A Study Of Culture And Marvin Harris ' Cultural Materialism

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Anthropology as the study of culture is an intricate practice guided by theory to generate explanatory value from encountered societies. This paper will examine two contrasting angles provided by Ruth Benedict’s configurational anthropology in Patterns of Culture and Marvin Harris’ cultural materialism in Cannibals and Kings. Whereas Benedict’s configurational anthropology approaches culture as an expressive art form, Harris’s cultural materialism explains the peculiarities of cultural customs as a process governed by environmental restraints and innovation. Each theory will be briefly overviewed and then broken down by fundamental axes to guide the comparison. Benedict’s Patterns of Culture introduced the non-anthropologist to cultural relativity and the socially constructed nature of race in the 1930s post World War era. Beyond political agenda, Benedict offers a theory of culture that attempts to explain how individual behavior is molded by the overarching ethos or spirit of a culture. Benedict argues that culture exists as patterns, which are dominant themes woven throughout cultural institutions that have their own goals and ambitions. These themes determine culturally appropriate behavior by selecting from a metaphorical ‘arc’ of behavioral potentialities that comply with its chosen theme (Benedict 1934:35). In this way, cultural institutions do not exist simply to meet physiological or psychological needs but rather are articulations of a culture’s goals or
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