Marvin Harris: On the Universal Structure of Human Societies


Marvin Harris (1927-2001), a cultural anthropologist,
is responsible for the most systematic statement of cultural materialist principles. Cultural Materialism is based on two key assumptions
about societies. First, the various parts of society are interrelated. When one part
of society changes, other parts must also change. This means that an institution, such as the
family cannot be looked at in isolation from the economic, political, or religious institutions
of a society. When one part changes it has an effect on other parts of the system. Viewing society as a system of interrelated
parts is at the core of most sociological theory. Difference in most theories is in
terms of organizing principles. The second assumption of CM is that the foundation
of the sociocultural systems is
the environment. Like all living organisms, Humans must draw
energy from their environment. The environment is limited in terms of the amount of energy
and raw material it contains, and the amount of pollution it can tolerate. The need to draw energy out of the environment
in order to satisfy the biological needs of its people is the first and central task of
any society. Therefore, each society must ultimately exist
within the constraints imposed by its environment. Chief among these constraints is the availability
of natural resources. A further constraining factor is the amount of pollution created
by society. While mankind can modify these constraints, they cannot be escaped. According to Harris, it is the external environment
to which sociocultural systems must adjust. Adjustment takes place through the infrastructure
of societies. The material infrastructure consists of the technology and social practices
by which a society fits in to its environment. A society’s infrastructure is its most basic
component in the sense that without it physical survival is literally impossible. All societies
must exploit the natural environment to survive. Infrastructure is the principal interface
between a sociocultural system and its environment. All societies must life within the constraints
of the natural environment (depletion and pollution). While these constraints can be
modified, they cannot be escaped. It is through the infrastructure that society manipulates
its environment by modifying the amount and type of resources needed. Technology
consists of the tools, and techniques (division
of labor) with which humans adapt to their physical environment. Demographic factors are those involving the
nature and dynamics of human populations. The size and density of the population, its
growth, decline or stability, and its age and sex composition are important in determining
the amount and type of resources needed from the environment. Demographic factors also include techniques
of population regulation or birth control, mating patterns, sexual behavior, infanticide,
etc. The modes of production and reproduction are
attempts to strike a balance between population level and the consumption of energy from a
finite environment. Consists of behaviors aimed at satisfying requirements for subsistence. Consisting of behaviors aimed at controlling
destructive increases or decreases in population size. It is upon this environmental-infrastructural
foundation that the remaining parts of the social system are based. This component of sociocultural systems consists
of the organized patterns of social life carried out among the members of a society. It is important to note that social structure
always refers to actual behavior patterns, as opposed to images or mental conceptions
about those patterns–what people actually do, not what they say or do. Each society must maintain secure and orderly
relationships among its people, its constituent groups, and with neighboring societies. The threat of disorder, Harris asserts, comes
primarily from the economic processes which allocate labor and the products of labor to
individuals and groups. The political economy consists of groups and
organizations that perform the functions of regulating production, reproduction, exchange,
and consumption within and between groups and sociocultural systems.
Political organizations, factions, military, Corporations, police,
Education, media, taxation, urban, rural hierarchies, Service and welfare organizations, Professional and labor organizations. The domestic economy consists of the organization
of reproduction, basic production, exchange and consumption within domestic settings (such
as households, camps, apartments). Family structure, domestic division of labor,
education, age and sex roles, Community, domestic discipline, hierarchies,
sanctions, Voluntary organizations,
Friendship Networks, Some religious groups. Given the importance of symbolic processes,
Harris also posits the universal existence of a superstructure. Again, Harris divides
this component into two parts: Behavioral and the
Mental The Behavioral Superstructure includes recreations
activities, art, sports, empirical knowledge, folklore, and other aesthetic products.
Art, music, dance, literature The mental superstructure involves the patterned
ways in which the members of a society think, conceptualize, and evaluate their behavior.
It would include beliefs (shared assumptions of what is true and false), values (socially
defined conceptions of worth), Norms (shared standards or rules regarding conduct. Examples would include religious ideology,
the processes and products of science, art (symbolic images or representations having
esthetic, emotional, or intellectual value), ritual, sports, empirical “knowledge.” The “Mental Superstructure” are “the conscious
and unconscious cognitive goals, categories, rules, plans, values, philosophies, and beliefs
about behavior elicited from the participants or inferred by the observers.” All sociocultural systems, according to Harris,
have these three major components: Infrastructure, Structure, and Superstructure. The major principle
of Cultural Materialism concerns the relationships between these components. And this major principle will be the subject
of our next presentation. For a more extensive discussion of Harris’s
theories refer to Macrosociology: Four Major Theorists, available through most online bookstores. You may also be interested in Macro Social
Theory available exclusively at Amazon.com at a reasonable price. Finally, please check out Sociocultural Systems:
Principles of Structure and Change to learn how his insights contribute to a fuller understanding
of modern societies. This book can be purchased at most online bookstores or at Athabasca
University Press. If you are short of funds Athabasca also offers a free pdf version of
the work. A significant portion of the royalties I receive
for these books go to the Rogers State University Foundation in support of students in the Liberal
Arts. I thank you for your support and interest.

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