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Cultural Anthropology and Materialism Report (Assessment)

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Updated: May 12th, 2020

The chapter on Cultural Materialism in Salzmann explains the intellectual relationship between anthropology and political economy, especially Marxist thinking (P. C. Salzman 49-66). He uses the example of India’s sacred cows to demonstrate how religious rules support good long term ecological behavior. These worshipped cows seem to be poorly cared for and skinny, but are actually productive as oxen, milk-cows, and sources of manure, hoof, horn, and leather. Hindus avoid killing them to avoid ritual pollution. However, this religious practice also works to keep the cattle from being wiped out during famines. Salzmann also addresses the example of pork avoidance in the Middle East, where pigs are costly to raise.

Religious rules have evolved to keep people from spending precious resources on them. Likewise, witchcraft accusations, seen through this analysis, appear to be useful in distracting public attention away from protest and reformation, or to express stresses on society. The chapter goes on to discuss how forms of leadership and production can be seen as developing in response to the kind of habitat that people occupy, for example, among the Basseri of Persia (P. C. Salzman 41). The materialist approach to understanding people’s arrangements for survival, representing their accumulated choices, demonstrates how cultures are shaped by environmental pressures.

Karl Marx describes human history from the medieval period onwards in terms of the growth in power of what he terms the bourgeoisie. He uses symbolic language and vivid imagery to draw a picture of the conflict between the laborers and the owners of the means of production. He predicts that the proletarian or laborer class will eventually take over, transform, and control society (Marx). However, he seems not to be including in his ideas all the more recently available evidence from pre-history, and societies outside of Europe. This means that he leaves out all the many examples of alternative society structures and ways of interacting.

We have seen examples of a variety of societies that did not develop from the European feudal system just in our readings thus far. This suggests that Marx might have benefitted from the chance to compare cultures from elsewhere. His writing sounds to the modern ear as though it is what would be called a bit Euro-centric. It is interesting for the reader to observe that despite this apparent Euro-centrism, his work has shaped the thinking of people so far away from Europe. It certainly seems to have influenced the thinking of a number of anthropologists. The advantage that anthropology seems to have is that cultures from around the world can be compared, looking to see what is in common, and what is different in their environments. This chance to compare cultures seems to be the sort of connection between and across cultures that was discussed by Salzmann (Salzman and Rice 23).

Kenneth Guest’s chapter on the Global Economy begins by defining what an economy is, and reviewing several major types. His definition of it as a system of behaviors that supports survival in their environment makes it a less mysterious and intimidating term. He covers foraging, pastoralism, horticulturalism, agriculturalism, industrial agriculture, and industrialism. Guest also reviews all the mediums of economic exchange like barter, reciprocity and exchange (Guest 441-487). This chapter helps readers to better understand Salzmann’s discussion of the economics of herd size decisions among the Basseri of Persia (P. C. Salzman 42).

The chapter on Human Origins in Kenneth Guest’s book reviews the theory of evolution as it applies to the human race. It discusses the mechanisms of natural selection of through reproductive success, and gene migration and genetic drift, all of which have shaped human development. The chapter also discusses genetic adaptation, developmental adaptation, and cultural adaptation, all of which help humans survive in a variety of environments (Guest 153-185). This chapter also reminds readers of an important feature of all the varied and seemingly peculiar human behaviors that anthropologists observe (and even parody) (Miner). These behaviors will survive in the longest term to the extent that they support continued reproduction and survival, or at least do not prevent successful reproduction of the community.

The chapter in Kenneth Guest’s book titled Race and Racism demonstrates that the concept of race, and racism, or the association of certain external characteristics with specific behavioral characteristics, is not easy to support with scientific evidence. Guest defines genotype, or the genetic material that humans carry, and pass on when they succeed reproductively, a process discussed in Guest’s chapter on Human Origins (Guest 153-185). He contrasts this with phenotype, or the way that genes are expressed. This reading goes on to discuss the way racial distinctions encouraged the development of the slave. It discusses the way that race is constructed in places like Brazil, Southeast Asia, and the Caribbean. The author discusses the bad effects of racism in the USA, and asks the reader to consider the privileges that come with being one race rather than another (Guest 195-235). This reading, like Singh’s was very thought provoking, especially for an ESL student, who may construct race differently (Wareing, Singh and Peccei 23).

Works Cited

Guest, Kenneth. Cultural Anthropology: A Toolkit for a Global Age. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2013. Print.

Marx, Karl. “.” 2014. Marxists.org. Web.

Miner, Horace. “Body Ritual among the Nacirema.” The American Anthropologist 58 (1956. Print.): 503-507.

Salzman, Philip Carl and Patricia Rice. Thinking anthropologically: a practical guide for students. Print. Upper Saddle River: Pearson/Prentice Hall, 2004. Print.

Salzman, Phillip Carl. Understanding Culture: An Introduction To Anthropological Theory. Prospect Heights: Waveland, 2001. Print.

Wareing, Shân, Ishtla Singh and Jean Stilwell Peccei. Language, society and power: an introduction. Ed. Ishtla Singh and Jean Stilwell Peccei. 2nd. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 2004. Print.

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