Marx, Sahlins, and Weber Marx viewed social change as being driven by economic forces -the means by which

people collectively choose to live, and his analysis of history was an economic one where classes struggled with the state, which was an instrument of oppression. Class struggle and eventual emancipation of the oppressed class, which displaces the class in authority, along with the consistent labor of individuals within classes that produce the means of subsistence is included in his view of historical materialism (Marx 1978: 480-483; 760-768).

For Marx, the structures that effected change in society were economic structures. Weber, on the other hand, while he acknowledged the effect of economic structures also recognized the importance of other, non-economic structures such as religion, authority, bureaucracy (Weber 1994) as playing vital roles in shaping or changing a society. Indeed, rather than Marx's notion that “class struggle” was the most significant factor, Weber viewed “rational bureaucracy” as more significant (pp. 92-93).

Where Weber was moved by the complexity of society and the inclusion of additional structures, Durkheim was given to explain social change and development as being functions of collective consciousness -what the group thinks of itself and how society views itself and its history (Durkheim 1972: 70-72).

In Sahlins' own words, he seeks to show in Historical Metaphors and Mythical Realities (1981) that “history is organized in structures of significance” (p. 8) and he describes how individuals within societies respond to “novel” events and circumstances using traditional structures and through traditional categories, which transform meanings as taboos are broken.


For Sahlins, mythical realities are reproduced through historical metaphors which serve to transform culture when structures of the conjuncture occur -the combination of events or circumstances of significance. He describes the arrival of Cook to the Hawaiian Islands where the sight of Cook's tall ship fit the mythical reality that the Hawaiian's held regarding their god Lono who was destined to return on a floating island at a time of the year that coincided with Cooks arrivals.

Sahlins argues that the Hawaiians and the Europeans each responded to the circumstances that put them together in history in manners that were consistent with, albeit traditional for, their respective cultures. Hawaiian culture, in particular, reproduced its mythical realities with the timeliness of Cook's arrivals and departures until the untimely reappearance of Cook, which was taken to mean, by the Hawaiians, that Cook-Lono was there “to depose the indigenous ruling line.” This led to the ritual murder of Cook but also tot he pro-British stance by King Kamehameha who now had the distinction of inheriting Cook-Lono's mana (Sahlins 1981: 22-23).

Using myth as a structure for Hawaiian society, the chiefs were able to maintain a status quo between the chiefs and the commoners. The chiefs were to the people as the Europeans were to the Hawaiians and, to a certain extent, as the men were to the women. These categories were transformed as the taboos that defined them were broken or violated. Once viewed as gods, the Europeans were eventually realized as men when they violated the taboo of eating with women (Sahlins 1981: 47), which gods would not do. Eventually, Hawaiian King Liholiho violated the same taboo, “a whole religion destroyed in a day,” as he “ate consecrated foods at the same table with chiefly women (p. 55).” If the social system of the Hawaiian chiefs was defined by the taboo system, then the breaking of these taboos were the contributing means to undermining chiefly powers (p. 51). 2

The taboos in place against the commoners would have been viewed by Marx as a means of controlling the modes of production: the chiefs reserving the right and privilege of trade with the Europeans for themselves as they coveted the “treasures” and prestige that was attributed to the Europeans. Marx would, perhaps, view the violation of taboos by the commoners, particularly the women who sought sexual relations with the Europeans in hopes of bearing children and obtaining status (Sahlins 1981: 40-41), as a class struggle. The oppressed, who were victims of “periodic land redistribution” and, thus, not among the privileged and chiefly class, sought to overcome their oppression. Certainly Marx would view the “services” obtained by the European sailors from the Hawaiian women as a commodification since the sailors were applying a value to the sex, effectively alienating the women as individuals from their bodies (Marx 1978: 302-312). Sahlins' explanations of the “structures of the conjuncture” provide a different perspective, however, showing that the Europeans and the Hawaiians each combined the common events and circumstances where they interact with differential meanings. While the sailors could only perceive the act of women offering themselves for sexual relations as a “service,” the Hawaiian commoners perceived opportunities for elevating their status in society. The selfish desires of the chiefs to restrict access to European goods, likewise, wasn't tied solely to wealth as evident by Sahlins' discussion of the tendency of chiefs to adopt British names like “King George” and “Billy Pitt” (Sahlins 1981: 29), and to compare their prestige to that of the British.

Weber would likely view the charisma and the “belief in legitimacy” of Hawaiian kings and chiefs a driving forces for social change. Weber said, “no authority limits itself solely to material, affectual, or value-rational means of appeal for survival. Rather, each system attempts to establish and maintain belief in its legitimacy” (Weber 1994: 28-29). The Hawaiian chiefs sought to maintain 3

legitimacy in the eyes of the commoners through the use of taboos, which, to the commoners were of religious importance. To the chief-class, however, taboos were a means to wealth, privilege and the status quo. The structures of conjuncture and the subsequent breakdown in the taboos might have been perceived by Weber as a failure of the chiefs to maintain “charismatic proof” (Weber 1994: 33) to the commoners and between themselves. For Sahlins, this is the result of attempts to reproduce a mythical reality in the context of an historical metaphor, which was Cook's arrival to Hawaii and its subsequent transformation of a culture that employs traditional responses to novel phenomena.

Durkheim might offer the explanation that the transformation of Hawaiian culture was a result of the expression of collective representation by the Hawaiians and how they thought of themselves in relation the events that and circumstances that occurred. Their collective consciousness changed the manner in which they perceived themselves based on the physical changes in the society itself (Durkheim 1972: 70-72). Sahlins, offering acknowledgment to Durkheim, agreed that “the universe does not exist for people except as it is thought” (Sahlins 1981: 67), but also noted that the universe “need not exist in the way they think.”

Sahlins presented his analysis of structure in history in contrast to previous structuralists whom he criticized as being “incapable of giving a theoretical account of historical change” and accused of offering “us a history on the model of physics” (Sahlins 1981: 7). He turns, instead, to analysis of the relationship between structure and events and how historical agency reproduces then transforms structure.


References Durkheim, E. (1972). The Field of Sociology. In A. Giddens (Ed.), Selected Writings (pp. 51-68). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Durkheim, E. (1972). Methods of Explanation and Analysis. In A. Giddens (Ed.), Selected Writings (pp. 69-88). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Marx, K. (1978). The Marx-Engels Reader, 2nd edition ( Robert Tucker, Ed.). New York: Norton. Sahlins, Marshall (1981). Historical Metaphors and Mythical Realities: Structure in the Early History of the Sandwich Islands Kingdom. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press. Weber, M. (1994). Sociological Writings ( Wolf Heydebrand, Ed.). New York: Continuum.


Sign up to vote on this title
UsefulNot useful

Master Your Semester with Scribd & The New York Times

Special offer for students: Only $4.99/month.

Master Your Semester with a Special Offer from Scribd & The New York Times

Cancel anytime.