Society for American Archaeology

Cultural Materialism: A Theoretical Review
Author(s): Barbara J. Price
Source: American Antiquity, Vol. 47, No. 4 (Oct., 1982), pp. 709-741
Published by: Society for American Archaeology
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CULTURAL MATERIALISM: A THEORETICAL REVIEW
Barbara J.
Price
A review
of
the
principles of
cultural materialism (a synthesis of
Marx's causal
primacy of
the
infrastruc-
ture and Darwinian mechanisms
of
natural
selection),
this
paper
addresses certain substantive and meta-
theoretical
problems of contemporary anthropology.
A
position paper,
it is written
from
the
standpoint
that
cultural materialism
offers
the most
powerful
and
productive
set
of premises
extant in the
discipline for
the ex-
planation of
cultural
similarity
and
difference, stability
and
change,
and
for
the
nonidiosyncratic formula-
tion-and
potential falsification-of
the broadest
possible comparative
and diachronic
propositions.
The
impli-
cations
of
this
position for disciplinary
and
subfield relationships
in the social sciences are
explored.
Donnithorne: "... I've written to
him,
to desire that from henceforth he will send me no book or
pamphlet
on
anything
that ends in ism."
Irwine:
"Well,
I don't know that I'm
very
fond of isms
myself;
but I
may
as well look at the
pamphlets; they
let one see what is
going
on."
George Eliot, Adam Bede, Ch. 5.
INTRODUCTION
AT A TIME of active
competition
of
paradigms
in a
discipline-a
condition characteristic of
contemporary anthropology-it
is advisable to evaluate the
competitors
not
only
from the stand-
point
of data and
interpretation,
but also from that of metatheoretical criteria not often con-
sidered
by
social scientists.
Competition
of
paradigms,
while an
essentially healthy
condition in-
dicating
a
period
of
relatively rapid growth
in a
field, appears
nonetheless to induce or increase a
number of uncertainties on the
part
of its
practitioners.
This leads to
disagreements
that often
deteriorate into exercises in
futility,
because their
underlying premises
are
unrecognized
and un-
examined.
However,
such
competition
does not
imply
that all
competitors perform comparable
ex-
planatory
work or do so
equally
well.
For the
present paper
the central
problem
of the
discipline
of
anthropology
is the documenta-
tion and
explanation
of
similarity
and
difference, stability
and
change
in human
behavior;
the
field as a whole is
inherently comparative
and diachronic and
encompasses
a wide
range
of sub-
ject
matter that
overlaps
the
empirical
concerns of a number of other social and
biological/bio-
medical sciences. In
general, anthropology
addresses this
problem
in a number of distinct and in
part mutually
exclusive
ways,
each with its own
hierarchy
of research
priorities.
Idealist
para-
digms,
in their most
general form, presume
that behavior is caused
by ideas, beliefs, values, cogni-
tions,
and
comparable
mental
templates; explanation
of behavior must therefore be stated in
terms of these
parameters.
Materialism
by
contrast affirms that the causes of behavior are most
parsimoniously sought
with consistent reference to the material conditions of life.
Furthermore,
actual
explanations
of sociocultural
phenomena
encountered in the literature often
display
a
greater
or lesser
degree
of
eclecticism, i.e.,
of mixture of criteria drawn from each
"camp,"
usually
on an ad hoc or
problem-dependent
basis. Others
emphasize
the role of
history
in
attempt-
ing
to account for the
ways
in which
things
came to be as
they
are and function as
they
do.
In this discussion the term
"paradigm,"
drawn from Kuhn
(1970),
is used in its broadest and
most neutral connotation as a
general
intellectual
program,
a set of theoretical axioms that
Barbara
J. Price, New York. Mail
for
Dr. Price will be
forwarded by
the
Editor, American
Antiquity.
Copyright
( 1982
by
the
Society
for American
Archaeology
0002-7316/82/040709-33$3.80/1
709
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AMERICAN ANTIQUITY
presents
the fundamental
premises
of the
field;
determines research
problems
and
priorities;
generates
research
strategies, explanatory models,
and
theory
at middle and lower
levels;
estab-
lishes canons of verification or falsification and the rules of evidence. Neither the
logical
difficul-
ties entailed
by
Kuhn's
original usage (Brown 1977),
nor the
questions concerning
the current
homotaxial state of
anthropology
or its
component
subfields
(Meltzer 1979)
will be addressed.
One of the
competing paradigms,
cultural
materialism,
will be
analyzed
in some detail in the
discussion below.
Developed relatively recently
in its
present
form
(Harris 1968b, 1979a),
its in-
dividual
components
have had rather
longer
intellectual histories. In
part
because of the com-
parative recency
of its formulation the
position
is not
widely
understood in
contemporary general
anthropology.
Its
principal
literature is as
yet
small and scattered
(the
reader is referred to, e.g.,
Ross
[1978], Ross, ed.
[1980],
Schneider
[1978],
and Price
[1978, 1979]). However,
the current
rapid growth
of this literature warrants the
present
review of the
position.
Both its advocates and
its various
opponents (e.g.,
Sahlins
1976;
Diener and Robkin
1978;
Conrad
1981) quite readily
ad-
mit its
minority
status in the
discipline
as a whole.
Many
of the criticisms leveled at it are
paradoxically illuminating; they
will
provide
an adversarial
structure,
a skeleton of
misinterpre-
tation on which the tenets of the
position,
and its
empirical
and metatheoretical
implications,
can
be
presented
and
developed.
The reader is forewarned that this will be a
position paper
which,
like
any brief,
is
necessarily
and
consistently biased;
these biases will be stated as
explicitly
as
possible
in order to
clarify
both what
they are,
and what
they
are not. The
following general
points
will stand as
major
themes:
1. Unlike most idealist paradigms, materialism is consonant with an observer-oriented canon of
proof, i.e., with verification or falsification phrased
in terms of the
operationalized
state of the
system (an
etic research
strategy).
As such, it has no need for informant concurrence
(an
emic
strategy) to establish or confirm a proposition.
While both emic and etic
strategies
are
legitimate-
ly applicable in
ethnology (though
with different
consequences),
this is not the case for archaeol-
ogy. Especially
in the absence of written documents, the fact that its informants cannot offer con-
currence renders the etic
option
the
only one feasible.
2.
Contrary
to
popular misconception, cultural materialism does not
preclude-in fact
actually
mandates-a systems model of
causality rather than a
single-factor
or
prime-mover
model. In-
deed, close examination of models of the latter
type
reveals that
any postulated prime
mover is
itself
irreducibly organized as a
system (Price 1979).
This does not, of course, imply
that all causal
parameters
are of
equal importance.
Some will have a far more
profound
and
wide-ranging
im-
pact upon
the overall state of the
system
than will others, and cultural materialism
provides
con-
sistent
paradigmatically
determined criteria for
judging
this.
3. Cultural-materialist explanation
relies
consistently upon
a
relatively
small number of causal
parameters, each capable of wide, though
not
infinite, empirical variability
under
specified
condi-
tions; each of these is modifiable in interaction with the others in order to account for both
cultural similarity and difference, stability
and
change.
In this
way
the
epistemological
criteria of
breadth and
parsimony
are satisfied.
4.
By
direct deduction from the paradigm,
material
processes
and
phenomena
are held to be
preeminently implicated
in the causation of
similarity
and difference, stability
and
change.
From
the standpoint
of
archaeology especially,
such
processes
and
phenomena
constitute
primary
observations, capable
of operationalization. Explanations
based on these will be more
powerful
than alternatives based upon
other
postulated
or
indirectly
observed entities.
Background Considerations: Metatheory
and
Epistemology
Evaluation of
any
theoretical framework in
any discipline
can be seen to be
ultimately prag-
matic (i.e.,
what explanatory
work does it do and how
well?)
and
competitive (compared
with what
alternative positions?). Such assessments necessarily require
consideration of a
range
of
epistemological
and metatheoretical issues
normally
considered the exclusive
property
of the
field of
philosophy
of science. Broad generalized questions
of
causality
and
regularity,
or
prob-
[Vol. 47,
No.
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CULTURAL MATERIALISM
lems
involving
the establishment of
procedures
for verification and falsification are
rarely
ad-
dressed within the social sciences. Yet the
assumption
that such
regularities
and canons of
proof
exist and warrant
investigation
is central to scientific
thinking
in
any
field.
Contrary
to the wide-
spread,
if often
tacit,
view that these will be "discoverable when all the facts are
in," they
cannot
be induced from data
alone; rather, they represent
a
way
in which data must
consistently
be
treated-i.e.,
as a series of intellectual
operations imposed
on observation. Nor can one
pre-
suppose
that there is an "absolute truth"; rather,
there are
only
more and less
powerful theories,
and the
presumption
that the former will
ultimately supplant
the latter.
From this
perspective
the role of
theory
is to
generate
and
organize
facts for some determined
purpose.
In the
following discussion, therefore,
the
separation
of
theory language
from data
language-a keystone
of the
positivist/logical empiricist paradigm
that dominates much of con-
temporary philosophy
of science-is
considerably
blurred in favor of a rather more relativist
position
(Brown 1977). "Fact" is not taken as
independent
of
theory
but as in
part
determined
by
it;
the
significance
of a fact is modified
by
its theoretical context and
governed by
rules of
evidence that are
theory-dependent.
A number of interrelated characteristics of scientific think-
ing
thus
guide
the
present
evaluation of the relation of
theory
to
theory,
and
theory
to data:
science is
hierarchic, competitive,
and
probabilistic.
Scientific
thinking is,
first of
all,
hierarchic.
Hierarchy
refers to the coexistence of
propositions
at
different,
nested levels of inclusiveness from the most
general
to the most
specific.
A
proposi-
tion's breadth is
partly
a function of the
paradigm
from which it is deduced and of its vertical and
lateral deductive linkages.
In one paradigm a proposition may
be
very general,
the foundation of a
wide range of lower-level deductions; in another, the same proposition,
while
remaining equally
"true," may be much more restricted in its application. Unjustified transposition
of levels, in
which a proposition is arbitrarily
made more
(or less) general than its
paradigmatic status other-
wise warrants, constitutes what is called a category mistake
(Guy Oakes, personal communica-
tion); an illustrative instance of this
type
of error in
contemporary anthropology is provided by
the
case of
sociobiology.
Within the Darwinian paradigm acknowledged by sociobiology
to be its
parent, the designation
of a trait as "adaptive" is operationalized
on the basis that it
outrepro-
duces competing traits that do comparable
work. This criterion of differential
reproduction,
however, poses difficulties for the explanation of the behavior of neuter castes-difficulties that
are obviated with reference to the sociobiological concept
of kin selection
(David Post, personal
communication).
Neuter castes, however, occur
quite rarely
in the
biosphere; they are found
among some-not all-ants, bees, wasps (class Insecta, order
Hymenoptera), and, probably
con-
vergently, among termites
(class Insecta, order
Isoptera).
If the
sociobiological explanation is the
strongest extant for these special-case instances, this does not mean that the
principle of kin
selection
necessarily
constitutes a general law of living systems.
While the
principle must con-
form to the general laws of evolution
(it does),
it cannot, given the absence of
adequate justifica-
tion
by sociobiologists,
be elevated to the higher level of inclusiveness.
An initial corollary
to the principle
of
hierarchy, therefore, maintains that there is an inherent
asymmetry
in the relationship
of
propositions at different levels that underwrites the
procedures
by
which
they are tested. A more
specific proposition, deduced from a more
general one, cannot
legitimately contradict the latter even where it modifies or circumscribes its
application: both
belong to the same universe of discourse, and the more
specific statement represents to some ex-
tent a special case. Where a contradiction exists in
principle, it is probable that the lower-order
statement is wrong or has been
incorrectly derived. A second such
corollary entails the
testing
of
a
theory at
any level, not
only against "the facts"
(as everyone already "knows"), but
simultaneously against the entire hierarchic network of
theory itself, both downward
against
other
propositions derived from it and the observations
they generate, and upward against the
more inclusive propositions from which it is deduced.
Most "facts" or "data" constitute
relatively low-level observations, potentially consonant with
or
explicable by a number of
quite different theories, if
perhaps in different
ways. "The facts,"
accordingly,
do not
speak for themselves, lack an independent power to
falsify, and constitute
Price]
711
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AMERICAN ANTIQUITY
evidence
only
insofar as
they
are accounted for
by
some
theory. Testing
of
theory against
data
represents only
half of a more
complete testing procedure:
a
theory
can be
deposed only by
a
more
powerful theory,
not
by
"facts" alone
(Lakatos 1970). Following
the
principle
of
hierarchy,
the more
powerful theory
will be the one with the closer and more direct vertical and lateral net-
work ties.
Thus,
at all hierarchic levels, including
that of the
paradigm,
scientific
thinking
is
competitive.
Of the numerous theories
generated by
deduction from even a
single paradigm,
some will
clearly
be
complementary-will
deal with
discrete, nonoverlapping types
of
special case,
or will coexist
at
different, noncomparable
levels of inclusiveness. For
example,
Conrad's
(1981)
treatment of
split
inheritance in the Andes
is,
in the latter
instance,
a
warning. Split
inheritance in no
way
im-
pugns,
or even
really addresses,
the
paradigm
of cultural materialism
(or any other).
A
special-
case
instance,
it must be
explained
on the basis of some
higher-order generalization,
with which it
is not coordinate and for which it cannot substitute without
incurring
another
category
mistake.
As the
hypothesis
now
stands,
it "floats" at the middle level,
unanchored
by
the
logically requisite
deductive link
upward through
the
hierarchy.
On the other
hand,
cultural materialism does com-
pete directly
with historical or dialectical materialism,
at the level of the mechanism
by
which
they
are
presumed
to account for their observed
consequences-Darwinian
natural selection in
the first
case,
the
Hegelian
dialectic in the second. In such cases of
legitimate competition
the
stronger
of two theories or
explanations
is the one which
explains
the
greater range
of
phenomena,
or does so more
parsimoniously.
As with the
principle
of
hierarchy, testing
each of
the competitors against
the facts is a necessary,
but not sufficient, component
of the overall
procedure. Often, indeed, competing
theories are quite capable
of accounting
for each other's
facts; if the position of, on the one hand, Blanton et al.
(1979),
Blanton
(1978, 1980),
and
Kowalewski
(1980)
is compared
with that of
Santley
(1980)
and Sanders and Nichols
(1981)
on the
other, it is evident that the facts of settlement distributions in the Valley
of Oaxaca are not the
crux of the dispute.
By analogy
with the Darwinian paradigm, competition
of this sort provides
the equivalent
of the
variation that is a necessary
condition for the operation
of natural selection. At certain periods
in
the histories of scientific disciplines
such testing,
at least implicitly,
of theories against
other
theories is unusually
active. What is not, however, justifiable
as a means of resolving
such com-
petition
is a nonstrategy
called eclecticism-the conflation of principles,
research strategies,
and
canons of proof
from two or more competitors
on an ultimately
ad hoc basis. This will result in a
collection of
propositions
that by
their nature cannot be
compared with, or tested against,
each
other from any single logically
consistent set of premises:
the "holism" advocated by
Freed and
Freed
(1981)
is a recent example. Eclecticism, moreover, recognizes
neither the principle
of
hierarchy
nor the related point
that some explanations logically
entail certain others.
Underlying
the competition
inherent in scientific discourse, therefore,
is a third
major prin-
ciple,
the principle
of probabilism.
A theory
tested against data-the necessary
but not suffi-
cient first step-produces
a correlation measurable against
chance. A correlation of 100% is
neither expectable
nor requisite
to confirmation, and should a correlation of 100% occur, the
event could be analyzed
as stochastic, i.e., as having
occurred by
chance in a probabilistic
universe. This implies,
of course, that the single counterexample lacks the power
to falsify (Odile
to the contrary notwithstanding,
the generalization
that swans are white is not vitiated as a
generalization).
Falsification as a procedure
thus itself becomes probabilistic
rather than ab-
solute. Again,
a theory
is not superseded by a contrary fact, but only by
another theory superior
to
the first when both are measured by
the same
epistemological
criteria. The position
advanced
here closely parallels
that of Lakatos (1970).
Granted the tests against
the hierarchy
and against
the
principles
of breadth and parsimony,
the stronger
of two competing
theories is the competitor
that consistently yields
the higher
correlations between the expected
and the observed.
Many
critics of cultural materialism object
that the position
assumes what it sets out to
prove-that
its arguments
are circular and its conclusions tautological.
But on the basis of the
foregoing, any
theoretical position
does this-must do this-to the extent that its task is to define
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No.
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CULTURAL MATERIALISM
certain
problems
as
important
and to direct the
strategies by
which such
problems may
be most
profitably addressed,
to
provide
the context that confers
significance upon
facts.
Further,
as the
following
discussion will
indicate,
cultural materialism
explicitly provides grounds
on which the
propositions
it
generates
can be falsified. In
response
to these
objections,
one
may
note that the
alternatives are
(1)
some other theoretical
framework,
with different
premises,
which would
nonetheless incur the same structural
difficulty
as this
one,
or
(2)
no theoretical framework at all.
Much of American
anthropology
seems to have
fallen,
if
effectively by default,
into the second
op-
tion.
Separate
but
Unequal? Concerning
Theoretical "Secessionism" in
Archaeology
Unless
archaeology
addresses the central
problems
of
general anthropology,
and does so in
ways compatible
with those of the
discipline
as a
whole, archaeology
incurs a risk of
becoming
merely
a series of
techniques
of data
retrieval,
of which one
might
well ask Cui bono?
Underlying
the orientation of this
paper
is the
principle
of
uniformitarianism,
which mandates that
processes
observable in the
present,
under stated
conditions,
can be
safely
and
legitimately
retrodicted
when
comparable
conditions can be demonstrated. Past and
present
are thus treated as ex-
plicable
in terms of the same set of
principles,
the same
reasoning;
an intellectual framework
capable
of
encompassing
both
past
and
present
is
necessarily
more
powerful
than one
mandating
separate
treatment of each
according
to its own rules. On the one hand the
comparative
basis of
anthropology
is
significantly strengthened
when
past (extinct) examples
can be included for
study. Perhaps
more to the
point,
it is
preferable
in a diachronic
discipline
to collect diachronic
data as
directly
as
possible;
reconstruction of such information
by
indirect means, although
a
legitimate
and often
justifiable procedure,
is
inevitably
less
satisfactory.
These
points
are advanced in full
recognition
of a recent
tendency
in
archaeology (cf.
Clarke
1968)
to
disciplinary "separatism": advocacy
of the
position
that
archaeology "requires
its own
theory."
This
separatist
stance is
rejected
in the
present paper
as
unproductive,
as
having
in fact
generated
no
theory
above the middle level. And it is
precisely
at the middle level and below that
archaeology
does
require special-case
statements. Such statements, however, cannot be taken as
a
rallying cry
for
paradigmatic independence. Indeed, as noted earlier, they acquire significance
only
insofar as
they
are
explicitly
linked to
higher-order generalizations.
This
paper
advocates a
cultural-materialist
paradigm
as
fully
consonant with the
generally accepted aims and goals of ar-
chaeology,
a subfield that
currently appears
to lack effective or
explicit higher-order
direction.
On however
preliminary
a basis, the
foregoing
offers a framework for examination of the devel-
opment
of
specifically archaeological theory
in the
period approximately contemporary
with that
of cultural materialism, notably
the
position
known as the "new
archaeology." Although
in
many
ways comparable
with the materialist
paradigm (in
reaction to historical
particularism, both are
overtly
concerned with the lawfulness of
behavior),
the "new
archaeology"
does not
operate at a
comparable
hierarchic level. From its
inception
its
emphasis was upon middle-level and lower-
level
theory,
and its focus was on the
methodology
of data retrieval, description, processing, and
interpretation.
Its metatheoretical roots, moreover, are more
deeply imbedded than are those of
cultural materialism in a
relatively narrowly
construed
logical empiricist tradition. In that the
tenets of this "school" have to some extent become common
currency
in American
archaeology,
the
position
has in recent
years
lost much of its distinctive
identity, even where heirs and suc-
cessors can still be
recognized.
This
very ascendancy
of much of its content, however, warrants
some consideration of its
development.
As is
probably usual, the
paradigms
of the
borrowing field, not those of the donor, determine or
circumscribe the
impact
of the borrowed elements. In the case of the "new
archaeology" the
massive and deliberate infusion of
concepts taken from the
philosophy
of science represents
almost
entirely borrowings
from the
logical empiricism dominant in the latter
discipline in the
1950s and 1960s. The work of
Hempel especially had wide influence
(cf. Binford 1972; Redman
1973; Watson et al. 1971; Salmon 1975; Schiffer
1976), despite the fact that this work, in the
discipline
in which it
originally "belonged," is rather specialized and representative of
only one of
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AMERICAN ANTIQUITY
a number of
competing positions
within
logical empiricism
itself
(Brown 1977).
In its new home
this
body
of
concepts
assumed a
degree
of
generalization
and dominance it
originally lacked,
probably
because much of its
original
context was not
concomitantly
borrowed.
Thus,
while tests
against
data are well
developed,
tests of
theory against competing theory upward
and
laterally
through
the
hierarchy
are in effect
neglected.
Perhaps
in
part
a
consequence
of the almost exclusive concern of both the
parent logical
em-
piricism
and the
offspring
"new
archaeology"
with deductive
logic,
the
procedural emphasis
of
the latter
might
be considered
expectable.
What is
surprising, however,
is that the "new ar-
chaeology" begins
its downward deductions at so
resolutely
middle a
level, precluding significant
generalization
and
producing
a
corpus
of work remarkable
(at
least in
retrospect
and
given
its ini-
tially revolutionary program)
for its intellectual conservatism. Interest in the
higher
levels
has,
if
anything,
dwindled.
Despite
the
early
focus on the
discovery
of laws there remains a sense of triv-
ialization. Given the initial lack of
emphasis
on an overt use of
higher-level theory
to
guide
and
direct work at the middle
level,
this
tendency
too
might
have been
predicted;
in
any case,
the
results
"float,"
unanchored at the
top.
The
heavy artillery
of deductive
logic-even
when this
need not
really
be considered the sole contents of the arsenal-is trained on
relatively insignifi-
cant
targets,
even when so
many
more ambitious ones are within
range.
In recent
years, moreover,
the "new
archaeology"
seems
increasingly
uncomfortable with even
middle-level
theory.
For
example,
the
linkage proposed by Deetz
(1965)
between observed
changes
in ceramic design complexes and the independently
documented breakdown of
matrilocal residence among the Arikara was embraced
enthusiastically,
if
uncritically, by Long-
acre
(1970)
and Hill
(1970)
for the Southwest.
Plog (1980)
has
responded
in an
interesting
fashion
to this formulation, more
specifically
to its extension: while he criticizes the
methodology
of data
collection and statistical analysis,
he seems to have made no concerted effort to
develop
a com-
peting
middle-level
generalization hierarchically
coordinate with the one held to be
inadequate.
The
implication
is that "the facts" are
capable
of
torpedoing
the
theory-what
Lakatos
(1970)
calls naive falsification.
Major
behavioral reasons, other than the statistical, that
explain why
the
Longacre-Hill
extension is
misguided,
are
suggested
but not
explored. Thus, even the falsification
of this one instance does not test, much less vitiate, the
original generalization.
The
preoccupation
with
methodology
for its own sake, as Meltzer
(1979) concurs, is an
intellectually
conservative
retreat; it seems, indeed, parallel
to the
trajectory
of American
sociology
in this
century.
Granted that
archaeology
confronts certain substantive and theoretical
problems peculiar
to it.
Questions
of
chronology,
for
example,
do not arise in
ethnology,
an
essentially
if not
exclusively
synchronic
field;
these
questions necessarily require
distinctive methods and
techniques,
treat-
ment of which lies
beyond
the
scope
of this discussion.
Despite
the obvious
necessity
for
develop-
ing
and refining methodologies appropriate
to
investigation
of more
general
causal
problems,
it is
ultimately
the latter that are the raison d'etre of the
former; very
little of this work
actually
raises
inherently
theoretical
questions.
In
ethnography,
furthermore,
behavior can be observed
directly,
while in
archaeology
much behavior must be reconstructed, indirectly,
from its still-observable
consequences.
If such a
step
mandates consistent
procedures
of its own,
it does not follow that
these
operations
constitute
theory
above the
very
lowest
level,
if that. The
principle
of
hierarchy
indicates that
any
such
procedures
are themselves directed and their
application guided by
middle-level and higher-level theory,
however
implicit;
the former do not substitute for the latter.
Finally,
where both emic and etic research
strategies
are
legitimately
and
appropriately ap-
plicable
in
ethnography, only
the etic
option
is
open
to
archaeologists
if
they
are to
produce
state-
ments that can be either
operationalized
or falsified. Counter to the
strongly
emic
tendency
ob-
served in the cultural
anthropology
of recent
years,
this
paper suggests
a
potential
alliance be-
tween
archaeology
and an etic
ethnology (Harris 1968a),
an alliance
justified by comparability
of
paradigm. They
share far
more,
even
given
the difference in traditional
subject
matter, than
either does with an idealist cultural
anthropology governed by
an emic research
strategy.
714
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CULTURAL MATERIALISM
CULTURAL MATERIALISM: WHAT IT IS AND IS NOT
Like
any
materialist
paradigm
cultural materialism maintains that human behavior-its
similarities and differences, stability,
and
change-is
best
explained
with consistent reference to
the material conditions of life.
Although
the existence of
consciousness, intentions, beliefs, ideals,
values,
and
comparable
mental constructs is not
impugned by
such a
strategy,
such
phenomena
are
regularly
treated as
explananda,
and as
epiphenomenal
to
processes
more
powerfully
ex-
plained
in other
terms; propositions concerning
them will therefore be
relatively
low on the
hierarchy.
This section will
present
the
principal
tenets of the cultural-materialist
position,
in
part by contrasting
it first with what it is
not,
and second with some of the more
frequent
misinter-
pretations
found in the literature and the
grapevine
and tendered in criticism. Cultural material-
ism will then be differentiated from the more
prevalent
form of materialism-historical or dialec-
tical materialism-on the basis of the mechanism held to account for its
operation. Finally,
justification
for this
procedure
will be
presented.
Marx and Darwin
Historically
the causal
primacy
of the material is a
position
associated with the work of
Marx,
one
which, however,
had its
greatest impact upon anthropological theory through
the work of
Julian
Steward
([1936]
and
especially [1955]).
Marx's division of the behavior stream into infra-
structure
(broadly,
the
technoeconomy
of
production),
structure
(domestic
and
political economy),
and superstructure (ideology) reappears
in White's
(1949)
distinction of
technology, sociology,
and ideology.
As
presently used, the definitions of these concepts basically
follow those of Harris
(1979a). Actually, there is considerable
ambiguity
in Marx's own
writing concerning which
behaviors are properly assigned
to which sector, and Marx's actual or
self-proclaimed intellec-
tual heirs have muddied these waters still further.
Many
of the resulting disputes have
ap-
proached the truly scholastic and lie
mercifully beyond
the scope of this
paper.
Steward's
(1955)
differentiation of core
(those
features
empirically determined to be most
closely related to subsistence economy) and secondary features
(those
less
directly linked and ac-
cordingly capable
of
considerably greater variability), while
crosscutting the Marx schema to
some extent, resembles it in function. Both writers set forth an
explanatory hierarchy
of traits, a
series of
investigative priorities, a distinction of classes of behaviors that directs the
study of the
interrelations
among them. The Steward strategy relies less on a
"layering" of discrete traits,
more on
empirical identification of
type
of actual systemic function and degree of
systemic impact
of behaviors along a continuum of "more closely related . . . less
closely related."
Readily
amenable to both operationalization and to
quantification, this method of
assignment permits "the
same" trait to be treated as a core feature in one context, a
secondary feature in another
depend-
ing on the work
actually performed in a given system. The investigative priority
of the infrastruc-
ture or core is directed by the observation that much of life is
actually spent making a
living, that
this is a
necessary condition for
any
other behaviors, and that the
arrangements for
doing this
successfully
will affect or influence other behaviors.
"Orthodox" Marxism and most, if not all, its descendants, rely
on the
Hegelian dialectic to
pro-
vide a mechanism
by
which the theory operates to
produce its effects, in this case a mechanism
based on the resolution of inherent contradictions or
oppositions
in a
system. Structural Marxists
especially appear to concentrate on the dialectical mechanism of
explanation to the virtual exclu-
sion of Marx's more substantive and more
significant contribution to
theory, notably the
principle
of the causal primacy of the material conditions of life (cf. Harris
1979a:Chapter 8). They may
perhaps be more
appropriately called structural Hegelians rather than structural Marxists. But
because neither a "contradiction" nor its "resolution" can be
reliably operationalized, indepen-
dent observers cannot reliably agree that a specific observation constitutes an
example of either.
Hence, there is no basis except faith for the
intersubjective validity required for all scientific
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AMERICAN ANTIQUITY
discourse. Given that the causal
primacy
of the infrastructure is taken as the fundamental
premise
of
any
materialist
strategy,
it
may
be noted that
many,
if not
all,
of the relevant
parameters
will be
quantitative
in
range
of values and in
operation,
and that all are linked in rela-
tions of
positive
and
negative
feedback. Under such
circumstances, analysis
in terms of dialec-
tical
opposites
seems
intellectually
tortured. For the mechanism of the
dialectic,
cultural
materialism substitutes Darwinian natural selection
(Price 1978, 1979),
a statement of nonran-
dom survival of
some,
but not
all, randomly occurring
variations in a
system.
This
strategy
is the
more
powerful
(it can
explain stability
as well as
change),
more
parsimonious
(it
postulates
no ad-
ditional
principles
or
entities),
and has
greatly expanded
and more direct lateral and hierarchic
ties
through
the
general
structure of
theory
(see
below).
Variation is
effectively
random with
respect
to the factors that
govern
differential retention or
modification of the
variants;
it arises
constantly
in all
living systems
and does
not,
in terms of an
evolutionary paradigm, require explanation.
While Darwin himself did not do
so,
we
may
legitimately accept
this as
given.
It constitutes a
necessary
condition for
selection,
the
process
that
explains why
some variants will be
perpetuated,
others
modified,
and still others elimi-
nated-a nonrandom
process operating upon
raw material that is taken to be random at this level
(at
other
levels, e.g.,
the
biochemical, regularities
can be
assumed).
Note that this
paradigm
ex-
plicitly
eschews the
teleology
often attributed to it: the "need for" a
particular
variant under
specified circumstances will not call it forth, regardless
of whether such need is in
any way per-
ceived.
Similarly,
human foresight, purpose, planning-often
cited to
justify
a "suspension"
of
natural selection in the domain of cultural behavior-cannot be invoked to explain
either the per-
sistence or the
rejection
of behaviors. Instead, these mental constructs serve only to generate
variation in the system, upon
which selection, neither guided
nor controlled
by man, operates
con-
tinuously and in a
quite impersonal
fashion. Should a favorable variant occur, by chance, it
should out-reproduce competing variants, i.e., those that do comparable
work but not so well
under specified conditions. Contrary
to widespread assumption, therefore, no evolutionary
paradigm
can deal with the problem
of "origins" (cf. Diener and Robkin 1978);
these random,
idiosyncratic, and essentially
historical. Harris's own
usage (e.g., 1977)
is in this sense mislead-
ing; closer reading reveals it as a shorthand for differential survival or reproduction.
Establishment of a trait within a system
is not sensu strictu a problem of origins at all, but of dif-
ferential reproduction; thus, the analytical separation of "function" (impact upon the system)
from
origins
is
justified.
What is, however, unwarranted is the assumption that function and dif-
ferential reproduction
of traits are similarly unrelated-i.e., that "functional ecology"
has
nothing to do with evolution. What it has nothing to do with, instead, is history.
An
adaptive
trait is operationalized simply
on the basis of its differential reproduction. Adap-
tation, in this sense, is a
quantitative process,
one involving assessment of degree, of "more than"/
"less than." While there may
be no such thing as a completely nonadaptive (adaptively neutral)
trait, selection pressure
is clearly
more stringent
on some than on others. As measured by
the in-
dex of differential reproduction
there is a hierarchy
of more-important
to less-important
phenomena,
based on the degree
of difference made to the system as a whole. It follows that adap-
tation as a process
can be operationalized
on the basis of numbers and distributions of popula-
tions bearing the trait in
question. Beyond
this statement the
questions
of what is and what is not
adaptive, and to what extent, are matters for
empirical investigation
and cannot be deduced a
priori. More to the point, adaptation-and
evolution in
general
and in
principle-is necessarily
short-term and opportunistic.
To consider a trait "adaptive
in the
long
run" is a contradiction in
terms, and any analysis invoking such a
concept
is illegitimate in principle;
Romer's Rule correct-
ly
directs investigation
to the immediate survival value of
any innovation. "The long
run" is
nothing
more than a continuous series of short runs, of nows, placed
end to end and-if a "long
run" is to be discerned at all-linked by
an uninterrupted positive
feedback loop;
whatever the
"payoffs"
of a given trait, these are and must be in the now only.
Although considerable misunderstanding
attends the Darwinian model itself, its extension to
cultural phenomena
raises additional controversy;
in classical Marxism its
application
con-
stitutes the long-standing heresy
of "mechanical" materialism. Apart
from this, however, there
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[Vol. 47,
No.
4,1982
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CULTURAL MATERIALISM
seems to be a
chronic,
if
unexamined, impression
that such extension is either reductionist
(entail-
ing
a
"biologizing"
of
aspects
of behavior not under demonstrable
genetic control),
or in some
sense
metaphorical (translated
from one domain to
another,
either as
homology
or
merely
as
analogy). Underlying
this
group
of related
problems
is the
misapprehension
that Darwinian selec-
tion is
applicable only
to
biological traits, genetically
transmitted-traits for which the term
"reproduction"
is
interpreted quite literally
to
imply
a
particular
set of mechanisms taken as
given,
and for which the criterion of
reproductive
success is a
priori,
built
firmly
into the defini-
tion of the
concept
of
adaptation.
The
immediately following
discussion will
explore
these issues
in some
detail,
in an
attempt
to
distinguish
what is
logically
and
substantively
essential to selec-
tion
theory
from what
may
be
regarded
as accidental accretions to it. To the extent that this at-
tempt
is
successful,
the result will
develop
the
potentially
radical
position that,
whether
applied
to
biology
or to
culture,
the natural selection invoked in both is the same
process.
Cultural materialism in no
way implies
that
biological heritability
constitutes a
necessary
con-
dition for the
operation
of selection. In
effect,
the
assumption
of a
particular
mechanism of
reproduction
of traits is
rejected
as not
required by
the
theory. Logically
all that is
requisite
is
that in all cases there be some
regular, consistent,
and
specifiable
means of transmission of traits
regardless
of the substantive nature of those means
(a
matter for
empirical investigation).
Darwin
himself,
with no reference to Mendel's work and with no access to molecular
genetics, specified
no consistent or correct mechanism of transmission; logically
and
epistemologically there was no
necessity
for him to do so
(the very
real pressures were sociological ones). Without
compromise of
epistemological legitimacy, therefore, such a mechanism can equally comprise the
teaching
and
learning that govern cultural behavior. Such a distinction of means of transmission is in fact a
convenient basis for differentiation of these two spheres of
inquiry, and accounts for the
clearly
observed differences in the transmission process when the two spheres are
compared. In the in-
stance of learned behaviors, transmission can occur far more
rapidly than is possible for the
biological reproduction of genetically heritable traits; "donor" and "recipient" populations need
not be related through common
ancestry
or
interbreeding.
What has been accomplished thus far is the removal of the question of
specific means of trans-
mission from the
province
of selection
theory altogether, to
suggest instead that the
problem is far
more
closely related to the broader issue of how a trait comes to exist in a
system-i.e., to the
question
of
origins in its most
general sense. Some may consider this
strategy to be an access of
purism, an
unnecessary
restriction of the
scope
of the
theory. Yet, as noted
previously, natural
selection cannot and technically need not account for the
entry
of traits into a
system, but
only
for
their differential retention, modification, or elimination.
Assuming only the transmission of traits
as a
necessary condition, the
ways
in which the transmission is actually achieved is
analytically
irrelevant to their eventual "fate." It is
only
this last that selection
theory is
capable of address-
ing.
Thus, it is both possible and productive to assert that "steel axes
outreproduce stone axes"
(i.e.,
the former
spread at the
expense
of the
latter),
or that
"higher-energy modes of
production
displace lower-energy competitors in habitats capable of
supporting either." In neither
example
is there
any necessary reference to the gene pools
of the
populations emitting the behaviors in
question; the behavioral
changes described
may,
or
may not, involve
changes in
gene pools.
Ultimately, however, questions
of
genetic continuity, while
perhaps inherently interesting, are
analytically separate from and
entirely irrelevant to the present discussion. As shall be shown
below, the
question of population numbers alone is central. For the present paper an
adaptive
trait is most
broadly and
neutrally defined as "one which facilitates its own
reproduction," by
whatever means it is demonstrated to do so. Reductionism, imputed by many to
any attempt to
ap-
ply selection
theory to cultural behavior, ensues only when
identity
of mechanism is presumed-
as
sociobiology does, albeit somewhat
inconsistently, but as cultural materialism
explicitly does
not do.
Despite differences in the mechanisms involved, however, the
inexorability
of the differential
reproduction criterion
definitionally integral to selection
theory in
biology is retained in the
ap-
plication to culture. A trait in either domain is designated as
adaptive to the extent that it out-
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AMERICAN ANTIQUITY
reproduces competing
traits
doing comparable
work: this is true
by definition,
and the "exten-
sion" entails no alteration of this fundamental and essential
aspect
of the
theory.
Differential
reproduction,
however it
occurs,
accounts for the
retention, modification,
or elimination of a
given variant, genetic
or
behavioral,
for the
changing frequencies
of
competing
traits vis-a-vis
each other. In both
domains, furthermore,
the criteria
by
which the
process
of differential
reproduction
is
operationalized
are identical: the numbers and distributions of
populations
bear-
ing
the trait in
question.
Since the same measurement of the
degree
of difference a trait makes
upon
a
system
is
equally applicable
to
both, probabilities
increase
accordingly
that we are deal-
ing
less with an "extension" than with the same
process.
Given this
perspective,
debate concern-
ing
whether the extension is
truly homologous
or
merely analogous
is
entirely
moot.
Unlike the
dialectic, therefore,
a natural selection model is
applicable throughout
the bio-
sphere,
to all
living systems including
the
special
case of human cultural
systems.
In terms of
criteria
already presented,
this renders the Darwinian mechanism more
powerful
than its dialec-
tical
competitor.
If dialectics can
explain
the course of human
events, they
can
explain only
the
course of human
events, requiring
additional statements to
provide
a link to the
higher-order,
more
generalized processes
of
living systems.
Without such
linkage
the mechanism
necessarily
floats-or, alternatively, deductively requires
that human existence entails the
suspension
of the
laws of life. This would be tantamount to
claiming
that human social life is not in
principle,
after
all, a part
of nature. A separation-dialectical opposition,
if
you
will-of man and nature explicit-
ly
or
implicitly underlies much of Western social science
(it
seems
perhaps
most
notably, though
not
uniquely, developed
in
France);
but its mere persistence does not guarantee its productivity,
and cultural materialism
rejects
the
dichotomy.
While Darwin and Marx are more often con-
trasted than conjoined
as thinkers, there is a solid substantive and epistemological bridge
be-
tween them; to the cultural materialist they accomplish more together than does either taken
separately.
What provides that bridge is the concept
of
energy,
here understood as the
capacity
to do work,
and seen as potentially constituting the direct link not
only
between human society as a special
case and the biosphere
in
general, but between the biosphere as special
case and the rest of the
universe. An
energy criterion, in sum, provides
a foundation for what could approach a unified-
field-theory
for the social sciences. Energy
is calories; it is
capital and labor; in some contexts it is
money (a special case; the laws of economics-the more restricted domain-are hierarchically
subordinate to the more generally applicable laws of
energy capture and flow. The former must,
and do, conform to the latter. Thus, the position
advocated here explicitly reverses the relation-
ship proposed by Rapport and Turner
[1977]).
Although
the bulk of this paper
was written prior
to the
appearance
of Adams's (1981)
stimulating
and
provocative analysis
of Darwinian selection and energetic theory,
much of the im-
mediately
preceding
discussion is strikingly congruent
with his treatment, even where he invokes
a somewhat different set of intellectual ancestors. What is puzzling
in the present context,
however, is the partial
nature of the convergence. Adams uses these bodies of
theory
to develop
a
position explicitly
intended to counter cultural materialism, and yet
his result is only marginally
differentiated from it. He seems, in effect, to have fallen into the characteristic tendency
to op-
pose Marx and Darwin in
explanation. Thus, he loses sight of two facts. First, that the mechanism
of Darwinian natural selection has always
characterized the cultural-materialist explanation
of
similarity and difference, stability and change, and second, that this principle
has indeed set it
apart
from other, competing,
materialist positions (Price 1978, 1979). Furthermore, the variation
on which selection operates
may
be stated consistently
in terms of energetic
differentials (see
below); the primacy
of the infrastructure is itself
justifiable
on energetic grounds.
For the present
paper
the competitive edge of cultural materialism derives precisely
from its
synthesis
of Darwin
and Marx-a synthesis
treated as fundamental by all of its
practitioners
even where one aspect
or another may be differentially emphasized. Adams
unaccountably
fails to recognize
that this
synthesis
is critical to a position that has never acknowledged any
"contradiction" between the
two contributions.
718 [Vol. 47, No. 4,1982
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CULTURAL MATERIALISM
Energy
and Behavior
An
energy
criterion for measurement and
comparison
is
hardly
new in
anthropology.
White's
dictum that culture evolves as the amount of
energy
harnessed
per capita
increases
(1949, 1959)
has
long
been considered a virtual
truism;
Adams
(1975)
has used
energy
to describe and
analyze
sociopolitical systems
and
especially
the
concept poitical power.
In
ecology
the work of
Howard Odum
(1971)
uses
energy
as a
principal integrative concept
for his
analysis
of
ecosystems.
Certain
general
and fundamental
implications
of the
energy
criterion are
especially
germane
to the present discussion. First is a statement of what
might
be called basic
energy
economy:
all
living systems
must take in more
energy
than
they expend
to
procure
that
energy (liv-
ing necessarily
entails
energetic
costs of
metabolism, growth, reproduction)-the
individual fail-
ing
to do so
dies,
and the
population failing
to do so
eventually
becomes extinct. For a familiar
cultural
special
case
instance,
the statement can be
phrased
more
specifically:
if
you spend
more
than
you earn, you
ea
go
into
debt; and if this situation
persists, you go bankrupt.
Any
subsistence
strategy, therefore, represents
a
compromise
between two
polar
ex-
tremes-maximizing
intake and/or
minimizing expenditure. Living systems,
in other
words,
are
lazy
and
greedy;
in this best of all
possible worlds, maximizing
laziness
usually
entails
minimizing
greed (i.e., cutting consumption)
and
conversely, maximizing greed normally
entails
working
harder.
Depending
on the
context,
the substantive
components
of such
strategies may
be
highly
variable, but this set of constraints is
universally applicable. One of the thornier problems con-
fronting cultural evolutionary theory
is to
explain why, and under what circumstances, people
can be induced to work harder, often for
declining returns on their labor.
Ultimately, this becomes
an
aspect
of the classic problem of the explanation of
inequality,
in that
nonegalitarian institu-
tions
play a significant positive-feedback role in the
process.
All behavior, furthermore, incurs energetic costs and yields energetic returns; both costs and
returns are in
principle measurable. Therefore, a statement of relative
efficiency-the ratio of
costs to returns-can in
theory be used to characterize all behavior. A statement of
efficiency,
however, is a variable rather than a constant. Not
only
is its value altered
by the
manipulation of
either term but, because behavior
always occurs in some environment, some context, different oc-
currences of even
descriptively "the same" behaviors
may
not be
comparable in their
efficiency.
This
suggests that comparison of behaviors according to the work
they do, and how well, is at
least as valid as the more traditional comparison on the basis of form. Steward's
point (1955) that
a trait
may
be a core feature in one
system but
secondary in another is
closely related. To il-
lustrate, the complex of wheeled vehicles and road transport had a different energetic impact in
the context of
Mesopotamia (where, interestingly, it is established
relatively early) from that
noted in
Egypt (where it occurs rather
late).
Given
Egypt's geography, most of the inhabited area
was
easily and
efficiently accessible
by boat; construction of roads would not
only have been cost-
ly,
it would have removed valuable irrigated land from
agricultural production and
thereby have
raised the costs still more.
The costs and returns of all behavior, relative and absolute, permit the
investigator to construct
an
intersubjectively valid
hierarchy
of relative
systemic importance of all observed behaviors.
Those behaviors which harness, or encapsulate, relatively more
energy will be
relatively more im-
portant systemically-a more generalized formulation of Steward's
core-secondary distinction.
Natural selection should act most
inexorably upon these behaviors
designated as core to
produce
stability or
change in
response to actual circumstances. Because these are the behaviors that can
be
expected to produce the most
profound repercussions on the overall state of the system, they
are also the ones that should be most
easily recoverable from the widest range of cultural con-
texts in terms of both
ethnographic and
archaeological data
(assuming, of course, that the in-
vestigator looks for
them).
Energy-richer traits in a
system determine or circumscribe
energy-poorer ones. While such a
deduction
may
not
yet-if ever-be
fully demonstrable
empirically, it does
suggest initial investi-
gative priorities, thus
serving as a
preliminary means of
evaluating competing explanations. It
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AMERICAN ANTIQUITY
may
be
noted,
for
example,
that trade
(Millon 1973;
Webb
1975)
and
productive
intensification
"compete"
as
prime-movers
invoked to
explain processes
of state formation.
Recognizing
that this
is
merely
one restricted facet of a wider and more
complex
debate
(Price 1979),
and
leaving
aside
for the moment the
question
of
prime-mover
formulations and their
epistemological adequacy,
cultural materialism directs attention first to the
parameter responsible
for the bulk of caloric
production.
In most
cases, particularly paleotechnic ones, trade-largely
a
long-distance
trade in
sumptuaries-directly
or
indirectly employs only
small numbers of a total
population
and
repre-
sents
only
a small fraction of the total
energy
harnessed
(i.e.,
accounts for
very
little of a
gross
na-
tional
product
or
equivalent);
this
generalization
can be tested
empirically.
Thus the trade
may
be
largely explicable
on
grounds
of some
energy-richer
variable
capable
of
underwriting growth
in
this,
or some
other,
economic sector.
Expansion
of the
scope
of such
trade,
alteration of its
patterning,
enhancement of the
profes-
sional
specialization
that attends
it,
and the size and structure of markets can be understood not
as the result of some internal
dynamic
of the trade
itself,
but rather as a function of the
ability
of
the
food-producing
sector to
expand concomitantly.
This last
may
be inhibited
by
some fac-
tor-land, water,
labor-not related
to,
or addressed
by, exchange.
If such intensification is
checked, growth
in the trade sector should be checked
correlatively.
In effect, of course, these
two
"prime movers" are systemically
linked rather than competing variables
(Price
1979), al-
though the linkage
is
asymmetrical.
Finally,
these are the behaviors that, given the convertibility
of matter and energy,
will most
probably, and to the degree that they are systemically important,
be manifest in material form.
Whatever else a material
object may represent, it is
directly
the
energy expended
on it. Natural
selection thus operates upon the energy differentials of
competing variants that do comparable
work. Under
any
stated conditions some will perform that work more efficiently, either because
they are less expensive or because they yield higher returns-or both. A more efficient behavior
will
out-reproduce,
will
displace,
a less efficient alternative. Frequencies
of competing
behaviors
(the
criterion of
population
numbers and distributions)
will alter-increase or decrease-as con-
ditions change.
Population, Carrying Capacity,
and
Negative Checks
Following Malthus, this
paper
assumes that populations have an inherent tendency
to expand
until that expansion is halted by
the imposition
of some negative check. Neither the extremely
low
growth rates for
pre-Neolithic populations (Carneiro
and Hilse
1966),
nor the frequently
observed
incidence in human (and other) populations
of behaviors, however motivated, which result in
limitation of growth, vitiates this assertion. Contrary
to the positions espoused by Cowgill (1975)
and others, such phenomena may be
taken, rather, to indicate the
stringency
of negative checks
operating
on such populations.
Behaviors that regulate demographic increase in
response
to in-
creased costs and diminished returns
may
themselves be a regular and predictable
check on
growth.
A
negative check-Liebig's
Law of the
Minimum-may
involve whatever element (not
merely calories)
is
necessary
to survival, and that is available in the shortest supply.
The substan-
tive identification of the element cannot be determined in advance (David Post, personal commu-
nication),
but the manifestation that it is
limiting
will
always
be reflected in the increasing costs of
its procurement
and the diminishing returns on such investment.
A tiresomely
recurrent criticism of cultural materialism is that it reduces all issues of cultural
evolution to problems
of
protein procurement.
This
misapprehension
stems initially
from the in-
stance of the explanation
of the endemic warfare of the Amazonian Lowlands. Chagnon (1968,
1973)
claims that because plantains,
the principal staple
of the Yanomamo, will grow anywhere
in
the habitat, and because there is ample agricultural land, there is no limiting
factor imposing
a
negative
check on these populations,
and they cannot therefore be fighting "over" anything.
The
causes of the warfare must accordingly be sought in the nature of their political
institutions.
While concurring that agricultural
land is not in fact limiting,
Harris (1979b)
has noted that a
plantain staple must be supplemented
with animal protein
in order to provide a balanced diet. For
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No.
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CULTURAL MATERIALISM
a
population lacking
domestic animals
(except dogs,
which are not
eaten)
and which consumes lit-
tle
fish,
that animal
protein
must be derived from the
hunting
of land animals. The
latter, given
the
nature of
tropical
forest
ecosystems (Ross 1978;
Roosevelt
1980)
tend to be
relatively
scarce and
dispersed
in their distribution.
Relatively expensive
to
procure,
these animals constitute the
limiting
factor and the focus of
competition
between and
among groups dependent
on them.
From the
perspective
of this
paper, however,
it is
entirely specious
to make the
general
claim
that a factor
empirically
shown to be
limiting
in one
specified ecosystem
is
inevitably limiting
in
all
ecosystems.
Such a
procedure
is
entirely
distinct from the
paradigmatic
mandate that it is in-
cumbent
upon
the
investigator
to
identify
the actual
limiting
factor in a
given ecosystem.
Substan-
tive identification of the factor is an
empirical matter, though
its
consequences
as a
negative
check are not. In
fact,
at different times and
places,
and in different
systems,
arable
land,
water
holes,
soil
fertility, irrigation water,
and labor
supply
can all be identified as
limiting.
Another controversial
concept, carrying capacity,
is determined
by
the
limiting factor, the
negative check,
and limitations
upon carrying capacity
are set not
by
the exhaustion of a needed
resource but
by
the increased costs and
declining
returns on
making
a
living.
It makes little sense
to
point
to unutilized resources that
might
have been used "if
population
had
actually
reached
carrying capacity,"
or to cite such resources as unused and
thereby
infer that
population
has
stabilized "below
carrying capacity."
On the
contrary,
resources can be defined
only
on the basis
of their actual
exploitation by
a
population
(behavior defines the
niche);
some identifiable
poten-
tial "resources"
may
never enter the
system
at all because their
exploitation may
be too
expen-
sive, too
unprofitable, or too
risky. The oil crisis comes to mind:
untapped oil sources, long known,
have remained untapped because getting that oil out is too costly a process-or has been in the
past,
when oil from elsewhere, even with the transport costs,
was
cheap and in reliable
supply.
A
"resource" not worth
bothering with at one time, under stated conditions,
may
become utilized as
those conditions change.
Population pressure,
the obverse of
carrying capacity, must accordingly be defined not in terms
of absolute size or
density, but in terms of the increasing energetic costs and diminished returns
involved in
sustaining a given way
of life.
Depending on the mode of
production of a given popula-
tion and the relevant conditions of its habitat, such
pressure can occur at
any demographic level.
A
population of
hunter-gatherers may experience pressure
in a habitat at densities well below
.5/km2; that same
habitat, populated by cultivators (different relevant
conditions,
different
niches) may easily support densities in the hundreds. Observation indicates a
range of
possible
responses to such conditions. Fission and emigration of
population into areas
capable of
support-
ing them but not
yet doing so-mediated or not
by competition and
warfare-may constitute one
series of
options. Or a
population may intensify production at home
(Boserup 1965), may work
harder or
longer or more
frequently,
and
may accept a declining return on labor
(i.e., may
cut con-
sumption), as it alters its strategy from one of
maximizing yields per unit of labor to one of max-
imizing yields per unit of land or other resources.
Conversely, any observed increased incidence
of
any
of these behaviors or their material
consequences enhances the
probability
of
population
pressure even if the latter is not
directly
or
independently observed.
Since the statement of basic
energy economy is
apparently violated
by the process of
produc-
tive intensification, the costs of this
option must
always be measured
against the costs of alter-
native options for a given system. They
will all
vary with circumstances, and if the materialist
paradigm mandates that these be
investigated first, it cannot a priori predict their values.
Moreover, the most efficient "solution"
may entail a mix of strategies-colonization of some new
areas, warfare
(its consequences will
vary with technoeconomic and
sociopolitical context),
in-
tensification of production. What can be an efficient mix of
strategies in one
setting may be too
costly-the expense of
spirit in a waste of shame-or
yield too low a return in another. In
any
case it is the costs and returns, regardless of the
perceptions of the actors, that
govern the
proWb-
abilities of retention or elimination of a given complex of behavior under stated conditions. An ad-
ditional
consequence of reliance on an
energy criterion for cross-cultural
comparison is that
while such reliance does not resolve the formalist-substantivist
controversy, it demonstrates the
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AMERICAN ANTIQUITY
irrelevance of the entire debate and thus moots it. Since this issue has inhibited
nearly
a
genera-
tion of
development
in economic
anthropology, any
such
refocusing
is
likely
to result in
productivi-
ty gains.
Prime Movers and
Systems
Models
Causal
priority
of the infrastructure is
thereby justified
with reference to the
concept
of
energy:
it is the infrastructure that is
largely responsible
for
energy capture.
This
position
differs
from the
technological
determinism of White
(1949, 1959),
in that relative
efficiency
is here held
to be determined
by
the
systemic
interaction of
technology
with
demonstrably
relevant environ-
mental and
demographic parameters
that affect the costs of and returns from
technological
or
other behaviors. Cultural materialism differs
also,
and
comparably,
from the environmental
determinism, furthermore,
are
effectively prime-mover theories,
whereas cultural materialism
necessarily
invokes a
systems
model-a
procedure
that makes it less "mechanical" than
"sys-
temic" Marxism.
In a
systems
model of
causality,
feedback
relations-positive
or
negative-among component
elements are held
capable
of
affecting
the relative value of each and the state of the whole. No
single factor,
however
designated,
can be treated as a sole
determinant;
"the same" factor in the
analysis
of
processes governing stability
and
change
can be
interpreted simultaneously
as both
cause and effect. A
strategy
of this sort obviates the often uncomfortable
squabbling among
com-
peting single-factor theories
(see
the discussion of trade versus productive intensification above),
all of which resemble each other
structurally
but differ
among themselves in the particular prime
mover selected. Thus, to debate "increased productivity causes population pressure" against
"population pressure causes increased productivity" is to create an apparent head-on collision
stubbornly unresolvable in its
present
form. This can now be more
productively rephrased: What,
under a wide
range
of conditions, can we say about the relationship of population and productive
regime? When are these variables linked in positive (reinforcing),
when in
negative (neutralizing)
feedback? With what
consequences
to
existing
conditions and to the overall state of the
system?
Prime mover theories, particularly
when
they compete directly,
seem to result from the decom-
position
of causal constellations more
profitably
treated as irreducible
systems (Price 1979).
This
procedure
is far more common than its
complement,
the
amalgamation
of a number of
single-
factor theories into a single systemic
formulation
by emphasizing
the
mutually repercussive
rela-
tions
among
the relevant variables.
Several
misconceptions
nonetheless attend the
adoption
of the
systems
model of
causality.
Epistemologically empty
in itself, it can neither select the variables that will
comprise it,
nor
assign
differential
weighting/explanatory power
to
any.
But it cannot be assumed that all ob-
served
components
will be of
equivalent importance. Systems "theory"
in other words is not a
theory
at all; it must be used in
conjunction
with some
higher-order generalization,
to which the
tasks of selection and weighting ultimately
fall. Kohl
(1981)
has,
in somewhat different terminol-
ogy,
noted the separability
of
systems
model from
governing paradigm (cf.
also Price
[1979]).
Those variables determined to
produce
the most
profound
effects
upon
other variables and
upon
the whole are defined as more
important.
When the
paradigm employed
is materialist,
these will
be factors identified and quantifiable
as
harnessing
or
controlling
the
greater
amounts of
energy.
It follows that it is insufficient
merely
to document the
appearance
of a trait in a
system;
what is
needed instead is
specification
of the
energetic
work it does and of the
degree
of difference it
makes to the state of the whole. For
example,
much of the
disputation concerning
the
significance
of
irrigation
in the evolution of culture unfortunately
reflects this form of error. From this defini-
tion of relative importance
of various factors, moreover,
it follows that the
systemically
more im-
portant
traits should also be more obvious, in the sense that
they
should be more
easily
recoverable from a wide
variety
of contexts.
As defined here, a
systems
model does not entail enshrinement of the
concept
of
equilibrium
as
normal or
necessary
to a
system.
Were this the case,
it could
explain stability (maintained by
722
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CULTURAL MATERIALISM
deviation-correcting, negative-feedback mechanisms)
but remain unable to deal with
change.
Yet
Flannery (1968) explicitly
addressed an
overtly
nonhomeostatic
problem
with considerable suc-
cess. It is
chiefly
here that cultural
materialism,
with its
strongly evolutionary emphasis,
differs
from the more functionalist human
ecology
of
Vayda (1971)
and
Rappaport (1967, 1971).
The lat-
ter
position emphasizes questions
of
equilibrium
maintenance and restoration. One is
strongly
tempted, indeed,
to
identify
this
position
as the more
appropriate target
for the criticisms of
Diener and Robkin
(1978)-especially
their
separation
of "functional
ecology"
from evolution-
instead of a somewhat
idiosyncratically
conceived cultural materialism.
Contrary
to
popular belief,
cultural materialism is not
incapable
of
dealing
with
questions
of
structure or
superstructure. Rather,
the
energy
criterion
suggests
that the behaviors indicated
by
these
concepts
are measurable in terms of costs and returns
(cf.
Adams
1981)
and
thereby
re-
quires
their treatment from the same set of initial
premises
and rules of
reasoning. Accordingly,
such behaviors will be of
analytical importance
to the extent that
they
are
demonstrably
involved
in the overall
energetic system.
It is not inconceivable that the belief that cultural materialism
cannot address these
questions may
stem in fact from its refusal to treat structure and infra-
structure as the idealists
do, i.e.,
as
explicable only
in terms of
themselves,
with reference to
prin-
ciples unique
to these domains.
Domestic and Political
Economy
Social and political institutions are expensive energetically
in
proportion
to their size and com-
plexity,
with some institutions, or
aspects of institutions, requiring more
energy than others.
Within this domain also there is a
hierarchy.
On the basis of the foregoing, the most
important
characteristics of
sociopolitical structure should be most readily apparent
to the
investigator
whose perceptions are governed by a paradigm directing attention to those characteristics. Much
extant
ethnographic description, however, appears to focus
primarily upon secondary, effectively
stylistic, features of social and political institutions, upon
the
terminology
of
relationships at the
expense of size, composition, and
physical arrangement of coresident groups, for
example, and
has tended to treat this
sphere as not
only autonomous but determinative. British social an-
thropology,
known
initially for such an emphasis, still seems to retain much of it.
Ironically,
perhaps, the "substantive" school of American economic
anthropology stumbles into this same
pitfall (Polanyi 1957) by advocating treatment of economic processes and transactions on the
basis of their embedment in social institutions. Cultural materialists, while
fully recognizing the
relation of the economic and the social, would reverse the
postulated direction of
determinacy.
That is, they would
analyze the critical features of social forms as in effect the flow chart of
energy capture and distribution. Other
specifiable characteristics of social organization are
treated as important to the extent that
they can be deduced from or linked with the
energy system.
What is proposed, in other words, is a hierarchy of relative importance based on demonstrated
energetic involvement-a
hierarchy that contrasts in its basic premises with those more
frequent-
ly encountered in the literature.
Even "traditional" problem areas in social organization can, however, be approached from a
number of avenues, no one of which is dictated
by the inherent character of the data. Rather, the
questions posed by
the
investigator determine the relative
importance of the observations taken
and recorded, and
ultimately the uses to which
they can be put. Lineality and the
analysis of
unilineal descent
groups constitute a case in
point. In the
customary treatment of
problems of
filiation, alliance, corporateness, etc., there is a
strong emic component, which focuses on ter-
minology, symbol, the prescriptive and the ideal.
Necessarily culture-specific and
particularizing,
much of the
undeniably
rich
description that results stands as it own raison
d'etre, generalizable
only with
difficulty
if at all.
When, however, social formation is linked to technoenvironmental and
demographic context, it
becomes
possible to generate propositions amenable to
comparative testing and falsification.
Murphy (1979) has postulated that unilineal descent in Lowland South America functions as a
rule of exclusion, limiting the numbers of
potential claimants to resources
exploited by a
group.
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AMERICAN ANTIQUITY
For the
Tallensi, Worsley (1956)
correlates
degree
of
corporateness
of kin
groups
with increased
pressure
on
agricultural land; Meggitt (1965)
notes increased
emphasis
on the
agnatic principle
among
the Mae
Enga
in areas of land
scarcity.
It follows that
bilaterality-a
rule that maximizes
recruitment
options-can
be
suggested
as a
response
to conditions in which labor rather than
land constitutes a
limiting
factor in the
productivity
and
security
of a local
population (cf.
Price
1981).
Because such
propositions
are
generated
from an etic research
strategy
and can be tested
comparatively against
the observed state of an
energetic system, they can,
on a
probabilistic
basis, potentially
and in
principle
be retrodicted
(see below) despite
the
practical problems
un-
questionably posed by
such a
procedure.
Many contemporary ethnographic
studies of
political institutions, especially
studies at the local
level,
have focused
upon problems
of
leadership,
information
processing,
and
decision-making
at
the
expense
of the
traditionally
central
concept governing political
studies:
power. Although
an
interesting body
of data has been
amassed,
this
change
of
emphasis
is unfortunate-a
birthright
sacrificed for a mess of
pottage-in
that the
concept
of
power
can be
operationalized directly
in
terms of
energy
(Adams 1975).
Control of force
(Fried 1967)
is
expensive,
and thus
necessarily
im-
plies
differential access to the total
energy produced by
a
population;
since it is thus not a cultural
universal,
this
point may
account for its
"displacement"
from
political anthropology.
In
general,
political
nodes of whatever
type
serve
inevitably
as
energetic nodes,
however
structured;
the
roles of such nodes in information control and decision-making are
analytically epiphenomenal
to
this function.
One can explain
on a regular
basis
why
cultural
systems,
under specified conditions, should in-
crease in
energy
content
(and conversely,
one can
potentially identify negative
checks which
abort this
process).
But without reference to such increase it is difficult to
explain why
"informa-
tion" should
comparably
and
independently proliferate,
let alone why, and
by
what mechanisms,
such
proliferation
could account for institutional transformation. Information
processing
and
decision-making,
while
undeniably
human behaviors, involve little
energy expenditure per
se. The
energy
involved in
making
one decision rather than another
rarely
entails
signlificant
differentials
of cost. Only the translation of the decision into some course of action, and the institutions in-
volved in such actions, can be said to incur such measurable cost-return differentials. In that case
it seems preferable,
on
grounds
of
parsimony,
to accord
explanatory priority
to these behavioral/
energetic parameters directly,
rather than to their
subsidiary,
if
ubiquitous, accompaniments.
The
currently increasing interest, however, in information and decision models to
explain pro-
cesses such as state formation
(Flannery
1972; Wright 1978)
warrants closer examination of ad-
ditional
problems
raised
by
these models.
It is first
necessary
to
distinguish
the
questions
of
why
and how individuals make decisions
from those of
why
and how the
implemented
decisions succeed or
fail;
the two
pertain
to different
analytical
levels. Because the two sets of
questions
constitute different research
problems,
evidence relevant to the former
may
be
only superficially
so to the latter;
the
questions
asked dic-
tate the
appropriate
use of whatever data
may
be in evidence. In an
ethnographic context,
the
complex
of motives and intentions that
inevitably comprises
a
part
of the
decision-making process
can be
directly observed; even the
strongly
emic
component
of this
complex
is a
legitimate
and in-
teresting subject
of
investigation.
But such data for
past
decisions are unrecoverable in
principle
and cannot
legitimately
be retrodicted
(see below). Thus,
the
only surviving
observable evidence
will be of the behavioral
consequences
of the
original
intentional and motivational
complex and,
hence, can stand in a
specific
relation
only
to a different
question altogether,
one amenable
only
to etic
analysis. Second,
it is erroneous to assume
isomorphism
between this
complex
and the
behavioral effects it
generates.
This is the
best-laid-plans problem.
As
previously noted, foresight
and planning
constitute one source of variation in the behavior stream but are not
adequate
to ex-
plain
the retention, modification, or elimination of
any possible
variant-and these last are all
that we can observe. Third, a related
point:
unless antecedent conditions
(e.g.,
this
complex
atten-
dant on
decision-making)
are
analytically distinguished
from
ensuing effects,
the result incurs the
fallacy
of
assuming
the
consequent:
the
only
evidence
by
which the conditions can be
reconstructed is
through
their observed
consequences.
As a
major problem confronting any
form
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CULTURAL MATERIALISM
of
analogical reasoning,
this consideration will be treated in a later section of this
paper
in some-
what different form.
Energetic
definitions of cultural evolution
suggest
a
recasting
of Steward's "levels of socio-
cultural
integration"
as
essentially arbitrary
and heuristic chunks of a
quantitative
continuum
with no
naturally occurring breaks,
rather than as a series of
mutually
exclusive taxa or
"types"
(cf.
Service
1962;
Fried
1967). Although
a
causal, explanatory,
or
descriptive
model need not in
principle
be
isomorphic
with the data it
orders,
the consonance of the continuous-variation
option
with the data as
they appear
to the observer is in this instance
suggestive
and becomes still more
so when both
archaeological
and
ethnographic instances,
treated in the same
ways,
broaden the
total
comparative
base.
Any
classification is
merely
a convenient shorthand statement of similari-
ty
and difference on the basis of
problem-dependent
criteria
imposed by
the
investigator.
This
proposed revision,
while no
exception,
offers certain
pragmatic advantages.
The
energetic
changes implicated
in cultural evolution are held to be incremental and
governed by positive
feed-
back.
Hence, they
are additive and scalar.
Therefore,
the behaviors that
comprise
them should
reflect the addition of new work to
old,
with feedback modification of
both,
and should Guttman
scale (Carneiro 1968, 1969).
Since those behaviors which are
systemically
most
important
and
most
broadly
determinative should be those most
closely
involved with
energy harnessing
and
flow, they
should constitute the
principal
basis of classification and should account for much of
the
similarity and difference observed from one
system to another.
Accordingly,
terms such as "egalitarian," "ranked," and "stratified" are used in this
paper
in
the continuous-range rather than in the
typological sense. Such a strategy obviates the often
thorny problem of "transitional" stages and "intermediates"
(often
the most
processually
in-
teresting,
if interstitial, aspects
of
typology);
it moots both the arid bickering over how
particular
examples are to be classified
(Sanders and Price 1968; Henderson
1979), and the
illusory sense of
accomplishment that seems to result from the assignment to one or the other
category (even
where most investigators would
probably order the same series of examples in the same
way).
Superstructure: Emic and Etic Considerations
Contrary
to the almost ubiquitous assumption, a cultural-materialist
strategy does not
preclude
treatment of
superstructure, of
ideology. Rather, the propositions
it
generates may
be
stronger
than those resulting from the premise that this sphere is independent, precisely because
ideology
thereby becomes
explicitly subject
to the same canons of proof as any
other
component of the
behavior stream
(Harris
1974; Ross
1980). Idealists are most likely
to assert the
explicability
of
ideology only
in terms of itself and to emphasize the causal
priority
of this domain. To the
cultural materialist, however, behavior, including that manifested in
ideology, performs work; it
too is therefore involved to some extent in
energy harnessing and distribution. Given this
perspec-
tive, the kinds of
questions asked of
ideology
will be different from the traditional ones. Governed
by
the
paradigmatic difference, the new
questions explicitly address
problems that arise in the
course of
investigating the
relationship of
superstructure to other aspects of behavior. Thus, the
resulting propositions may
not conform to traditional expectations concerning how
they "ought to
look." First, apart
from behavior associable with them, ideas cost
nothing and leave no direct
material impact upon
the environment. It costs no more to think one
thing than another, unless the
difference entails distinct behavioral
consequences. For this reason cultural materialism tends to
treat ideas and beliefs as epiphenomenal to behavior, on the grounds that the more
energy-rich
trait tends to determine the more
energy-poor one. Second, much of the content of
ideology is
treated as stylistic, as variable because
variability makes so little
systemic difference. What
strikes many readers as austere in this
procedure is that
propositions are tested not
against the
beliefs or perceptions of the actors, but
against the state of the
system.
Individuals in our own
society seem, for
example, to be
adopting a
dietary strategy
of
vege-
tarianism with
increasing frequency. This practice is rationalized or
justified by the practitioners
on various grounds-health, "nature," purity, myth, religion, etc., all
highly variable within the
sample (an interesting potential research
problem for idealists is the
explanation of how and
why
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AMERICAN ANTIQUITY
quite
different beliefs "cause" such similar behavioral
effects).
It
is, however, inescapable
that
meat is
expensive
and
becoming
more
so,
and that household incomes have not
kept pace
with in-
flation. One
response,
not
necessarily personally
attractive or
easily maintained,
is to cut con-
sumption. Regardless
of whether the actors admit this motivation
(few
of them
do),
this last is the
real
consequence
of their
behavior,
and the
ideology,
whatever its
specific content,
seems to make
the
practice
easier.
Interestingly,
the
changed practice
would in
principle
be recoverable ar-
chaeologically
where the motivations or beliefs of the
actors,
in the absence of written
records,
would not. This is
basically
Harris's
argument (1966) concerning
the sacralization of Indian cat-
tle. The behaviors attendant on this
complex
are
adaptive-they
increase
population
numbers
and
densities-given
the constraints of Indian
ecosystems.
But under crisis conditions
they
would
be difficult to maintain in the
system without,
for
instance,
massive and
expensive
investments of
force.
Ideology
seems, indeed,
to have a
regular systemic
function, particularly
obvious in state-
organized polities (although by
no means limited to
them),
of
reducing
the costs of force
which,
whatever its
payoffs,
is nonetheless not
cheap
to
impose.
Rather
cynically,
it
may
be noted that
the more
people
are
taught
to believe in the
sanctity
of
private property,
the less one need
spend-within
limits-on
policemen.
Particularly
in the domain of
ideology, therefore,
the difference between an
emic,
actor-
oriented research
strategy
and an
etic,
observer-oriented one is most
clearly highlighted.
It must
be remembered that in the present context this distinction refers to the method by which state-
ments are verified or falsified, rather than to data, much of which can, with
greater
or lesser
facility,
be accounted for from the standpoint
of either. Cultural materialism relies primarily upon
the etic option, as mandated by a natural selection model: selection can operate only upon ex-
pressed behavior regardless
of its motive or
purpose.
Much of the history
of
applied anthropology
offers a sobering illustration of this point. Emic strategies
of proof are an apparent numerical ma-
jority
in
contemporary American anthropology;
this fact does not
necessarily enhance their pro-
ductivity
but only
their familiarity. Many
of them indeed, especially
so when they are retrodicted
in the absence of written documents, incur the Intentional Fallacy: i.e., if the
only
evidence one
has for motive is the behavior itself, it is futile even to ask how well that behavior fulfills the
actor's intention. Quite apart
from the observation that living actors
may
not understand their
own motives, are certainly
not asking the
questions
we ask of their behaviors, and
may
lie like
Ananias, in an archaeological context intention is usually inherently unknowable. Fortunately,
in-
tention and motivation do not
govern
the retention or modification of behavior within a system
either; it is possible to build more
parsimonious explanations on the basis of observed parameters
than on that of entities inferred only indirectly from them.
Inconsistent discrimination between propositions referring
to the state of the
system
and those
applicable to the individual actor's motives or behaviors entails misleading use of "evidence,"
which is
actually only superficially
relevant to the question
one is
asking.
To
illustrate,
the
cultural-materialist treatment of the evolution of
systems
affirms that natural selection will
operate
in the direction of greater energy efficiency
under stated conditions. To some, however,
this generalization
recalls the "economically
rational man" formulations of the past century.
Yet
the two are not logically connected; the former does not imply the latter even on an oas ob basis,
and the two do not even refer to the same level of
phenomenon. Thus, ethnographic
"evidence" of
the "irrationality"
of the actors' motives (cf.
Freed and Freed 1981)
does not address the question
of the kinds of laws governing stability or change
in the system
into which those actors were en-
culturated. Increased energetic efficiency is operationalized
and quantified
on
grounds
other
than the behavior or interpretation
of the actors, and it is to the latter that the concept
of
economic rationality pertains;
why
systems
behave as they
do is analytically
distinct from
why
people behave as they
do. This observation parallels
the earlier note that the
ethnography
of
decision-making
is a different question
from that of the eventual fate of the decisions translated
into behavior, and that these two types
of
problem govern
the relevance of different types
of
evidence.
Again,
to many
readers the consequences
of such a separation
of levels will seem
perhaps
austere. Cultural materialism is capable of asking both types
of
question,
but
by
regular-
ly differentiating
them can then systematically identify the nature of the relationships
between
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CULTURAL MATERIALISM
them as
constituting
a research
problem itself,
a
problem
often masked when the levels are con-
flated. This
point, furthermore,
while distinct from the emic-etic
controversy,
is
clearly
not
unrelated to it.
A not inconsiderable debate
concerning
the
pragmatic
and
epistemological
ramifications of the
emic-etic distinction and its
utility
in
application
is
currently emerging.
Limitations of
space
do
not admit detailed consideration of this debate at
present (cf. Ferguson 1980;
Oakes
1981).
However,
it must be noted that the etic
strategy complements
rather than
negates
the more
familiar and more accessible emic one. An etic
strategy,
in other
words,
need not
reject
emic in-
quiry
as invalid or
illegitimate.
Recent work
by
Oakes
(1981)
indeed
suggests
that at a
higher
level
of abstraction emic and etic
strategies logically converge.
In the
pragmatic
terms of actual
ap-
plication
in the social
sciences, however,
the middle level-in which the distinction is retained on
the basis of differential
consequences
to falsification
procedures applied
in
specific
instances-is
the more
appropriate.
What an etic
strategy
does is to define a class of
question (not necessarily
of
data) frequently ignored,
for which treatment in terms of the
perceptions
of actors in the
system
is at best irrelevant and
unproductive,
and at worst unfalsifiable and
misleading.
In so do-
ing
it
provides
an
epistemological
basis for the
validity
of certain "nontraditional" forms of
ethnography,
a
category
that
presently
includes
investigations
as
substantively disparate
as the
entire field of
primate
behavior and the
relatively
new field of
ethnoarchaeology.
IMPLICATIONS
At a superficial glance, archaeological data, directly or
indirectly so
solidly "material," seem
prime candidates for treatment within a materialist paradigm, which
emphasizes the causal
significance of
just
this type of information. Indeed, Kohl
(1981)
considers some form of material-
ism
already dominant in the research strategies of American
archaeology. Data, however, are
neither materialist nor idealist, emic nor etic:
only the reasoning, the research
strategy imposed
on the data and not the "facts" themselves, are so classifiable. Because such
reasoning is im-
posed for a purpose-to answer
questions posed by an investigator-"facts" become evidence
only
in reference to these; once placed
in evidence their
strength and relevance can be
consistently
evaluated. There are, in other words, stronger arguments for the adoption of a materialist
para-
digm in
archaeology than the simple observation that so much of the data recovered
by the
methods of that field are material.
Following the principle of
hierarchy, moreover, some material data will be more
important than
other, equally material data; determination of such priorities is a task of
paradigm. This section
will
apply the
principles
of cultural materialism to a range of problems, drawn
only in
part from
archaeology but with evident implications for that field.
Ultimately, justifications for certain
types of retrodiction, largely from
ethnography to
archaeology, will be advanced. Whether as-
sumed
tacitly
or addressed
explicitly, these last are a central
problem of the
strategy currently
known as
ethnoarchaeology, a class of
investigation at least as significant for the direction of con-
temporary ethnography as it is for
archaeological work; its principles are those of a
comparative,
diachronic, etic general anthropology.
Although Darwin could formulate a
theory of biological evolution without reference to the
paleontological record, and the earliest theories of cultural evolution
(Harris 1968b) were devel-
oped without
significant archaeological infusion
(beyond
data on the classical
civilizations), such
a strategy must be regarded as
effectively faute de mieux.
Methodologically, this
option is in some
respects justifiable; especially
if the
emphasis is on
process rather than on details of form, the
principle of uniformitarianism
upholds its
legitimacy. Ironically, therefore, a scientific
proposi-
tion, in contrast to a historical one, is
necessarily achronic. Yet not
only was Darwinian
biology
immeasurably enriched with the
development of
paleontology, it would have been
seriously crip-
pled had it not been able to
encompass paleontological data. The latter, in the absence of a consis-
tent paradigm of
biological process, would have been
consigned to the status of a historical or an-
tiquarian curiosity. Correlatively, a theory of cultural evolution would be
compromised, both
metatheoretically and
empirically, to the extent that it could be
consistently falsified
by an ar-
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AMERICAN ANTIQUITY
chaeology
that asked
comparable questions
and invoked
comparable
canons of
proof.
Much of ar-
chaeology, however,
seems to have failed to address
questions
of the
process
of cultural evolution
in favor of concentration on
problems
of culture
history
and the
development
of
style. Overlap
of
data has
frequently
masked the relevant
epistemological distinctions,
for it is not true that com-
plete knowledge
of entire historical
sequences
would
automatically provide
answers to evolu-
tionary questions.
Archaeological
Data and Their Uses
By
deduction from the cultural-materialist
paradigm,
an element or
relationship
in a
given
system
is
analytically important
in
proportion
to its involvement in the
harnessing
and flow of
energy
within a
population
and between
populations.
Given the
translatability
in
principle
of mat-
ter and
energy,
the
probability
is therefore
high
that such an element will
directly,
and such a
relationship
will
indirectly
but
reliably,
be
expressed
in material form. The more
important
the
element or
relationship,
the
greater
the
probability
of
recovery
from a number of different con-
texts. Just as not all elements and interrelations are of
equal importance,
not all material traits
are
energetically significant merely
because
they
are material. Nonetheless a
paradigm
that man-
dates material
expression
of
causally significant parameters (among others)
should be both
reassuring
and a
practical guide
to research.
Here,
the
principle
that the
energy-richer
com-
ponents
determine
energy-poorer
ones sets initial
investigative
and
explanatory priorities.
Some media are of course more
energy-expensive
than others-more difficult to obtain, incur
higher transport costs,
imply
more complex relations of
production
that are themselves more cost-
ly
to support.
For
example, monumental sculpture
in hard stone requires
more energy
than
ceramics, and architecture still more; relative capital and labor costs are
quantifiable
at least in
principle. Holding medium constant, however, it is no more "efficient" to carve or build in one
style
rather than another; and it is thus
largely
futile to use
stylistic
traits as direct evidence of in-
stitutional structure. Their inherent
variability, however, makes them invaluable for the recon-
struction of
history. Yet, the more
expensive
the medium, the more
energy
investment it
represents, then the more information it can
potentially convey concerning the state of the system
if
appropriate questions
are asked. This is
especially true in the case of architecture. Buildings
are relatively expensive
of
capital, labor, materials, and organization-the
sudden and discon-
tinuously
distributed appearance
of construction in "foreign" style establishes not merely
"foreign contact" as a historical event, but control from elsewhere of local capital and labor. Site
intrusion of this type,
while
clearly
a
quantitative phenomenon, implies
a particular dynamic
of
contact and suggests the most parsimonious explanation. Again,
the more appropriate questions
are not
always asked, and the more traditional questions
are not always appropriate.
Parameters
of scale and relative cost, and of the implications
of building
for
questions
of differential land-use
and access to resources (cf. Proskouriakoff's
[1963] study at Uaxactun, which documents an
altered pattern
of social stratification)
are often somehow less "interesting" than questions
of
style, decoration,
iconography
and
history.
Settlement pattern (cf. Willey 1953), by the criteria already advanced, is almost a uniquely
powerful
data category,
a virtual material isomorph of infrastructure and political economy,
which records and preserves
the most
significant
features of energy production
and flow. Since
Darwinian adaptation
is by definition operationalized
on grounds
of
population
numbers and
distributions, the paradigmatic
mandate is direct and overwhelming. Despite
the
customary
stric-
tures concerning the use of negative evidence, one can say that what is not observable or
reliably
recoverable from this class of data was probably
of negligible systemic importance.
Because set-
tlement pattern
is a priori responsive
to and reflective of selection pressures,
the
specifically
historical information derived from it is tenuous. This class of evidence is
subject
to
evolutionary
processes
of
parallelism
and convergence and explicable
in terms of uniformitarianism rather
than strictly
historical principles-a
distinction inherent rather in the
questions
most
ap-
propriately
asked than in the observations themselves.
A number of basic assumptions already
considered underlie the strategy
of research. First is
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CULTURAL MATERIALISM
that
population
size is an index of
energy capture (minimally
each
person
is an additional
energy
packet)-that
it reflects the
productivity
of resources
actually,
not
potentially, exploited
for the
support
of that
population.
The behavior of the
exploiting species
in
conjunction
with the charac-
teristics of the habitat-not the habitat alone-defines the niche
occupied.
Human
populations
constitute a
probable
extreme in the
biosphere
in terms of the unusual
range
and
flexibility
of the
niches
they occupy.
If
"carrying capacity"-the point
at which a
population
reaches an
asymp-
tote-is
probably
a constant for no
species,
it is still more
obviously
variable for
man,
and must be
determined
empirically.
Second, population
distribution is in turn a reliable index of resources
actually exploited.
Because
people
will work
only
as hard as
they
have
to,
communities will be located to maximize
efficiency
of resource utilization.
Any
consistent alteration of settlement location indicates a
change
in the costs and returns of alternative resource
procurement strategies,
the resources
used,
and the
ways
in which
they
are used. Just as
any
observed subsistence
system represents
an
empirical compromise
or a
system
of tradeoffs
among frequently conflicting patterns
of minimiz-
ing expenditure
and
maximizing return,
a settlement
pattern
too
is,
in
effect,
a
compromise
com-
parably
determined
among parameters
with often
radically
different demands. It
may
be a
tautology
to observe that the more
complex
the
infrastructure,
the more such
compromises
are
reflected in the observed
population
distribution that
represents
their resolution. Such
changes
in
settlement
pattern
therefore constitute
primary
evidence for the distinction of intensification
(Boserup 1965)
from shift in the mode of
production (Harris 1980),
and
accordingly,
for
changes
in
political economy attributable to these infrastructural
processes.
In the Lowland
Maya area, for
example, despite
consistent
population
increase from the
earliest agricultural
settlements to the end of the
sequence, population
distributions show little
change
in
principle.
The bulk of the
population
tends to reside
preferentially
in or near zones of
sloping, well-drained, limestone-based soil; it seems safe to assume that such niches constituted
the least-labor, highest-return,
lowest-risk components
of the habitat. This
suggests
a
process
of
continuous intensification of
production-on
the model of
Boserup's sequence.
Communities
found in other niches can be
explained
as
having
been forced there, at the cost of
working harder,
for lowered
yields
and
probably higher risks. Throughout
the
Maya occupation
the relative
favorability
of zones vis-a-vis each other, measured
by
relative
demography,
seems to remain
essentially
constant
(Ford 1981).
This
suggests
that while intensification of
production
was
prob-
ably continuous, the component techniques
never
generated
a shift in the mode of
production,
which would have altered relative productivity, comparative demography,
and
geopolitical
rela-
tions
among
zones.
When and where it occurs, a shift in the mode of
production
is documented on the basis of
altered
principles
of settlement distribution, i.e., where the bulk of the population is living. Again,
the rationale is that people
tend to live where
they
make a living; any changes indicate changes
in
the relative
productivity
of different habitat niches, and therefore in the costs and probabilities
of
making a living. What Roosevelt
(1980)
observes on the Orinoco is an initial period
of relative
demographic stability followed
by a rapid growth of population. Concomitant with the latter is a
shift in site distribution in which most settlement comes to be concentrated in areas
adjacent
to
the
seasonally inundated floodplain. Given the differential growth and labor requirements
of
manioc and maize, respectively, a shift of
staple from manioc to maize as the source of most of the
society's calories is
postulated. Such a shift would account
parsimoniously
for the entire complex
of
population growth and altered niche dominance
relationships between floodplain and inland
forest; indeed, the
demographic changes constitute
primary evidence for the shift in the mode of
production. Discovery and placement in time of actual maize remains and associated
processing
tools confirm the hypothesis, but
only
with a caveat: they document the
appearance of maize, but
of themselves-and unlike the settlement evidence-cannot indicate the
scope
of the techno-
economic difference it made, and thus of the
systemic impact. No alternative
hypothesis accounts
so well for these observations.
Similarly,
the shift of
population during the Formative
period
in the Basin of Mexico
(Sanders et
Price]
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AMERICAN ANTIQUITY
al.
1979)
from the zones of
relatively
abundant rainfall to the
vicinity
of
permanent springs,
ac-
companied by
considerable
demographic growth,
documents a shift from
rainfall-dependent
to ir-
rigated agriculture
as the source of most calories
produced.
No
explanation
of these
changes
is so
powerful
as this
one; correlatively,
no documentation of a
"hydraulic
revolution" is so
convincing.
Despite
confusion
among investigators
on this
issue,
the
"origin"
or first
appearance
of
irriga-
tion is
analytically
less
significant
than the
point
at which it comes to make a
systemic
difference.
Discovery
of actual canals
incontrovertibly
associated with the settlements in
question
would be
a desirable confirmation of a
proposition generated
on what are
actually
much
stronger grounds.
Sociopolitical
Models in
Archaeology
However controversial
may
be the use of a materialist
strategy
in the
interpretation
of infra-
structure,
far
greater
resistance is encountered in the domain of
structure,
and
particularly
with
respect
to
political economy. Many investigators
seem to consider these
phenomena
best ex-
plicable
in terms of their own laws
(Flannery 1972;
Blanton
1978), and, furthermore,
treat
pro-
cesses at this level as determinative of the infrastructure
(Adams 1966;
Conrad
1981).
Part of the
difficulty
here
may
be traced to the
deeply
rooted tradition of Western
thinking (itself meriting
analysis)
that intention and
purpose
affect outcomes-a
position explicitly rejected by
cultural
materialism. One result of this
widespread and
uncritically
held view is that even in the absence
of
independent evidence concerning such motives and beliefs-the situation that inevitably
ob-
tains in
archaeology-no
serious attempt
is
consistently
made to
develop cross-cultural and
diachronic models based on
processes that do leave ample traces of their
operation.
To the
cultural materialist these latter are the more
important systemically
in
any
case:
Why
not look for
causality where it is strongest? Exacerbating current conditions, of course, is the
regrettable fact
that most extant ethnographic
models have tended to
range
from the irrelevant to the
downright
misleading, based as they are, if often
inconsistently,
on
categories impossible to operationalize
in
etic terms. The
general archaeological protest
that there is no
nonequivocal way
to
apply
ethno-
graphic
models to
archaeological
observations is well taken: there's a reason for that. All too
often the
response is to avoid these questions as far as
possible. When
they
are confronted in ar-
chaeology
the impression
is that the more "cultural" the model the less falsifiable it becomes.
Perhaps
if certain ethnographic descriptions
are unconfirmable
archaeologically
there is
something flawed in that ethnographic approach.
Studies of social and
political
life have often focused on emic treatment, even of
concepts
capable
of etic
operationalization.
In
ethnography,
where the
necessary
informant concurrence
can be obtained, this
option
is
epistemologically legitimate;
there is no "need" to formulate an
alternative
option,
no obvious limitation inherent in this one. An
ethnographer
can
study
leader-
ship
or
decision-making directly
and can adduce several concomitant lines of evidence for these
phenomena; an archaeologist
has no
independent
evidence of the
processes
involved and can
only
assume
analogically
that
they
must have correlated in some
way
with what he can observe
(at
this
juncture
he falls
directly
into the Intentional
Fallacy).
An
ethnographer
can
present
a series of
"types,"
each defined on the basis of criteria of
varying
and often
unjustified importance,
often
not coordinate with each other, and with no
requirement
that the same
parameters
be invoked
throughout
the
taxonomy.
The
archaeologist despairs
of the
possibility
of
translating
such criteria
into usable form. It
apparently
occurs to neither that the entire
operation might
be misconceived
and
perhaps
even futile. Yet, as the maximal material
expression
of the
ultimately
material
pro-
cesses of
energy capture, flow, and
expenditure,
settlement
patterns
should reveal the
significant
features of
political economy.
Those features not so
recoverable, regardless
of the
emphases
of
traditional literature, can
safely
be treated as
secondary. Following
the mandate of the
paradigm,
the
questions
that determine the
ordering
of data will
necessarily
be somewhat different.
However,
any
similarities or differences of structure for which
comparability
or noncom-
parability
of
energy
content and distribution can be cited should be
clearly apparent.
Institutional involvement, particularly
with
surplus
above immediate
consumption
and
replace-
ment needs, is directly expressed materially. Low-energy, egalitarian
societies are those which
730 [Vol. 47,
No.
4,
1982
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CULTURAL MATERIALISM
produce
no such
surplus;
as a result their settlements lack
significant
civic
architecture,
and
public spaces
lack
costly
elaboration. Even where such societies
regularly
or
seasonally comprise
several communities,
these nodes should differ
only minimally among themselves,
and
any
ob-
served
variability may
be
largely explained
with reference to environmental
variability.
Settle-
ments in the more favorable zones of a habitat should be
larger,
and overall densities will be
higher
than would be the case in more
marginal niches; seasonally occupied
settlements should
resemble each other
by season, or,
more
precisely, by principal
resource base
exploited.
If no
surplus
is
produced,
of
course,
it cannot be
spent
or controlled
differentially
from one locus
rather than another. Under such
conditions,
network ties
among component
communities would
be nonhierarchic
and,
since such
components
are
largely
self-sufficient
economically,
the ties
tend to be weak and
nonsymbiotic, functioning primarily
for the reduction of risk in crisis situa-
tions. For such activities
consanguineal
and affinal ties of
kinship-which perform
other work as
well-are
adequate
and
inexpensive
to
support.
Any tendency
to
growth
in the
development
of
nonegalitarian
institutions will be reflected in
the increased
physical
size and
complexity
of the settlement
network, i.e.,
in the
degree
to which
site stratification is
present.
This is a
quantitative
criterion rather than a
binary (present/absent)
one and refers to the
degree
of contrast
among
network
components
in
size,
in elaborateness
(cost)
of civic construction and other
building contents,
and in local infrastructure-contrasts
that reflect social, economic, and political differentiation among interacting communities. As is
also the case for
egalitarian patterns, the larger communities and densest populations will be
found in the more
productive parts of the habitat. But as socioeconomic
inequality increases, this
no
longer explains the same proportion of the observed
variability,
and the
impact of some addi-
tional parameter
is
suggested. What these differences reflect is the differential size and/or
regularity
of the surplus produced at and controlled from each node or level of node. It
may
be oWb-
served, for
example, that the Big-Man societies of New Guinea
(Sahlins 1963), while
incipiently
ranked, show little site stratification; the villages in which Big-Men
live
may
not be
physically
distinctive. Surpluses are small and irregular, and the status positions, correlatively, are
achieved and somewhat ephemeral. In fact the degree of sociopolitical inequality is so
slight that
these networks look
very egalitarian still. Assuming unchecked continuation of
positive feedback
mechanisms, surpluses increase, status positions become
increasingly ascribed, and the com-
munities in which ranked nodes live who control that surplus come to reflect the fact that more
wealth flows through these loci and is spent there. What the civic construction is, in other words,
is a means for
removing surplus from circulation lest it
through inflation come to act
per se as a
negative check on continued intensification of production; such architecture, then, is
directly the
energy amassed and expended
on it.
Both the
production and expenditure of a surplus are adaptive behaviors (Price 1981). While it
may be obvious that continued or enhanced production is adaptive, this
quality
is less
immediately
apparent in the case of
maintaining spending. But, societies
removing surplus from circulation,
whatever the motives or rationales for doing so, would continue to
prosper with a
higher prob-
ability than those not
adopting such practices. The latter would be more
likely
to stabilize at lower
demographic and energetic levels, as negative feedback mechanisms act to check continued
surplus production. Ranked institutions and the economics of
surplus are linked in a positive feed-
back loop; such institutions are
intimately involved in the control and allocation of both
capital
and labor, especially the latter. In
any case, natural selection can operate only upon the on-the-
ground consequences
of
expressed behaviors, regardless of whatever
decision-making processes
and "information"
may be attendant on those behaviors.
Reference to
surplus and its expenditure permits a materialist perspective on the ceremonial-
ism noted by Service
(1962) as characteristic of ranked societies-a
perspective, moreover,
capable of explaining the observation that the ceremonialism is variable in its occurrence. Its
absence does not imply that the
society is developing through some distinct
evolutionary trajec-
tory
of its own
(cf. Sanders and Webster
1978)-merely that in some contexts there is some other
way
to
spend that surplus. While all societies that produce a surplus face the
problem of
spending
it, in some technoenvironmental contexts there is another
potentially profitable option: it can be
Price]
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AMERICAN ANTIQUITY
reinvested to
produce
more
energy.
The extent to which this is
possible
or
profitable
must be de-
termined
empirically.
In the Basin of
Mexico, surplus
was invested in the
technology
of
produc-
tion to address a
limiting
factor: the construction and
expansion
of
irrigation works,
in which in-
creased
productivity
was
effectively
a function of increased labor investment.
By contrast,
this
sort of reinvestment in the Lowland
Maya
area could not have enhanced
agricultural productivity
(it would, rather,
have accelerated
degradation),
would have had a
low,
even a
negative, payoff.
Correlatively,
elaborate
ceremonialism,
so marked
among
the
Maya,
is
comparatively
undevel-
oped
in Formative Central Mexico.
Determination of the extent to which a
society
is
nonegalitarian depends
thus on the
analysis
of
regional
settlement
pattern (cf.
Wilson
1981)
and on the
degree
of internal differentiation and
contrast noted within the network as a whole. Entire
networks,
characterized in this
fashion,
can
be
compared
with each other
along
a number of relevant dimensions. If total
demographic
size is
a convenient index of overall
energy content, population
distribution reflects the manner in which
it is
produced
and
spent.
While site stratification can be
broadly represented
as a
pyramid,
each
such
pyramid may
differ from others in
size, shape,
and
height (number
of levels or size classes of
settlement,
of
energy-processing nodes). Comparison
of the numbers of settlements in each size
class and the
percentage
of
population
accounted for
by
each is thus a basic
step
in
comparing
political
economies.
Surplus production per
network can be indexed
by
the costs of all nonresi-
dential construction from all nodes at all levels; its expenditure by
the per level ratio of civic to
residential building. As a shorthand
technique, furthermore, it is
legitimate to compare the sizes
and costs of the
apical settlements, or even of the civic sector of each, from one
pyramidal
net-
work to another. Each of these dimensions of
comparison provides an index of a somewhat dif-
ferent energetic determinant of
political economy; taken together these can provide operational
statements of the
degree
of
similarity
or difference of scale and form. It must be remembered that
this sort of concerted
strategy, despite the
quantity
of settlement data recorded since Willey's
work in 1953, is
rarely implemented systematically.
One gets the impression that voluminous set-
tlement observations are all too
frequently made almost without quite knowing why,
without
put-
ting them to work.
A number of
subsidiary observations, equally
material but involving smaller energy quanta,
can
be used to
supplement
or refine the generalizations developed thus far. Many
of these entail
relatively traditional types
of
archaeological observation and description
which are, however, on-
ly inconsistently applied
to this sort of
question
or are
applied piecemeal
with no
concept
of the
differential
weight
of evidence.
Sumptuary goods-recognizable
as such on the basis of their
relative
infrequency
and restricted associations-are not
only
objets
d'art, but reflect
increasing
differentiation of social status of individuals, households,
or entire settlements. Vivian
(1970)
notes, for instance, that most occurrences of
turquoise,
elaborate burials, and
comparable
status
indications are in the
large
"town sites" of Chaco
Canyon,
not in the smaller settlements. Town
sites are
independently
defined on the basis of
multistory apartment
residences and
great
kivas-and are situated to control runoff that feeds a floodwater
irrigation system.
The shell arm-
bands and necklaces of the Trobriands would delineate a status residence,
not otherwise
significantly
differentiated
physically.
These
goods
circulate
only among
ranked nodes. In-
terments
accompanied by sumptuaries
should contrast with those
lacking
them-an index that
can be used to
generate
and confirm additional observations. To the
extent,
for
example,
that
status is ascribed rather than achieved, the
probability
is increased that status burials will con-
trast with
simpler
ones in various
demographic
and
physical characteristics-stature, diet,
mor-
bidity, mortality-attributable
to the fact that better-off households eat better and can afford to
feed even unproductive young
children well
(a group
most often scanted when food is
scarce) (cf.
Gross and Underwood 1971; Peebles and Kus 1977; Schoeninger 1979; Storey 1980).
The
foregoing supports
the
strategy
advocated in the
preceding section,
that
ranking
and strati-
fication be treated in terms of a continuum rather than a contrast. Differences in stature and in
life table that are strongly
correlated with other material evidence of differential status
certainly
approach
the "differential access to basic resources" criterion of stratification. There are few
resources more basic than food, and the most
parsimonious, nonidiosyncratic, nonquixotic
ex-
732
[Vol. 47, No. 4,1982
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CULTURAL MATERIALISM
planation
of differential
feeding
of children
by
social
status, regardless
of the
(unrecoverable)
ac-
companying ideology,
is that not
everyone
can afford to allocate
expensive, high-quality
foods to
other than
active, producing
adults. In those ranked societies in which redistribution is
prominent
(not
all of
them,
cf. Price
[1981]),
ranked nodes
clearly
have
preferential
access to whatever
resources are obtained
through
the redistributive
system.
The
comparative physical anthropology
suggests
that more than
merely sumptuaries
is
increasingly
involved.
Only
one set of behaviors-
capital
control of the factors of
production-remains
to be
added,
and the
principles by
which it
develops
are the same ones
applicable
to
preceding steps (cf.
also Harris
[1977:Chapter 7]).
Degree
of such control-not
presence
or absence-is manifested
materially
in the differentiation
of
residences,
the
principal
reflection of the
ability
of a household to divert
community surplus
to
private
use.
Very large, internally complex
ranked societies should indeed resemble stratified
ones,
on the basis of
descriptive
criteria derived from
energetic parameters
and
consistently ap-
plied
across the
energetic spectrum.
Strategies of
Retrodiction
Some
archaeologists
seem to
reject
in
principle
the use of
ethnographic
data for the reconstruc-
tion of
archaeologically
manifested structure and
superstructure (viz.
the
position
that ar-
chaeology "requires
its own
theory"
in order to address these
problems
at
all).
Others,
on the
other
hand, appear
to invoke
ethnographic
data
quite readily
and
uncritically.
In a sense the
former
group may
be viewed as a
response
to the excesses of the latter. This
paper
maintains that
retrodiction from
ethnography
is normal and
necessary-is
indeed
implicit
in even the most
pure-
ly "archaeological" formulation. Therefore, it is preferable to develop rules of
procedure govern-
ing the translation of ethnographic observation into archaeological evidence.
While some inferences and retrodictions are reliable, valid, and as amenable to
testing as
any
proposition however generated, others are flatly illegitimate. More than mere seat-of-the
pants in-
tuition is
necessary
for evaluation of the relative probabilities
of
analogically derived
proposi-
tions, and in the distinction of some as productive
from others as
logically impermissible. Common
assumptions to the contrary, greater knowledge
of
ethnography is insufficient to
develop
or
strengthen an analogy. The facts do not speak for themselves, do not
generate a research
strategy, and cannot substitute for the role of a paradigm. A powerful and
logically sound
analogy-the only
kind that is
potentially useful to archaeologists or
anyone else-depends far
less upon "the facts" that upon what is
imposed on them
by
the
investigator.
Analogical statements constitute merely a special case of what is more
broadly termed the com-
parative method-a special case which, when one member of the comparison is drawn from ar-
chaeology or
history,
nonetheless
requires certain logical procedures distinctive to it. Because the
uniformitarian principle mandates treatment of past and present
within the same causal frame-
work, there is no inherent problem
of
legitimacy in such diachronic
comparison. As is
regularly
the case with the comparative method, the similarities on which comparisons are drawn can be of
any sort-formal or functional; technological, sociological, or
ideological-and there is no re-
quirement
of
homology. There
may be a stipulation that the members of the
comparison be
historically
or
linguistically related
(the "genetic model" of
Romney [1957] and
Vogt [1964]); for
criticism of
analogies so formulated see Price
[1980]);
or the
analogy may
be constructed on other
grounds specified by
the investigator (what Charlton [1981] calls "general" analogy).
Not
unexpectedly, the
consequences of these various
options will differ in both
practical ap-
plicability and
epistemological strength. Some illegitimate attempts have tended to discredit the
entire
undertaking; part
of the reason
may be that the role of
paradigm is
insufficiently taken into
account. Some investigators reject the utility
of
analogical reasoning on
grounds that it cannot
help to
interpret any phenomenon truly extinct without issue, i.e., without
precise surviving ethno-
graphic parallel. One possible instance of such a situation
may be the
general absence of extant
or
ethnohistorically reported ranked societies at the uppermost pole of the continuum so
desig-
nated-a gap that admittedly contributes to the
difficulty of
interpreting this "level." But it is this
scale and form of
sociopolitical organization that would
compete most
directly with states
(Price
Price]
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AMERICAN ANTIQUITY
1981)-a competition likely
to result in either
secondary
state formation
(Price 1978)
or tribal-
ization
(Fried 1975).
While there are reasons for selection
against
these
examples, given
a
changed systemic
context that includes
states,
there is no bar in
principle
to
analysis
of their in-
stitutions on the basis of the material effects
they
have
produced,
and of the
similarity
or dif-
ference
among
such effects in
comparison
with better-documented
examples.
At least in the
past
half
century,
this
type
of
objection
has not
unduly
troubled
paleontology,
even when that
discipline
has confronted
comparable
difficulties. This has
probably
been
because
paleontology
can deal with functional similarities and has not found it
necessary
to de-
mand formal identities.
Despite
Gould's reservations
concerning analogical reasoning (1980),
Charlton
(1981) correctly
notes that his use of
"anomaly"
is a subclass of such
reasoning.
His
specification
of
comparison
based on
comparability
of
adaptive
context and of traits
directly
linked to
it, moreover,
neither contrasts with nor substitutes for an
analogical argument,
as he im-
plies; rather,
it
represents
the
imposition
of conditions under which
analogy
is
likely
to be most
powerful (cf.
Mitchell
1980).
It is not accidental that these are the conditions that a cultural
materialist would also
specify.
An
analogical proposition
takes the
general
form
If A- B
Then A1
-
B1.
When both members of the
comparison are drawn from
ethnography,
all four terms-A, B, A1,
Bl-are
directly observable, and the causal
linkages
can be
postulated independently
of each
other and relatively directly.
If one member derives from
history
or
archaeology,
one term, usual-
ly A1, cannot be so observed and must be reconstructed from its
presumed consequences
B1. In
such
examples
the cause-effect linkage
must be demonstrated
independently
for the second
member, apart
from the A
-
B link. Some statement of
equivalences-that
A and
only
A causes B
(granted
that this is
necessarily
a
probabilistic statement)-is required
for the diachronic analogy
(Price 1980).
Much of
"experimental archaeology" represents
a controlled effort to establish
such an equivalence,
to link A1
causally
and
independently
to B1. If the
paradigmatically signifi-
cant components
of behavior are those most involved in
energy flow, and if these in turn are those
most
likely
to leave material traces, then examination of both the behavior A and its conse-
quences
B in the
present
constitutes the
necessary
first
step.
Next is the
specification
of the
material similarities between B and
Bi:
to the extent that these two terms resemble each other the
probability
is enhanced that A and A1 will be similar to a
comparable
extent: the nature and
magnitude
of a cause are reflected in the nature and
magnitude
of the effect.
An additional requisite
to
legitimacy
is the
following:
however
generated,
both members of a
comparison
must be treated from the
standpoint
of the same research
strategy.
If facts
themselves are neither emic nor etic, the means
by
which
they
are verified or falsified are one or
the other. Unless both members are
comparably
treated there can be no consistent or noneclectic
means of falsification; cross-strategy analogies
are
necessarily illegitimate.
Since
many aspects
of much
contemporary ethnography rely
so
strongly
on an emic
strategy, analogy
cannot be used
to underwrite retrodiction of these observations into a
past,
which
requires
use of an etic canon
of
proof.
In the case of
ideology,
for which few etic studies are
extant,
the
problem
is
particularly
acute; this, paradoxically,
is where
many investigators
seem most to wish to retrodict from
analogy.
Largely
in the
past
half dozen
years (but
cf.
Wauchope [1938]),
the recent subfield of ethno-
archaeology (e.g.,
Gould 1978;
Kramer
1979)-actually
an
emerging
etic
ethnography
that is at
least implicitly
materialist in
strategy-has begun
to address certain of the broader
questions
of
the relations of
ethnology
and
archaeology.
Directed to the
development
of canons of
proof
in-
dependent
of informant concurrence,
this "school"
consistently
addresses the
problem
of the A
-
B
linkage
and the reconstruction of the A1 term. The
specific
substantive or culture-historical im-
plications
of the work are less
significant
to the
present
discussion than certain metatheoretical
734 [Vol. 47,
No.
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CULTURAL MATERIALISM
and
logical considerations; these,
rather than the
recovery
of exact or literal
counterparts
be-
tween
present
and
past, appear
to be its
principal
contribution thus far.
Although
some
studies,
notably
the Tucson
Garbage Project
(Rathje 1978, 1979),
deal with
complex
neotechnic
society,
most have focused
upon hunter-gatherers (e.g.,
Yellen
[1977]
on the
San,
Binford
[1978]
on the
Nunamiut,
Gould
[1980]
on the Australian Western
Desert).
The
opportunity
to
explore
the rela-
tionship
of emic to etic
interpretation
in the most direct form
possible
has not been overlooked:
this
ought
to be more
generally
a central research
priority
in
contemporary anthropology.
In
part
coordinately,
in
part convergently,
and
regardless
of whether the
kinship
is
explicitly
acknow-
ledged,
the research foci and
strategies
of
ethnoarchaeology
are
strikingly congruent
with the
cultural-materialist
paradigm.
CONCLUSIONS
In this review of the
principles
of cultural materialism the
paradigm
has been tested
against
selected
competitors
in the
analysis
of certain
problems
of
similarity
and
difference, stability
and
change
in cultural
systems.
Because there is no absolute or immutable truth in
science,
a com-
parative testing
of this sort is the
only
valid method of
establishing
the relative
strength
of com-
peting
sets of
explanatory premises:
theoretical
propositions
must be tested
against
each other as
well as
against
data and evaluated on metatheoretical as well as
empirical grounds.
Facts do not
speak
for
themselves,
nor does
generalization
inhere in
them; they acquire significance-indeed
are
recognized
as
facts-only
insofar as some theoretical framework is imposed
on them. Thus,
no statement of
causality
can be expected
to emerge through the amassing of facts, no matter how
assiduous or
"complete." Thus, too, the present treatment of substantive controversies
(often,
and
not
accidentally, "big" ones that cross subfield or discipline boundaries)
has been
deliberately
restricted to those facets immediately related to the selected theoretical points under examina-
tion, with no intention or attempt
to present these debates in full, far less to resolve them.
A
synthesis
of the principle
of the causal primacy
of the infrastructure (Marx)
with the
opera-
tional mechanism of natural selection
(Darwin),
the two linked by a common energetic criterion,
offers a nonidiosyncratic
foundation for the widest possible
cross-cultural and diachronic com-
parison.
That this fusion has characterized the position
since its inception is manifest in its consis-
tent
emphasis
on the costs of/returns from the behaviors it investigates (but
cf. Adams
[1981]).
Several
consequences may be noted. First, comparison
of
formally
or
descriptively quite
dissimilar behaviors according
to uniform and consistent standards of measurement is not
only
permitted but mandated. Such procedures,
while they often necessitate the recasting of a number
of traditional anthropological questions
into unconventional forms, may
at the same time
generate
new and
potentially productive
research strategies capable
of revealing unsuspected systemic in-
terrelationships. Ideology,
for example (cf.
also Adams [1981]),
is thus treated on the basis of the
systemic
work it
performs rather than as an autonomous, much less a determinative, domain; like
subsistence behavior and sociopolitical institutions, it incurs potentially quantifiable costs and
equally operationalizable
returns.
Second, and consonant with the role of
any paradigm
in the direction of research and the estab-
lishment of rules of evidence, cultural materialism sets forth an operationalized hierarchy of
relative importance. Behaviors demonstrably more heavily
and intimately involved in the
capture
and utilization of
greater amounts of total energy are to that extent treated as of greater systemic
importance. Although substantive identification of these behaviors in
any given system is
necessarily empirical, designation of these criteria of significance is a theoretical operation. It
follows therefore that a research focus on the character of the infrastructure, the
technoeconomy
of
production,
is
paradigmatically justified,
with no need to
postulate an "opposition"
of Marx
and differential energetics; despite differences of
terminology, the principal points
of each can be
expressed
in terms of the other without noticeable distortion. A related epistemological conse-
quence
with
particular, if
hardly exclusive, impact upon the subfield of
archaeology
is that
behaviors and
processes recognized as differentially important are those most
likely
to leave
material traces of their
operation-matter and
energy are convertible, and material expression is
735
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AMERICAN ANTIQUITY
in
large part
a function of
energy
cost.
Adoption
of this
paradigm
(in contrast with the idealist
competitors currently flourishing
as the
green bay
tree in cultural
anthropology)
obviates the dif-
ficulties that would otherwise confront a field unable in
principle
to recover
directly
the informa-
tion that underwrites
major
causal statements.
Moreover,
this
application
offers to cultural an-
thropology
a continuous corrective check
(analogous perhaps
to selection
pressure?)
on its own
formulations: if the latter are
unintelligible, i.e.,
make no
sense,
in an
archaeological context,
if
they
are in
principle
unfalsifiable in such a context
(practical problems aside),
then the
prob-
ability
increases that
they
are incorrect or
incorrectly
derived.
Finally,
the
principle
of natural selection offers a consistent
strategy
for
addressing
the
prob-
lem of
history.
Since at least the work of Boas there has been a basic
assumption,
sometimes
overt,
sometimes
tacit,
itself of
paradigmatic
status in American
anthropology,
that
history per
se
constitutes an
explanans;
from a Darwinian
standpoint
it
clearly
becomes an
explanandum.
Selection
pressure operates upon energy efficiency
differentials under stated
circumstances,
leading
to the differential survival and
reproduction
of some variants at the
expense
of less effi-
cient
competitors
that do
comparable
work: this
premise explains nonteleologically why
historical
sequences
come to look the
way they
do. Much current
archaeological work, especially
in the col-
lection and
interpretation
of
data,
seems
impressionistically
to be
sufficiently
culture-historical
in
emphasis
to
suggest
that the
principal competition
of
paradigms
in that subfield is still between
historicism and one or another form of materialism. Kohl's assertion
(1981)
of the present
dominance of materialism-even when his reference is inclusive of all materialist positions taken
together-appears overoptimistic,
or at best
premature. Even when not
directly expressed, the
traditional archaeological preoccupation
with the
discovery
of origins-an essentially
historical
question
of how variation arises-seems still a
major
concern. Yet, as is also the case in
biology,
an
evolutionary theory cannot legitimately
or
falsifiably address this question.
These distinctions,
of course, reflect the difference of focus of cultural materialism in
comparison
with alternative
and rather more orthodox materialist positions.
By a process perhaps analogous
to the evolution of
productive regimes, scientific
paradigms
themselves evolve; should they fail to do so
they become ossified into
dogma and are
eventually
relegated quite legitimately
to the status of intellectual curiosities-in effect, selected against.
A
"scientific revolution" in this sense
analytically
resembles a shift in the mode of
production that
redresses, if
temporarily,
certain energetic inefficiencies and imbalances in the
system
in which
it occurs. If such a shift is successful
(survives
and
spreads)
it
undergoes intensification
(more
people working harder).
The new
paradigm,
if successful, comes to
generate
a "normal science,"
with
increasing numbers of researchers
investigating
an
increasing range
of
problems
and em-
phasizing
different aspects
of the initial
premises.
Given the
positive
feedback mechanisms
ap-
plicable
to the description and
analysis
of
any changing
conditions in
any sphere
of
behavior, this
new work will act to
modify
the initial
premises,
to
expand
their
scope
and refine the
strategies
they entail, to stimulate
yet
additional research. Because too-even if
metaphorically-such
developments
are
regular
and
evolutionary, processes
of
parallelism
and
convergence
can be ex-
pected, and, in the case of cultural materialism, are
already
evident
(cf.
Adams
1981).
While
nearly all paradigmatic
"revolutions" in science have
traditionally
been associated with
par-
ticular individuals
(tectonic plate theory
comes to mind as a
possible exception
in this
respect),
all
have outgrown
their own founders. It is
amusing
to wonder whether Newton would have
recog-
nized Newtonian physics
ca. 1895, or Darwin, what
contemporary evolutionary biology
has
become. Yet it is not frivolous to note the limitations-the rather odd sort of fundamentalism-of
treating any paradigm-level generalization
as
merely
"the
lengthened
shadow of one man." If a
paradigm
does not
grow
and
develop,
does not in this sense
adapt,
it is not science but
theology.
Cultural materialism in
1981,
or even in
1979,
is
accordingly-pace
Heraclitus-not "the same"
position
it was in
1968;
nor will it be in 1990 what it is as this is written in 1981.
Acknowledgments. My apologies
to the reader, to whom I have
presented
an extended
body
of dense and
not
entirely tractable material, much of it as alien to most of
my colleagues
in cultural
anthropology
as it will
doubtless be to most archaeologists. Because the
position
advanced is a controversial one, care has been taken
736 [Vol. 47, No.
4,1982
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CULTURAL MATERIALISM
to
present
its tenets in as
closely
and
carefully
reasoned a manner as
possible,
with a clear and overt state-
ment of the
strong
biases inherent in the
presentation.
If the treatment of
archaeological theory
should be
weighed
in the balance and found
wanting,
the reader is reminded that I have
only
indirect ties to archaeol-
ogy-affinal,
rather than
consanguineal ties,
as it were. The
depiction-the
view of an outsider
looking
in-is
probably representative
of the assessment held more or less in common
among
at least those cultural anthro-
pologists
who consider these
questions
at all. To the extent that it
appears
skewed or
dated,
it reflects the
ap-
parent inability
of the two subfields to address each other even when
they
address common
problems.
Without both the truculence and the
good
offices of
Scotty
MacNeish this
paper
would not have been writ-
ten. He is not to
blame, however, either for its
length (although
I
guess
he should have
known)
or for its con-
tents
(with
much of which he in fact
disagrees). My
thanks also to Dena
Dincauze,
editor of American
Antiqui-
ty,
for
extending
an invitation to a
paper
rather
beyond
the
customary purview
of the
journal,
for her
welcome assistance and
encouragment during
its
preparation,
and for her
indulgence
as it
grew inexorably
into a Dunwich Horror. Several conversations with David Post on
evolutionary theory
have found their
way
in-
to this
paper,
in forms that I
hope
will not
unduly
discomfit him. I am
grateful
to
Guy
Oakes for comment and
criticism that have
strengthened
the treatment of
philosophy
of
science;
even where I have overridden his ad-
vice,
he has
helped
to rescue me from the toils of
arguments long superseded.
For the
organization
of the
body
of the
paper
I
appreciate
the
strong prompting
of Janet Edmondson and
Jagna Wojcicka-Sharff.
Additional
suggestions
have come from Robert Carneiro, Carol Henderson,
Tim
Knab,
William
Mitchell, Robert
Murphy,
David Nugent, Mary Odell, and Jane Bennett Ross.
I get by with a little help from my friends. Needed assistance with the specifically archaeologically contents
of this paper has come from a number of people who, even where they have disagreed with me and may be
bemused at the context in which they now find themselves, were patient enough to read the earlier draft.
Regardless of whether it shows-and it may not-I've learned from their discussions and comments, and from
the papers they have sent me: Thomas Charlton, Timothy Earle, Frank Findlow, Anabel Ford, Neil Goldberg,
Sydne Marshall, James Nolan, William Rathje, Evelyn Rattray, Anna Roosevelt, William Sanders, Michael
Schiffer, Gordon Willey.
Any theoretical position develops in response to criticism from outside itself. Therefore, perhaps ironically,
I wish to thank the legions of critics attracted by this position as it has matured since the middle 1960s.
Many
points they have raised-in conversation and in print-are countered in this paper; they are "real" in the
sense that all have been encountered in the course of "fieldwork." Our critics have indicated to cultural
materialists that we too
may not always communicate very effectively.
However necessary, any thanks to Marvin Harris are all too insufficient: he should in fact have written this.
Both the contents of this paper and its overall strategy are a tribute to his influence; many if not most of its ma-
jor
points reflect the extent to which, over the years, his thinking has formed mine.
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