I have always felt that there must be an inherent reason or set of reasons behind human action. While there may not be any inherent reasons or value to the components of the universe, there is always a motive pushing along every person throughout their daily life. Everything a person does, says, and believes, no matter how inane or senseless it may seem, has some sort of reason, whether or not that reason is overt and obvious or subtle and unspoken. I intend to show that reason and reasons pervade all aspects of human life.
Imagine an earthenware jug, the kind once used by any number of ancient cultures to carry a volume of liquid from point A to point B. Most of us imagine a brown decorated vase scratched and stained from years of use and function. The vessel itself may be nothing of significant value or excitement, but the manner of decoration on the pot certainly is. The decoration tells us what is significant to the person who made the pot, to the person who used the pot daily, to what went on around that pot on a more human level than the material function.
These human meanings are built on foundations of human needs. This concept of acknowledging the universal human desire for ease of survival is one the anthropological community has been ignoring lately: while the Emic[*] studies of anthropology focus on the meanings of cultural artifacts of all people, and the Etic[**] school focuses on strict utilitarian necessity of human life, the two must certainly go hand in hand. As critically thinking adults, we can never hope to understand the life of another without attempting to understand the whole life.
The most popular error in the world of anthropology these days is to think of the Etic school of thinking as cold, callous, or just plain bad, when this perception is just not the case. It seems almost a sin to toss out the aspect of Darwinian evolution when looking at what drives a human being to survive. As mortal human beings, we have a duty to survive, pass on our genetic information, and do what we can to make sure our lineage does the same. I assert that on a rudimentary level, and often a very complex level, and quite frequently a convoluted level, all instances of cultural artifacts reflect the basic need for survival.
The most prevalent arguments against this idea of Cultural Materialism are Obscurantism and Idealism. When applied to Cultural Anthropology they do not stand on their own for a variety of reasons, actual reasoning being the first and foremost. In his 1980 book Cultural Materialism: The Struggle for a Science of Culture, Professor Marvin Harris accused the school of Obscurantist thought as being deliberately in opposition to rational and scientific thought (316). While his accusation may be a little harsh, his distaste for Obscurantism was well founded.
Obscurantism is the belief that ideals and values are subject to the individual’s construct of reality separate from their own culture’s ideals and values, and further detached from cross-cultural perspectives of analysis. In layman’s terms, “no one can understand my reverence or meaning for this symbol because they have not lived my exact life. ” This idea only encourages impenetrable walls to be built around specific beliefs, and makes very limited room for anthropological study.
If the beliefs and experiences of individuals are inherently impossible to be understood by others, then there is no purpose in the study of Anthropology. Cultural Materialism acknowledges that individuals all have a personal meaning to each experience and artifact, and it expands on the roots of the assigned meanings by seeking the cause of significance rather than the reason of significance. If human cultural experience were to be explored through Idealism, the cause of significance is an equally moot point.
Idealism claims that human values and meanings are defined only through abstractions rather than tangible conditions of economy, ecology, and environment. This is to say reality is only understood in terms of the ideas of the observer, not the physical ramifications of the observer existing in the world. This is short-sighted in the sense that it ignores the anthropic principle: the universe exists the way we see it because we are part of the universe we are observing. We can only understand what we are able to see, and we are only able to see within the limitations of our own existence and perception of that existence.
To illustrate the necessity of using both Emic and Etic ways of thinking in conjunction, we refer back to the example of the decorated earthenware vessel. We could choose for this particular pot to belong to any culture from any period across the world, but for sake of ease I have chosen that the pot be Greek since it is a generally familiar ancient culture. The example would just as easily apply to say Navajo, Mbuti, or feudal Japanese period earthenware, but both Greek myth and culture are pretty well known mongst our contemporary collegiate. When imagining this earthenware jug, it is good to know that there would typically be a pictographic tale scratched and painted onto the side of the pot after it was made. As a critical thinker you ask ”Why? ” Pictures of Achilles’ last stand or of Odysseus telling the Macedonian fleets to build a giant wooden horse do not help the vase carry water any more efficiently. Certainly the Greeks had books and a written language and did not pass all of their tales along on mundane housewares.
That would be the equivalent of your class texts being written on the side of your car; it is just not a practical means of efficiently documenting an epic. Conversely, the pot isn’t decorated just out of sheer boredom, or a because the pot wished to be pretty. A fine terracotta pot is just as aesthetically pleasing adorned in pictographs as not. So for what reason is the vessel dressed up? A look must be taken into who uses the pot on a day to day basis: who interacts with it? The answer is water-carrying women and housemaids to whom the duty of monitoring children was also entrusted.
I suggest that the stories on the sides of the pots were put there for the entertainment and enrichment of Greek children by either the potters or painted on later by a clever parent or babysitter. The pictographs on the side of the water jug would be their first visual representations of the important morals and common household stories and lessons of their day. A mother or nurse of a rowdy little boy would keep him in a manageable temperament by telling him a story of a hero and showing him the deeds acted out on the side of her working vessel.
This is not to say that every single artfully adorned pot ever created suited this purpose, but it can be inferred that the idea caught on, spread, popularized and only then became the norm. Soon pots with decoration became what the youthful generations were used to, and different kinds of decoration sprang forth. Something so simple as a etching on a water jug came to saturate an entire culture. I’m in no way implying that this is the factual history of how pictographic art came to be standard jug decoration, just offering a logical series of events that could explain why it is common to find pictographs on earthenware.
It could be just as reasonably stated that pottery art began as maker’s marks. This idea still follows the school of Cultural Materialism because we recognize that the potter must have wished it to be known who made the work, and over time other potters, perhaps his pupils, caught on to the idea of promotional marks and the idea flourished. Sir Edmund Burnett Tylor likened this phenomenon to the settling of a stream in its bed, in the third chapter “Survival in Culture” of his book The Origins of Culture (70).
Ideas begin begin to flow like water, towards the least resistance, and settle over time moving through the generations of a culture until they are completely instilled and “internalized”. In sociology, “internalization” happens when an idea, belief or practice is so entrenched within a social group it is no longer questioned or found out of the ordinary(70-71). We can take this idea a step further to a cultural artifact that is not so tangible, by looking at the examples Marvin Harris presented in his book Cultural Materialism .
The value of a sacred cow to a Hindu is revered as the classic example of this idea of Cultural Materialism. If one were to ask a Hindu of the Indus Valley why the cow is sacred to them (the Emic method of observation) they would say that the cow is a physical incarnation of Brahma, the provider, creator, and universe itself. Therefore, the cow is to be kept, protected, worshiped, and most importantly, not eaten. From the Etic perspective, one would observe that the cow is kept by the people of the Indus Valley region because if kept, the cow provides more than a single meal of meat!
The cow provides milk for cheeses, labor for plows, and dung for fueling fires (242). Neither is an incorrect perspective on the value of cows, but many choose to look at only one or the other. I suggest that the entire scope of human values and meanings be taken into account rather than just one side or the other. With this broad view of Cultural Materialism, not only do we receive a better understanding of why people do what they do, but also why people need to do it that way, and why they continue to do it.
Does a society determine what artifacts it produces, or does the need and attainment of certain cultural artifacts shape the outlook of a society? Whenever a cultures standards and practices are determined by technology it is referred to as “technological determinism. ” This ‘chicken or the egg’ type question of which affects the other first is approached in a series of videos titled Cultural Materialism Vs. Technological Determinism Part 1 (videos 1-3), by taking an objective look at the recent Internet trend of social networking.
The videos do find that in some instances social networking is an example of cultural materialism, and in some instances it is an example of technological determinism, which is not terribly extraordinary. What is really interesting is when an artifact, such as social networking, shows examples of being products of both cultural materialism and technological determinism, such as the network Twitter, which uses our culture’s existing technology to suit the need of social networking, but forces its users to a limited character selection, therefore determining their actions by use of the technology (3).
The videos show that while cultural materialism may not always be the determining factor of a cultural artifact, there is always a reason behind it’s existence. Finally I must appeal to the words of Wsevolod W. Isajiw, the Professor of Emeritus at the University of Toronto. His book, Causation and Functionalism in Sociology, gives a concise explanation of how meaning is always present in all human experience. “Elements which are without utility may still have function and meaning, if, in themselves they provide responses to particular needs of the individual or group(76). Essentially Professor Isajiw is responding to the war cry of nineteenth century bohemian artists, “Art for arts sake! ” Even if a specific message was not intended for delivery through the work of an artist, the work still fulfilled an emotional need or or contextual conveyance of an idea, to someone, even if that someone was the author/artist themselves. The art and artifacts we encounter every day are significant to our lives not only because of the lives we lead, but also because of the existence in which we lead them. Art, in that sense, is never just for ‘art’s sake. ‘
Durrenberger, E. Paul. “Are Ethnographies “Just So” Stories? ” Faces of Anthropology: A Reader for the 21st Century. Ed. Kevin A. Rafferty, Dorothy Chinwe Ukaegbu. Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Pearson Ed, Inc. , 2007. 74-81. Print. Harris, Marvin. Cultural Materialism: The Struggle for a Science of Culture. New York: Vintage Books, Random House, 1980. Print. Isajiw, Wsevolod W. Causation and Functionalism in Sociology.
London: Routledge 1968. PDF, retrieved via http://books. google. com on 10-21-10. Tylor, Sir Edward Burnett. The origins of Culture: First Volume. New York, New York, Harper and Row, 1958. Print. … Religion in Primitive Culture: Second Volume. New York, New York, Harper and Row, 1958. Print. Unknown author. “Cultural Materialism vs. Technological Determinism Part One- Part(s)1-3” 14 December 2009. Online video clips. YouTube. Accessed on 25 October 2010.