Kevin R. D. Shepherd



What are your views on anthropology?

Anthropology is a very useful discipline which at one time greatly preoccupied me. My major point of disagreement with anthropology is that this approach tends to stand aloof from citizen ideas and concerns. One of my favourite anthropological works is a booklet written by two academics and published at Cambridge in 1993. Amongst other things, the authors stated: “We emulate the passionate amateurs of history who circulated new and radical ideas to as wide an audience as possible; and we hope in the process to reinvent anthropology as a means of engaging with society” (A. Grimshaw and K. Hart, Anthropology and the Crisis of the Intellectuals, quoted in Shepherd, Some Philosophical Critiques and Appraisals, 2004, pp. 254, 325 note 813). That perspective still seems to be quite rare.

One of my queries related to the official boundary line between anthropology and sociology. Did these two really have to be separate disciplines? Not all academics actually believed that they did. In certain other countries, there was more freedom in crossing boundaries. Eventually I came to the conclusion that boundaries between various other disciplines are likewise impediments. In this way, I ventured in 1984 the initial formulation of my version of anthropography. The major trigger for this was the polemical strategy of Professor Marvin Harris (1927-2001), an American anthropologist who became noted for his provocative approach.


Marvin Harris

Marvin Harris came from a poor family in Brooklyn. He taught at Columbia University, and later at the University of Florida. He contributed works like Cows, Pigs, Wars and Witches (1974) and Cannibals and Kings: The Origins of Cultures (1977). Those books were addressed to a general readership. Harris here tackled a wide variety of phenomena from a materialist standpoint. Some critics have dismissed the author as a populariser. That does not seem to be a fair judgment. Harris was distinctive in his theories, and evidently genuine in his desire to communicate via a relatively simple terminology.

A more substantial work of Harris was The Rise of Anthropological Theory: A History of Theories of Culture (1968). This lengthy book was recognised to have academic merits; the author subsequently gained a controversial reputation for format. Harris formulated what he called cultural materialism, the title of a later book in which he challenged rivals to explicate a due “research strategy” to match his own. His Cultural Materialism (1979; new edn, 2001) demonstrated a “boxing ring” tactic in which he took on all rivals. This approach was unique in anthropology. That edged book caused offence in some directions.

Some other anthropologists acknowledged the Harris challenge as a stimulus to debate. However, many ignored him or repudiated his approach. A press version stated that "many critics rejected his relentless materialism and accused him of brushing aside inconvenient facts which tended to conflict with his theory."

Harris was influenced by the Marxist theory of production and the demographic theory of Thomas Malthus. He was keen to find practical explanations for religious beliefs such as those attaching to the sacred cow of India, e.g., veneration for the cow serves a functional purpose, that animal being more useful in agriculture than in slaughter. A number of his contentions are quite plausible, even if only partially accurate. However, critics say that Harris pressed his angle too far over diverse phenomena. For instance, he urged that Aztec cannibalism arose from a need for sufficient protein. A primitive or deteriorated belief system is an alternative explanation.

Focus on such matters as the food chain and economics can easily distort the basic issue at stake. Harris was concerned to minimise the role of mental events in favour of material occurrences associated with behavioural priorities. When Marvin Harris wrote his influential books, his mental apparatus was the prime mover, not the environmental details he preferred to emphasise. It was not the paper in his books, but the ideas behind those books, that caused all the argument.

The "infrastructural determinism" theory of Harris awarded priority to material factors, as distinct from mental life, conceived as superstructural. Ecology here relates to the infrastructure. Harris did grasp the importance of ecology, a point in his favour. Obviously, human excesses will deplete an environment; the reasons today for eco-damage are basically human greed and overpopulation. Differentiating between viable ideas and problem ideas is a necessary undertaking. Cultural materialism may be one of the problem sets, being too rigid in formulation.

The polemical research strategy of Marvin Harris is sometimes described as a form of neo-materialism. He was careful to repudiate new wave Marxists. Cultural materialism claimed both David Hume and Karl Marx as predecessors. However, Harris pruned Marxist tenets to a more empirical context. He insisted upon an “operationalised” vocabulary that pursued accuracy in definition. He attacked Freudian psychodynamics, the sociobiology of Edward O. Wilson, dialectical materialism, structural Marxism, “cognitive idealism,” and structuralism. Harris was very notably in opposition to the French structural anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss (1908-2009), whom he tended to deride. Harris also stressed a behaviorist approach in contrast to “phenomenology," which he identified with Carlos Castaneda (1925-1998).

The eminent British anthropologist Sir Edmund Leach (1910-1989) penned a review of Cultural Materialism. He accused Harris of a vulgar materialism. The Leach criticism was in sympathy with Claude Levi-Strauss, a major target of Harris. Cf. Levi-Strauss, Structural Anthropology (2 vols, 1963-76). Even Leach defined the outstanding characteristic of the Levi-Strauss output in terms of: "It is difficult to understand." The structuralist theme of "savage mind" can easily create confusions. Cf. Leach, Claude Levi-Strauss (1974).

I found Harris more compelling in his mode of argument than Levi-Strauss, though crude in his dismissal of the latter (I was not a convert to either of the ideologies involved). Like Harris, I was very averse to Castaneda, who was by then notorious amongst anthropologists for a resort to fiction, a factor overlooked by the enormous popular demand for his distracting books. Castaneda has been called a literary trickster whose books sold in vast quantities, facilitated by 1970s psychedelic gullibility. Castaneda was endorsed by Esalen new age alternativism. Pseudo-shamanism was a guide only to the ability of readerships to be deceived. Despite the dubious career of Castaneda, his commercial publisher was still opportunistically describing him as an anthropologist in 2007. See Dark Legacy of Castaneda.

Yet overall, I was in strong disagreement with the cultural materialist version of empiricism. This became evident in my rival “research strategy” composed in 1984 and published several years later under the title Meaning in Anthropos (1991). That effort opted for an interdisciplinary approach in which the anthropological argument became the springboard for other analyses, critiques, and reflections.

My own strategy made a reference to an idealist affinity. This partly signified a citizen extension of the “cognitive idealism” contested by cultural materialism. Harris acknowledged scientific dimensions of the cognitive rival, and was more cautious in his repudiations of that sector. His argument was basically that the cognitivists represented a limiting “emic” stance, whereas cultural materialism was demonstrating “etic” prowess. Usage of these twin terms is controversial; they can easily amount to a simplistic rationale. Harris employed these terms as key significators. The materialist versus idealist argument has taken a variety of forms over the generations; in social science there are different connotations to the philosophical and theological debates. Harris produced an argument that was new to anthropology. Nevertheless, there are flaws in his approach that require to be negotiated.

Marvin Harris was unusual for his bold arguments, which he presented quite lucidly. However, in contrast to his exposition, I believe that Hume and Marx both failed to solve the ultimate questions. The etic/emic classification is not sufficient to answer those and lesser questions; I no longer use that terminology, which Harris adopted extensively (the classification was derived from linguistics, becoming an intellectual fashion in social science).

Above all, in both of the contending books primarily under discussion here, the overall concern was a science of culture, a matter reflected in both of the subtitles. The subtitle which Harris used for Cultural Materialism was The Struggle for a Science of Culture. Whereas my own subtitle for Meaning in Anthropos became Anthropography as an Interdisciplinary Science of Culture. See further Philosophical Anthropography. Some postmodernists deny the possibility of a science of culture, while some conservative academics deny the relevance of any citizen contribution.

With regard to Claude Levi-Strauss, this French anthropologist employed the methods of linguistics as a model for analysis of societies. He tended to imply that non-structuralist explanations were reductionist. His exegesis of mythology is not everywhere agreed upon, a factor applying very much to his Mythologiques (4 vols, 1964-71; English trans. 1969-81). His structuralism exerted a strong influence in France outside anthropology. Levi--Strauss is one of the influences claimed upon the psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan (d.1981) and the philosopher Jacques Derrida (d.2004).

In America, the “neomaterialist” Marvin Harris continued the cultural materialist programme, with a version of national developments. His book America Now (1981) is also known as Why Nothing Works: The Anthropology of Daily Life. Here he applied his theory (with economic emphases) to such matters as inferior manufacturing processes, the emergence of new religious cults, the increase in urban crime, and the rise of homosexuality. A new mode of production was deduced as a primary feature of the social landscape.

Subsequent works of Harris were Our Kind (1989) and Theories of Culture in Postmodern Times (1999). The latter book laments the shift from science-oriented approaches "toward an 'anything goes' postmodernism" (Theories, p. 13). Harris also comments on the same page: "There are increasing signs that the influence of interpretationism, ethnopoetics, and other 'crit lit' approaches to culture has peaked." Harris adds more tersely: "Let the grinches who stole culture give it back."

In the same book, Marvin Harris resists the "exclusively ideational" versions of culture favoured in anthropology. Harris here means the notion that "ideas guide behaviour." This belief does not always happen in real life, as he says. "No one has sought to define culture as exclusively behavioural. Wouldn't it be best to accept both ideas and behaviour as our starting point?" (Theories of Culture, p. 29). This interface was included in my own version of a "science of culture." The main point being that there are different ways of formulating the combination.

Copyright © 2021 Kevin R. D. Shepherd. All Rights Reserved. Page uploaded August 2008, last modified July 2021.