, the lack of food requiring the population growth to be slowed down. However, as far as I know, that wasnt the only situation where such sacrifices occured.

There is also the contruction of the pyramids. Immense amounts of resources and lives went into their construction, but they are useless as anything other than cultural relics.
0 Replies
 
Arjuna
 
  1  
Reply Sat 21 Aug, 2010 05:47 pm
An idea that has shaped my understanding of history is that societies go through cyclic phases... tyranny, oligarchy, democracy and back to tyranny.

Each has distinct economical infrastructures. They each have different sets of values that pervade society during their given phase.

But as for materialism... the famous Bell Labs industrial engineering studies from the 50's which investigated what increases productivity comes to mind. One revelation of the study was that people need a sense of purpose and belonging. They'll be willing to sacrifice bonuses, break-times, and pay raises if they think the company they identify with needs thoses sacrifices.
HexHammer
 
  2  
Reply Sat 21 Aug, 2010 08:38 pm
@GoshisDead,
Culture has nothing to do with materialism, just as mutch as music has to do with math, as you can get a music on a CD only with math algoritms, sure ther IS materialism in culture, and some cultures MAY have been founded upon materialism, but one can't make such general assertion.
0 Replies
 
manored
 
  1  
Reply Sun 22 Aug, 2010 01:36 pm
@Arjuna,
Arjuna wrote:

An idea that has shaped my understanding of history is that societies go through cyclic phases... tyranny, oligarchy, democracy and back to tyranny.

Each has distinct economical infrastructures. They each have different sets of values that pervade society during their given phase.
That is an interesting idea, albeit its not quite that cyclical, given the very variable time it takes to go from one phase to the next. Perhaps we could say that societies tend to democracy passing through tyranny and oligarchy, but things eventually break down causing it to fall back to tyranny.

Makes me wonder if that isnt what is happening to the US. Lately I have been hearing lots of americans claiming that their country is no longer a democracy but rather the government and the media manipulating the people =)

Arjuna wrote:

But as for materialism... the famous Bell Labs industrial engineering studies from the 50's which investigated what increases productivity comes to mind. One revelation of the study was that people need a sense of purpose and belonging. They'll be willing to sacrifice bonuses, break-times, and pay raises if they think the company they identify with needs thoses sacrifices.
Indeed, people always need to feel like they belong to a certain group and thus have a purpose, which is the progress of that group.

Sadly, thats why wars happen =)
Fil Albuquerque
 
  1  
Reply Sun 22 Aug, 2010 01:47 pm
@GoshisDead,
I donĀ“t really follow the "material" intent here...do you mean need ?
Our need is quite well material ("real") even if our motives may be, or seam otherwise !
Khethil
 
  2  
Reply Sun 22 Aug, 2010 02:10 pm
@Fil Albuquerque,
Fil Albuquerque wrote:
Our need is quite well material ("real") even if our motives may be, or seam otherwise !

... or can be connected to; which is what I'd said above.

One point, just to put out in general and not specifically to Fil or anyone else. "Materialism" has been vilified, I fear, as a shallow way of thinking - that it's somehow reductionist. And while I think I get what these folks might be intending, I'd like to add this: We're all living in the physical world; its where we meet, interact, evolve, live and love. Its our daily bread, our fancy pants or the touch of a good friend. The physical realm (whether it be needs, wants, honorable or otherwise) is where we can do our best good and worst damage.

That cultural norms, ideas, mores, etc., have some predicate in materialism is - I believe - without a doubt - since we ourselves are comprised similarly. What I resist, is that this is in any way 'bad', has a moral implication or is - on the whole - grounds for censure.

... just wanted to toss that out.

Thanks
Arjuna
 
  3  
Reply Sun 22 Aug, 2010 04:59 pm
Just to play off of what jgweed said... I heard folks pointing out the material agenda involved in the gulf-war(s). What occurred to me was that in looking at it that way, this war hadn't been distinguished from any war that's ever been fought. Has there ever been a war without some profit for somebody?

To understand a specific war, aren't we going to have to look at what goes into war beyond financial gain? Isn't one aspect of war that young men have a fair amount of testosterone looking for expression? So adventure, glory... drama. The Romans on the other hand used war for a social ideal of establishing order. Reduce all of it to material gain and how much have you really understood about a certain culture?

I don't think of materialism in this sense as a bad thing... it's where the rubber meets the road.

John Ferling is a historian who said that when he was young he looked at human events in terms of ideals being expressed. As he got older he looked more at how any mass event is the fusion of a multitude of individual agendas... a lot of them material, but not all of them.
HexHammer
 
  1  
Reply Sun 22 Aug, 2010 05:11 pm
@Arjuna,
Arjuna wrote:

Just to play off of what jgweed said... I heard folks pointing out the material agenda involved in the gulf-war(s). What occurred to me was that in looking at it that way, this war hadn't been distinguished from any war that's ever been fought. Has there ever been a war without some profit for somebody?
Most wars are wages in the interest of own national prestige, that you can't allow you self or the unity to be bullied. USA has recently spend 1,5-1,8 trillion $ on war on terror, much more than they would ever get back in any way.
Arjuna
 
  1  
Reply Sun 22 Aug, 2010 05:16 pm
@HexHammer,
HexHammer wrote:

Arjuna wrote:

Just to play off of what jgweed said... I heard folks pointing out the material agenda involved in the gulf-war(s). What occurred to me was that in looking at it that way, this war hadn't been distinguished from any war that's ever been fought. Has there ever been a war without some profit for somebody?
Most wars are wages in the interest of own national prestige, that you can't allow you self or the unity to be bullied. USA has recently spend 1,5-1,8 trillion $ on war on terror, much more than they would ever get back in any way.
That money was borrowed. It's the creditors who won't get it back.

The USA has an agenda of protecting the infrastructure of global trade. Ca ching!
Arjuna
 
  2  
Reply Sun 22 Aug, 2010 05:30 pm
@manored,
manored wrote:

Makes me wonder if that isnt what is happening to the US. Lately I have been hearing lots of americans claiming that their country is no longer a democracy but rather the government and the media manipulating the people =)

Many Americans have wondered the same thing. There's been an unusual lack of faith in the ability of the government to address problems.

It calls into questions whether humans can govern their affairs with intelligence. They seem to be happy to let necessity drive the gears naturally... even if they know that nature's method involves disasters.
HexHammer
 
  1  
Reply Sun 22 Aug, 2010 05:38 pm
@Arjuna,
Arjuna wrote:

HexHammer wrote:

Arjuna wrote:

Just to play off of what jgweed said... I heard folks pointing out the material agenda involved in the gulf-war(s). What occurred to me was that in looking at it that way, this war hadn't been distinguished from any war that's ever been fought. Has there ever been a war without some profit for somebody?
Most wars are wages in the interest of own national prestige, that you can't allow you self or the unity to be bullied. USA has recently spend 1,5-1,8 trillion $ on war on terror, much more than they would ever get back in any way.
That money was borrowed. It's the creditors who won't get it back.

The USA has an agenda of protecting the infrastructure of global trade. Ca ching!
USA isn't some banna republic, it make very long to pay it back, but eventually it will be paid back. China holds most of the loans to USA which China greatly benefit from in political terms, making them more accepted in the political arena.
HexHammer
 
  1  
Reply Sun 22 Aug, 2010 05:42 pm
@manored,
manored wrote:
Makes me wonder if that isnt what is happening to the US. Lately I have been hearing lots of americans claiming that their country is no longer a democracy but rather the government and the media manipulating the people =)
Most democracies has never really been about democracy, only electing which demagogue to get a vote. I belive no democracy country really had the chance to vote about going into Afghan and Iraq, least in Denmark we didn't, it was all about political USA-ass licking.

The sad thing is that USA refuse to realize that no money in the world can protect you, not with intel nor military might.
0 Replies
 
Arjuna
 
  2  
Reply Sun 22 Aug, 2010 06:13 pm
@HexHammer,
HexHammer wrote:

USA isn't some banna republic, it make very long to pay it back, but eventually it will be paid back. China holds most of the loans to USA which China greatly benefit from in political terms, making them more accepted in the political arena.
Right. People are insulated from suspecting that the US will default on its loan. That would be a global economic crisis.

I think this is all pointing toward the present world culture reducing to material motives.

Maybe a culture has all the same aspects an individual human does. Can we boil you down to material motives? Sure. Am I really going to understand your unique life that way? No. You're alive, not a material robot.

So maybe it's a matter of what kind of understanding of culture we're looking for....

The OP describes a view that ideology reflects the material reality... if the material world changes, the ideology will.

So ideology can't be the driving force creating material change?

I think it works both ways. Success reinforces the ideology that was on the scene at the time of the success. The success is pinned on that ideology. Are we saying that's an illusion?
0 Replies
 
GoshisDead
 
  1  
Reply Sun 22 Aug, 2010 07:49 pm
@Khethil,
Although Harris' et al cultural materialism is far from reductionist as the formal studies include as much internal ideology as possible, i fear that the general interpretation of those studies are reductionist. Much like i reduced his study on the sacred cow, down to dung to simplify things. the name cultural materialism itself emphasizes material not socio-cultural and psycho-cultural.
0 Replies
 
GoshisDead
 
  1  
Reply Sun 22 Aug, 2010 07:57 pm
@Arjuna,
Arj:
One of the focal features of this style of research was to try and eliminate the progressive nature of Marxist materialism.
 

 
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