Definition of Cultural Materialism

Beyonce sits atop a sinking New Orleans Police car in the Formation video

Cultural materialism is a theoretical framework and research method for examining the relationships between the physical and economic aspects of production and built society, social organization and social relations, and the values, beliefs, and worldviews that predominate that society. It is rooted in Marxist theory and is popular in anthropology, sociology, and the field of cultural studies.

History and Overview

The theoretical perspective and research methods of cultural materialism emerged in the late 1960s and were developed more fully during the 1980s. Cultural materialism was first introduced and popularized within the field of anthropology by Marvin Harris with his 1968 book The Rise of Anthropological Theory. In this work, Harris built on Marx's theory of base and superstructure to craft a theory of how culture and cultural products fit into the greater social system. In Harris's adaptation of Marx's theory, the infrastructure of society (technology, economic production, the built environment, etc.) influences both the structure of society (social organization and relations) and the superstructure (the collection of ideas, values, beliefs, and worldviews). He argued that one must take this whole system into account if one wants to understand why cultures differ from place to place and group to group, why certain cultural products like art and consumer goods (among others) are produced in a given place, and what their meaning is to those who use them.

Later, Raymond Williams, a Welsh academic, further developed the theoretical paradigm and research method, and in doing so, helped create the field of cultural studies in the 1980s. Embracing the political nature of Marx's theory and his critical focus on power and the class structure, Williams's cultural materialism took aim at how culture and cultural products relate to a class-based system of domination and oppression. Williams built his theory of cultural materialism using already existing theoretical critiques of the relationship between culture and power, including the writings of Italian scholar Antonio Gramsci and the critical theory of the Frankfurt School.

Williams asserted that culture itself is a productive process, meaning it is responsible for making intangible things that exist in society, like ideas, assumptions, and social relations. The theory of cultural materialism that he developed holds that culture as a productive process is part of the larger process of how a class system is made and remade, and it is connected to the class-based inequalities that pervade society. According to cultural materialism, culture and cultural products play these roles through the promotion and justification of certain values, assumptions, and worldviews within the mainstream and the marginalization of others that do not fit the mainstream mold (consider the way rap music has been routinely vilified as violent by mainstream critics, or how twerking is often framed as a sign that someone is sexually loose or morally deficient, while ballroom dance is held up as "classy" and refined).

Many scholars who followed in Williams tradition expanded his theory of cultural materialism, which was focused on class inequalities, to include the consideration of racial inequalities and their connection to culture, as well as those of gender, sexuality, and nationality, among others.

Cultural Materialism as a Research Method

By using cultural materialism as a research method we can produce a critical understanding of the values, beliefs, and worldviews of a period through close study of cultural products, and we can discern how they connect to the greater social structure, social trends, and social problems. Per the framework that Williams laid out, to do so one must do three things:

  1. Consider the historical context in which the cultural product was made.
  2. Conduct a close analysis of the messages and meanings communicated by the product itself.
  3. Consider how the product fits within the greater social structure, its inequalities, and the political power and movements within it.

Beyoncé's Formation video is a great example of how we can use cultural materialism to understand cultural products and society. When it debuted, many criticized it for its imagery that appears critical of police practices. The video features images of militarized police and ends with the iconic image of Beyoncé laying atop a sinking New Orleans Police Department car. Some read this as insulting to police, and even as a threat to police, echoing a common mainstream critique of rap music.

But apply cultural materialism as a theoretical lens and a research method and one sees the video in a different light. Considered in a historical context of hundreds of years of systemic racism and inequality, and the recent pandemic of police killings of black people, one instead sees Formation as a celebration of blackness in response to the hate, abuse, and violence routinely heaped upon black people. One can also see it as a completely valid and appropriate critique of police practices that desperately need to be changed if equality is ever to be possible. Cultural materialism is an illuminating theory.