Cultural materialism – What is it, definition and concept | 2022

Cultural materialism is a research approach that maintains that the material elements are what determine the degree of development and advancement of a society.

The idea behind cultural materialism is that society, its degree of development and evolution, is explained based on its material conditions. It is a methodology, an approach, a way of studying cultures and societies.

We say that it is of Marxist inspiration because it includes the concepts of infrastructure, structure and superstructure. Each of them is determined by the previous one, that is, it is a theory that goes from the bottom up. The most basic elements explain the most complex.

Although it is of Marxist inspiration, it was devised and developed by the North American anthropologist Marvin Harris.

Elements of cultural materialism

Cultural materialism has these three elements that explain the behavior of a given society.


This is the basis of the theory, they are the most basic material elements. They are the relations of production, the techniques, the resources used, technology, energy, food, reproduction. That is, all the basics in the day to day of any society.

It is divided into two, on the one hand, the forms of production, which would have to do with everything related to work. And, on the other hand, the forms of reproduction, related to the perpetuation of the species of that community.


It is the level that is immediately above the previous one. Therefore, its understanding and operation is more complex. It is divided into the economic system and the political system.

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The interrelation of the material elements of the infrastructure gives rise to the formation of certain political-economic systems. That is, the existence of certain production techniques, the use of certain technology and certain business knowledge. This will generate a certain division of labor, certain business sectors, one market or another, etc.

The same thing happens in the political sphere, social hierarchy, existing associations and power relations will give rise to the political system, and to the bodies and laws that determine political relations.


It is the higher level, it is the consequence of the relationships existing in the two previous levels. Its result is the culture of a given society. The way of being of people, their religion, customs, music they listen to, sports they practice, predominant political ideologies, taboos, gastronomy, traditions, etc.

Each of these variables is explained by the structure and more deeply by the infrastructure. Thus, a change in any of these final elements we have to look for at the lowest level.

example of cultural materialism

To better understand this methodological approach, let’s look at the example of cows in India. Although there are more examples, this is one of the ones that makes this way of studying cultures clearer.

The question is this, why in a generally poor country like India, the cow is sacred and cannot be eaten? It is due to the scarcity of draft animals whose purpose is to plow the land.

The final belief, of religious justification, is not given for its own sake or in a divine way, but rather it is a necessity located in the infrastructure that determines it. The cow is more useful alive than dead. In fact, in addition to being used to plow the field, it also has other uses such as fertilizer or milk.

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The infrastructure would be the plow as a production technique. The structure, as a consequence, would be agriculture as an economic sector of great weight. And finally, the superstructure, the religious belief that the cow is sacred.

We have another example with the end of slavery. According to some sociologists, this did not come from the ethical and moral belief that human beings could not be traded and exploited, but rather that their productivity was so low that, in the cost-effectiveness ratio, workers were more profitable than slaves. The latter, let us remember, had to be raised from a young age with all the expenses that this entails so that they would later work with low productivity due to the conditions they endured.

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