Harris' earliest work began in the Boasian tradition of descriptive anthropological fieldwork, but his fieldwork experiences in Mozambique in the late 1950s caused him to shift his focus from ideological features of culture, toward behavioral aspects. His 1968 history of anthropological thought, The Rise of Anthropological Theory critically examined hundreds of years of social thought with the intent of constructing a viable nomothetic understanding of human culture that Harris came to call cultural materialism.
Cultural materialism incorporated and refined Marx's categories of superstructure and base; Harris modified and amplified such core Marxist concepts as means of production and exploitation, but Harris rejected two key aspects of Marxist thought: the dialectic, which Harris attributed to an intellectual vogue of Marx’s time; and, unity of theory and practice, which Harris regarded as an inappropriate and damaging stance for social scientists. Harris’ inclusion of demographic dynamics as determinant factors in sociocultural evolution also contrasted with Marx’s rejection of population as a causal element.
Marvin Harris’ early contributions to major theoretical issues include his revision of economic surplus theory in state formation. He also became well known for formulating a materialist explanation for the treatment of “ Cattle in religions” in Indian culture. Along with Michael Harner, Harris is one of the scholars most associated with the suggestion that Aztec cannibalism occurred, and was the result of protein deficiency in the Aztec diet. An explanation appears in Harris' book Cannibals and Kings. Harris also invoked the human quest for animal protein to explain Yanomamo warfare, contradicting ethnographer Napoleon Chagnon’s sociobiological explanation involving innate male human aggressiveness.
Several other publications by Harris examine the cultural and material roots of dietary traditions in many cultures, including Cows, Pigs, Wars, and Witches: The Riddles of Culture (1975); Good to Eat: Riddles of Food and Culture (1998 - originally titled The Sacred Cow and the Abominable Pig) and his co-edited volume, Food and Evolution: Toward a Theory of Human Food Habits (1987).
Harris’ Why Nothing Works: The Anthropology of Daily Life (1981 - Originally titled America Now: the Anthropology of a Changing Culture) applies concepts from cultural materialism to the explanation of such social developments in late twentieth century United States as inflation, the entry of large numbers of women into the paid labor force, marital instability, and shoddy products.
His Our Kind: who we are, where we came from, where we are going (1990) surveys the broad sweep of human physical and cultural evolution, offering provocative explanations of such subjects as human gender and sexuality and the origins of inequality. Finally, Harris’ 1979 work, Cultural Materialism: The Struggle for a Science of Culture, updated and re-released in 2001, offers perhaps the most comprehensive statement of cultural materialism.
Over the course of his professional life, Harris drew both a loyal following and a considerable amount of criticism. He became a regular fixture at the annual meetings of the American Anthropological Association where he would subject scholars to intense questioning from the floor, podium, or bar. He is considered a generalist, who
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