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Dr. Marvin Harris

Born August 18, 1927
Brooklyn, New York
Fields Anthropology
Institutions University of Florida
Alma mater Columbia University
Known for Anthropologist who was a proponent of cultural materialism

Marvin Harris (August 18, 1927 – October 25, 2001) was an American anthropologist. He was born in Brooklyn, New York. A prolific writer, he was highly influential in the development of cultural materialism. In his work he combined Karl Marx's emphasis on the forces of production with Malthus's insights on the impact of demographic factors on other parts of the sociocultural system. Labeling demographic and production factors as infrastructure, Harris posited these factors as key in determining a society's social structure and culture. After the publication of The Rise of Anthropological Theory in 1968, Harris helped focus the interest of anthropologists in cultural-ecological relationships for the rest of his career. Many of his publications gained wide circulation among lay readers.

Over the course of his professional life, Harris drew both a loyal following and a considerable amount of criticism. He became a regular fixture at the annual meetings of the American Anthropological Association where he would subject scholars to intense questioning from the floor, podium, or bar. He is considered a generalist, who had an interest in the global processes that account for human origins and the evolution of human cultures.

In his final book, Theories of Culture in Postmodern Times, Harris argued that the political consequences of postmodern theory were harmful, a critique similar to those later developed by philosopher Richard Wolin and others.


Early career

Being born just before the Great Depression, Harris was poor during his childhood in Brooklyn. He entered the U.S. Army toward the end of the Second World War and used funding from the G.I. Bill to enter Columbia University along with a new generation of post-war American anthropologists. Harris was an avid reader who loved to spend hours at the race track and he eventually developed a complex mathematical betting system that was successful enough to provide support for his wife, Madelyn, and him during his years of graduate school.

Harris' early work was with his mentor, Charles Wagley, and his dissertation research in Brazil produced an unremarkable village study that carried on the Boasian descriptive tradition in anthropology—a tradition he would later denounce.

After graduation, Harris was given an assistant professorship at Columbia and, while undertaking fieldwork in Mozambique in 1957, Harris underwent a series of profound transformations that altered his theoretical and political orientations.

Theoretical contributions

Harris' earliest work began in the Boasian tradition of descriptive anthropological fieldwork, but his fieldwork experiences in Mozambique in the late 1950s caused him to shift his focus from ideological features of culture, toward behavioral aspects. His 1968 history of anthropological thought, The Rise of Anthropological Theory critically examined hundreds of years of social thought with the intent of constructing a viable nomothetic understanding of human culture that Harris came to call cultural materialism.[1] Cultural materialism incorporated and refined Marx's categories of superstructure and base; Harris modified and amplified such core Marxist concepts as means of production and exploitation, but Harris rejected two key aspects of Marxist thought: the dialectic, which Harris attributed to an intellectual vogue of Marx’s time; and, unity of theory and practice, which Harris regarded as an inappropriate and damaging stance for social scientists. Harris’ inclusion of demographic dynamics as determinant factors in sociocultural evolution also contrasted with Marx’s rejection of population as a causal element.

Throughout his career, Harris grappled with the issue of the epistemological status of informants' statements. He labeled his solution as the distinction between emic and etic distinction, which he refined considerably since its exposition in The Rise of Anthropological Theory. The terms “emic” and “etic” originated in the work of linguist Kenneth Pike,[2] despite the latter’s conceptual differences with Harris’ constructs. As used by Marvin Harris, emic meant those descriptions and explanations that are right and meaningful to an informant or subject, whereas etic descriptions and explanations are those used by the scientific community to generate and strengthen theories of sociocultural life. That is, emic is the participant's perspective, whereas etic is the observer's. Harris had asserted that both are in fact necessary for an explanation of human thought and behavior.[2] [3]

Marvin Harris’ early contributions to major theoretical issues include his revision of economic surplus theory in state formation. He also became well known for formulating a materialist explanation for the treatment of “ Cattle in religions” in Indian culture.[4 ] Along with Michael Harner, Harris is one of the scholars most associated with the suggestion that Aztec cannibalism occurred, and was the result of protein deficiency in the Aztec diet.[5] An explanation appears in Harris' book Cannibals and Kings.[6] Harris also invoked the human quest for animal protein to explain Yanomamo warfare, contradicting ethnographer Napoleon Chagnon’s sociobiological explanation involving innate male human aggressiveness. [7 ]

Several other publications by Harris examine the cultural and material roots of dietary traditions in many cultures, including Cows, Pigs, Wars, and Witches: The Riddles of Culture (1975); Good to Eat: Riddles of Food and Culture (1998 - originally titled The Sacred Cow and the Abominable Pig) and his co-edited volume, Food and Evolution: Toward a Theory of Human Food Habits (1987).

Harris’ Why Nothing Works: The Anthropology of Daily Life (1981 - Originally titled America Now: the Anthropology of a Changing Culture) applies concepts from cultural materialism to the explanation of such social developments in late twentieth century United States as inflation, the entry of large numbers of women into the paid labor force, marital instability, and shoddy products.

His Our Kind: who we are, where we came from, where we are going (1990) surveys the broad sweep of human physical and cultural evolution, offering provocative explanations of such subjects as human gender and sexuality and the origins of inequality. Finally, Harris’ 1979 work, Cultural Materialism: The Struggle for a Science of Culture, updated and re-released in 2001, offers perhaps the most comprehensive statement of cultural materialism. A separate article lists the many and diverse publications of Marvin Harris.


Criticisms and controversies

While Harris' contributions to anthropology are widely respected, they do not represent the only views within that field. It has been said that "Other anthropologists and observers had almost as many opinions about Dr. Harris as he had about why people behave as they do. Smithsonian magazine called him 'one of the most controversial anthropologists alive.' The Washington Post described him as 'a storm center in his field,' and the Los Angeles Times accused him of 'overgeneralized assumptions'." [8] Other fields, such as feminist anthropology, have much to say about topics such as gender and the role of women in society. That field itself covers a range of perspectives, including some who agree with various points made by Harris.[9]

Academic career

Harris received both his M.A. and Ph.D. degrees from Columbia University, the former in 1949 and the latter in 1953. He performed fieldwork in Brazil and Portuguese-speaking Africa before joining the faculty at Columbia. He eventually became chairman of the anthropology department at Columbia. During the Columbia student campus occupation of 1968, Harris was among the few faculty leaders who sided with the students when they were threatened and beaten by the police.[10] During the 1960s and 1970s, he was a resident of Leonia, New Jersey.[11]

Harris next joined the University of Florida anthropology department in 1981 and retired in 2000, becoming the Anthropology Graduate Research Professor Emeritus. Harris also served as the Chair of the General Anthropology Division of the American Anthropological Association.

Harris became the author of seventeen books. Two of his college textbooks, Culture, People, Nature: An Introduction to General Anthropology and Cultural Anthropology, were published in seven editions. His research spanned the topics of race, evolution, and culture. He often focused on Latin America and Brazil,[12] including the Islas de la Bahia, Ecuador, Mozambique, India, and East Harlem.

Works Cited

Harris left a large body of scholarly work. See List of Marvin Harris works for a complete list.

Writings for the general public include:

  • Cows, Pigs, Wars and Witches: The Riddles of Culture.. London: Hutchinson & Co.. 1975. ISBN 0-09-122750-X.   Reissued in 1991 by Vintage, New York.
  • Cannibals and Kings: The Origins of Cultures.. New York: Vintage.. 1977. ISBN 0-394-40765-2.  
  • Why Nothing Works: The Anthropology of Daily Life.. New York: Simon & Schuster.. 1981. ISBN 0-671-63577-8.   (Previously titled America Now: The Anthropology of a Changing Culture)
  • Our Kind: who we are, where we came from, where we are going.. New York: HarperCollins/Harper Perennial.. 1990. ISBN 0-060-91990-6.  
  • Good to Eat: Riddles of Food and Culture.. Illinois: Waveland Press.. 1998. ISBN 1-577-66015-3.   (Previously published 1985 by Simon & Schuster. Previously titled The Sacred Cow and the Abominable Pig)

More academically oriented works include

  • Harris, Marvin, & Boss, Eric B., ed (1987). Food and Evolution: Towards a Theory of Human Food Habits. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.. ISBN 0-87722-668-7.  
  • Cultural Materialism: The Struggle for a Science of Culture.. AltMira Presslocation= London. 1990. ISBN 0-759-10135-3.  


  1. ^ Harris, M. (2001. First published 1968). The Rise of Anthropological Theory: A History of Theories of Culture.. London: AltaMira Press. ISBN 0-759-10133-7.  
  2. ^ a b Seymour-Smith, Charlotte. (1986. Reprinted 1990). Macmillan Dictionary of Anthropology.. London: The Macmillan Press. p. 92. ISBN 0-333-39334-1.  
  3. ^ Harris, M. (1988). Culture, People, Nature: An Introduction to General Anthropology (5th ed.). New York: Harper & Row. pp. 131-133. ISBN 0-06-042697-7.  
  4. ^ Harris, M. (1975). "Mother Cow". in …. Cows, Pigs, Wars and Witches: The Riddles of Culture. London: Hutchinson & Co.. pp. 11-32. ISBN 0-09-122750-X.  
  5. ^ Harris, M. (1988). pp.468-469
  6. ^ Harris, M. (1977). Cannibals and Kings: The Origins of Cultures.. New York: Vintage.. ISBN 0-394-40765-2.  
  7. ^ Harris, M. (1975). "The Savage Male". in …. Cows, Pigs, Wars and Witches: The Riddles of Culture. pp. 83-107.  
  8. ^ Elwell, Frank. (2007). "Marvin Harris' Cultural Materialism". (See Obituary section). Retrieved 2009-10-12.  
  9. ^ Caplan, Pat (2005). "Towards a Feminist Ethics of Anthropology" (PDF). Paper presented as keynote lecture for the Lova conference 10th June 2005, Radboud University, Nijmegen, Netherlands.. Retrieved 2009-10-12.  
  10. ^
  11. ^ Marvin Harris, Accessed May 27, 2008. "Throughout the 1960s and 1970s Harris and his family lived in Leonia, New Jersey, which borders Fort Lee, right across the Hudson River from upper Manhattan."
  12. ^ Profile of Harris at University of Florida; accessed 2006. (archive)

External links


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