Harris, Marvin.  Cultural Materialism; The Struggle for a Science of Culture.  New York:  Random House,  1979.

One feels that the list of Harris's admirers might be longer than the list of his friends; or at least, righteous indignation is more enjoyable when aimed at someone else.  Harris devotes the first half of the work to four ideas: first,  how substantive (proper) research strategies of science should function and then, the epistemology, theoretical principles and the scope of cultural materialism. In the second half Harris defines and defends cultural materialism as against the alternatives, including sociobiology and biological reductionism, dialectical materialism, structuralism, structural Marxism, psychological and cognitive idealism, eclecticism and obscurantism.

Substantive and scientific research strategies (says Harris) are parsimonious, predictive, able to be tested through empirical means and able to be compared to other strategies.  Through a quick review of  Bacon, Descartes, Hume, Comte, Marx, Mach, Hempel, Popper, and Kuhn he carves out a space for himself in the Humean positivist Marxist anti-idealist camp.  In his own words

[t]he aim of cultural materialism in particular is to account for the origin, maintenance, and change of the global inventory of socio-cultural differences and similarities.  Thus cultural materialism shares with other scientific strategies an epistemology which seeks to restrict fields of inquiry to events, entities, and relationships that are knowable by means of explicit, logico-empirical, inductive-deductive, quantifiable public procedures or "operations" subject to replication by independent observers. (27)
He defines himself as a Marxist in his close attention to (re)production, ownership and distribution, but eschews any alliance to the Marxist ideology of an necessary and inevitable class struggle. Continuing with basic definitions, in a discussion of an apparent rift between Indian cattle raising practices and beliefs, he offers an epistemological chart to describe, categorize and untangle the cultural materialist accounts of other cultures.  Emic beliefs are those beliefs that inhere within a culture.  Etic ideas are observations that can be made by those outside a culture.  For instance, a culture may not distinguish between a "p" and "b" sound, but linguists studying that culture's language will do so.  In Harris's example, male calves died at a much higher rate than female calves (an etic fact), which ran contrary to the emic Hindu belief that all life is sacred. He charts the problem (adding behavioral and mental categories) in this way: 


I  Emic/Behavioral:  "No calves are starved to death."
II Etic/Behavioral:  "Male calves are starved to death."
III Emic/Mental:  "All calves have the right to life."
IV  Etic/Mental:  "Let the male calves starve to death when feed is scarce."  (38)

With these categories in mind, societies are also described in terms of their infrastructure (production and reproduction), structure (kinship, ethnic and national ideologies, domestic and political economy) and superstructure (symbols, myths, aesthetic standards behavior, art, beliefs).   Cultural materialists are committed to the idea that "etic behavioral modes of production and reproduction probabilistically determine the etic behavioral domestic and political economy, which in turn probabilistically determine the behavioral and mentic emic superstructure." (56).  In very general terms, people within a culture will pursue food, energy conservation in tasks, pleasure in sex, reproduction, security and love.  Chapter Four, "the scope of cultural materialist theories," gives a brief overview of materialism in action.  He follows humans from hunter-gatherers to industrialized nation-states, giving, in each case, the reasons why production governs and dictates the existing social structures and the probable scarcities that offer reasons for greater and differing forms of hierarchy.

In Part Two Harris takes on the schools of thought he believes to be the main anthropological rivals for cultural materialism.  He argues that sociobiology and biological reductionism are unparsimonious, and cannot account for emically rule-governed diversity of human behavior in a simple and testable fashion.  Dialetical materialism he dismisses together with the kind of Marxism that is committed to an inevitable (and materially ungrounded) class struggle, adding that "the central weakness of dialectical epistemology is the lack of operational instructions for identifying causally decisive negations....[b]ecause dialectics offers no instructions concerning how much of a difference constitutes a negation, dialectical Marxism has turned into a great breeding ground of fanatical revelations, grand finalities, and impenetrable metaphors." (145) Levi-Strauss's structuralism comes in for some of Harris's most acid remarks on inaccurate fieldwork and translations, and nonsensical esoteric mythical oppositions.  Another school, structural Marxism, has falsely characterized cultural materialism as the thinking of a bourgeois businessman (234), counting up everything according to profit and loss. (This, I think, is the argument Harris is least prepared to meet).  Furthermore, it  incorrectly suggests that the structural components of culture (like taboos on meat eating) dominate infrastructure (what is productive and available to eat), rather than the other way around.  On this point, I wonder if it really makes sense for an individual to -- for example -- refrain from eating or not eating meat because it is better for the culture.  When and how such taboos are instituted (one presumes, by some elites) "for the good of the culture" is hard to imagine. When does a cultural material trade-off become visible (and so necessary) to the elites?

Harris glosses psychological and cognitive idealism as unproductive -- as in sociobiology and structuralism, "universal components of human nature are said to account for a remarkably variable set of institutions.  And in each case uniformity has to be translated into diversity by intervening variables...." (264) in this case, by the conditioning institutions of childhood.  Eventually, "the problem of the intervening variables looms larger than that of alleged universals." (264)  In essence, he argues that the ground "causes" in psychological and cognitive idealism cannot truly be causes, because they yield unpredictable and untestable results.  Finally he turns to eclecticism and obscurantism; the first he argues is unscientific because it will not commit to a research strategy, and the second is a powerful tool for the some academics to cast doubt on the possibility that any kind of objectivity can be achieved in scientific endeavor.  Harris's objection?  If truth is not available, neither is justice or retribution.

Essentially, fundamentally, Harris's scientific commitment to cultural materialism is a move of faith -- faith that material conditions create the groundwork  for ideas, rather than the other way around. Chapter Four gives some convincing chains of reasoning for the primacy of material conditions, but Harris is as open as Levi-Strauss to the accusation that anyone "clever enough" (p. 188)  can come up with a reason to give material and conditions causal primacy over ideas.

Why is Harris is committed to the materialist viewpoint? He takes this stand on moral grounds:  at various junctures he argues that it is immoral to suggest that the oppressed and poor 1) cannot be helped; 2) are the cause of their own misery; 3) ought to be in miserable conditions; 4) are not really poor and oppressed.  An improvement in material conditions will truly make a difference for the poor.  His review of the Aztecs and their nutritionally depleted valley is one way to look at the results of this ethical faith-move.  Harris argues that the total lack of protein in the Mexican valley caused the Aztec elites to engage in more and more warfare and cannibalism.  He reviews the proposed protein sources, and finds no alternatives for elite power-consolidation than cannibalism. Cultural devastation notwithstanding, I cannot rid myself of the impulse to say "Go Cortez" when I read about a pile of 136,000 skulls resulting from state-sponsored cannibalism. So evil a system should be wiped out.  Material explanations are not justifications.  And Harris would agree -- does agree. But why?  Upon what basis does he judge the Aztec elite on their handling or mishandling of resources? Why should the poor and oppressed matter?  In a sense, he is a better man than his commitment to science and to cultural materialism, and his fierce morals lend his intellectual systems their attraction.

NB rethink chapter four, especially hydraulic empires.  Interesting ideas there.