Definition of Cultural Materialism

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

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

History of Cultural Materialism

The theoretical perspective and research methods of cultural materialism emerged in the late 1960s, developing more fully in the 1980s. Cultural materialism was first introduced and popularized in the field of anthropology via Marvin Harris' 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. He argued that 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 asserted that one must take this whole system into account to understand why cultures differ from place to place and group to group as well as why products such as art and consumer goods are created in a given place and context for those who use them.

Later, Welsh academic Raymond Williams further developed the theoretical paradigm and research method, helping to create the field of cultural studies in the 1980s. Embracing the political nature of Marx's theory and his critical focus on power and class structure, Williams' cultural materialism took aim at how cultural products relate to a class-based system of domination and oppression. Williams devised his theory of cultural materialism using preexisting 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 gives rise to the intangibles, including ideas, assumptions, and social relations, that exist in societies. His theory of cultural materialism holds that culture is part of the larger process of how class systems are made and foster social inequity. Cultures play these roles through the promotion of widely held values, assumptions, and worldviews and the marginalization of those who do not fit the mainstream mold. Consider the way rap music has been vilified in the mainstream media or how the dance style known as twerking is deemed "low-class" while ballroom dancing is regarded as "classy" and refined.

Scholars have expanded Williams' theory of cultural materialism to include racial inequalities and their connection to culture. The concept has also been broadened to examine disparities related to gender, sexuality, and nationality, among others.

Cultural Materialism as a Research Method

By using cultural materialism as a research method, sociologists can produce a critical understanding of the values, beliefs, and worldviews of a period through close study of cultural products. They can also discern how these values connect to social structure, trends, and problems. To do so, they must consider the historical context in which a product was made, analyze its symbolism, and how the item fits within the greater social structure.

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 its imagery, especially its shots of militarized police officers and protesters objecting to anti-black police violence. The video ends with the iconic image of Beyoncé atop a sinking New Orleans Police Department car. Some read this as insulting to police, and even as a threat to them, echoing a common mainstream critique of black music.

Through the lens of cultural materialism, one sees the video in a different light. When considering centuries of systemic racism and inequality and the 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 African Americans. The video can also be seen as a valid and appropriate critique of police practices that desperately need to be changed if equality is to occur. Cultural materialism is an illuminating theory.