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[Rachael Harlos] Cultural Ecology and Materialism: Harris, Steward, and Bourgois

This text was produced by Rachael Harlos while the person was a student at Macalester. It was distributed for in-class review. Any use of this text necessitates you to contact the person directly for copyright purposes.

Rachael Harlos
1 November 2004
History of A. Ideas

Cultural Ecology and Materialism: Harris, Steward, and Bourgois

Harris, Rappaport, and Bourgois were all key figures in the establishment of ecological anthropology. All three were influenced in varying degrees by Julian Steward and Leslie White, the founders of this domain in anthropology. Ecological anthropology studies the cultural adaptations humans make in response to challenges posed by their environments (MGW 237). To this extent, a material analysis, influenced by Marx, was used to understand culture.

Harris, Rappaport and Bourgois all fall under two types of materialism that emerged during their time (MGW 284).

Materialism ->

[ Ecological Materialism ->
(Neofunctionalism: cultural materialism
M. Harris, R. Rappaport)]
P. Bourgois]

Harris and Rappaport were both neofuntionalists, and therefore an important distinction between them and Steward and White is that cultures are influenced rather than shaped by the environment. The environment takes center stage and Harris and Rappaport treat culture as the unit that allows populations to exploit their environment sustainably. Neofunctionalists were strongly influenced by ecology and general systems theory and often borrowed from cybernetics (MGW 284).

Rappaport, more so than Harris, reflects the above mentioned influences in his article “Ritual Regulation of Environmental Relations Among a New Guinea People.” In this article he argues that although pig sacrifice is explained by locals as serving a religious function, it actually serves external functions, including maintaining food supplies, balancing pig and human populations, and regulating warfare. He writes in a very scientific style and uses information and arguments from ecology in order to prove his point that human societies can be studied according to the general laws of biology. He uses the general systems theory to explain religion’s function in society as an equilibrator. He also borrows the concept of feedback from cybernetics and says that ritual is a feedback mechanism to regulate the relationships between humans, pigs, war, and local food supplies.

In Harris’s Cultural Ecology of Sacred Cattle, he also argues that ritual explained by locals as religious actually serves an environmental purpose but he relies less on scientific fields such as ecology and cybernetics. He illustrates that the Hindu taboo against killing cattle (ahimsa) derives its power from the ecological and symbiotic purposes cattle fulfill. These purposes include providing milk, traction, and fuel, and he shows that cattle do not place excessive pressures on the environment that defeat their purpose.

Both Harris and Rappaport divert from Boasians because they make use of explanations that are not used by those within the culture to back up their arguments. Harris argues for the use of etic explanations (Rappaport uses the term “operational,” but it is similar to etic) because it allows for an objective study of anthropology which differentiates from what people say or think they are doing to what they are actually doing.

In contrast, Bourgois is a neo-Marxist and is therefore interested less in the direct relationships between environment and people and more interested in how an environment shapes and perpetuates class consciousness. Bourgois was influenced by cultural production theory which studies how class-based meaning is reproduced. In his article From Jíbaro to Crack Dealer Bourgois is interested in the relationship Puerto Ricans have with both the legal and illegal “worlds of work” and how these give meaning to their lives. However, like all Marxists, Bourgois argues that the experiences Puerto Ricans have in his ethnography can be applied (and used to understand) anywhere and at anytime to other working class groups experiencing similar structural changes. The environment for Bourgois’s study is the various forms of employment: the service sector jobs, the illegal crack dealing jobs, and the factory jobs. Bourgois looks at the cultural impact the transition from factory jobs to service sector jobs has had on Puerto Ricans. Bourgois makes it seem that these workers have little power to change how their culture tells them to respond to these changes. Their attitude and behavior is unacceptable in the service sector but if they were to adopt the service sector’s rules, they would be marginalized by their own culture. As a result, they are confined to staying in the lowest ranks of the office world.


How helpful is Harris and Rappaport’s use of outside explanations, (etic and operational explanations) for understanding a culture? Couldn’t it be argued that the etic explanation that the anthropologist uses is just as influenced by the anthropologist’s own culture? In other words, the etic explanation shows what people are actually doing and thinking, not just what they say they are doing, but the anthropologist interprets what people are actually doing in terms of his or her own culture. Is an objective study of humans needed as Harris argues, or is this more harmful than good?

Cultural ecology studies the adaptations culture makes in face of environmental challenges. In Bourgois’s article, are cultural adaptations taking place in the changing work environment (factory to service sector) or is he simply showing what the culturally defined responses are?

If individuals are restricted, practically impaired, by their culture as Bourgois stresses in his article, than how can a culture change and find new ways to deal with situations?

How do all three readings and authors compare and contrast to their nineteenth century “founders”? Specifically, in what way is Bourgois a Marxist and what makes him a neo-Marxist? Also, how do Harris and Rappaport compare and contrast to nineteenth century evolutionists such as Morgan and Tylor?

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