Marvin Harris: Biography of this American anthropologist

One of the great figures of 20th century anthropology is that of the researcher and professor Marvin Harris. This scientist made very important contributions to the study of human societies from a materialist perspective, being known to study the objective foundations of the development of different cultural practices such as the presence of diseases, the degree of aridity of cultivation areas, etc.

Through it Marvin Harris biography we will take a tour of this author’s life to find out what were the most important stages in his career and his development as a researcher.

    Brief biography of Marvin Harris

    Marvin Harris was born in New York, United States, in 1927. His childhood was spent during the Great Depression, which, coupled with a weakened home economy, made his early years in the Brooklyn neighborhood quite precarious. His education took place at the famous Erasmus Hall High School. It was during his studies at this institution that he met who would later become his wife, Madeline. With her, he would marry and form a family from which his daughter would be born.

    At the age of 18, Marvin Harris decided to enlist, serving in an amphibious unit in the United States Army for a period of two years, just at the end of World War II. On his return he would study at Columbia University, where he would receive his training in anthropology.

    His career would be meteoric and after his studies he would become a professor at the same university, even leading the anthropology department. In addition to his own theoretical studies, he has also worked in the field by conducting field research in places around the world as diverse as New York itself (especially the East Harlem neighborhood), India, Ecuador, Brazil and Mozambique. Thanks to the research carried out in these places, he was able to develop a great theoretical work that we will explore later.

    He taught anthropology at Columbia University from 1953 to 1980, Year in which he decided to move with his wife to the city of Gainesville, Florida. Here he continued to work as a teacher and also spent time writing new publications besides enjoying his hobbies with his wife. Marvin Harris spent his last years in Florida, where he finally passed away in 2001. He was 74 years old.

    His life at university and his work in the field

    Marvin Harris’s love for anthropology grew out of Charles Wagley’s courses he took., And that later would be the director of his doctoral thesis. Already during his doctorate he did fieldwork in Brazil, which allowed him to generate important material that would culminate in his Town and Country work in Brazil. He even collaborated with the political authorities in charge of education in this country. This relationship led him to return in the years to come to teach a series of classes.

    He has also developed research in other places, such as Chimborazo, in Ecuador. But the most important for its development was the one held in Mozambique at the end of the 1950s. At the time, the country was under Portuguese sovereignty. Marvin Harris’s fieldwork led him to see how the Portuguese subjected the natives to forced labor.. These facts are reflected in his work, “The African Quarters of Portugal”.

    Witnessing these situations would mean a sea change for Harris on many levels. First on the political level, because he would experience a change in the vision of the world he had until then. But he would also begin to put different theoretical approaches in his next work, moving from a particularist-relativist approach of a positivist and materialist approach.

    Theoretical contributions to anthropology

    Throughout Marvin Harris’ long academic life, there have been many of his contributions to anthropology. Let’s get to know some of the most relevant.

    1. Centralizing theory: cultural materialism

    The change in theoretical perspective we mentioned earlier was reflected in his book, “The Development of Anthropological Theory,” where Marvin Harris analyzes the different theoretical currents in his field with the intention of unifying them into one, Who explained the social and cultural evolution of our species through scientific principles. This ambitious project materialized in the current baptized cultural materialism.

    Cultural materialism divides societies into three different levels, Which would be the infrastructure, structure and superstructure. Infrastructure would encompass factors related to the economy, demographics, technology or the environment itself. In other words, questions relating to production and reproduction.

    The structure, in turn, would be the set of political and domestic organizational forms within that society. Finally, the superstructure would be the most abstract part and would have to do with the beliefs, symbols and values ​​of this socio-cultural whole in question. Harris claims that infrastructure is the most important level for the development of society, but the three are interrelated.

    2. Difference between emic and ethics

    During the fieldwork, one of the techniques most used by Marvin Harris (and anthropologists in general) was that of participant observation., By which the anthropologist is introduced into a society to get to know it better while participating with the different members. This way you can find out how they live, how they act, what they think, how they relate and all the questions relevant to their study.

    But with this technique a problem arises, because there are two points of view of this observation, on the one hand that of the members of the society themselves and on the other hand that of the researcher. This is called emic and ethics, Respectively. Although these concepts were invented by Kenneth Pike, Harris took them further and concluded that two perspectives were needed to approach the real explanation for the behavior of the company in question.

    3. The importance of science

    One of the points on which Marvin Harris put the most stubbornness was that of always bring a scientific approach to their theoretical contributions to anthropology. In fact, in some editions of his work, Cultural Materialism, a subtitle has been added which well symbolizes Harris’ battle: “The Struggle for the Science of Culture”. Its aim was to overcome the problems posed by falsificationism (Popper and Kuhn theory) for the social sciences.

    For this, he uses sophisticated falsificationism, a concept previously developed by the Hungarian philosopher and economist Imre Lakatos. His approach asserts that a theory can be considered scientific in that it is able to predict new facts and explain them, not only to them but to others that already existed.

      His theories on cultural phenomena

      The prolific work of Marvin Harris has enabled him to analyze a wide variety of cultural phenomena, establishing anthropological theories on many of them. Some of his most important works revolve around the food taboos of different societies.

      1. Food taboos

      For example, in the case of Jewish and Muslim populations, the non-consumption of pork could be explained because the breeding of this animal requires conditions that do not occur in the ecosystems of these crops. In addition, pigs cannot be used as draft animals, nor to obtain other resources such as milk. That is why it was better to keep other animals, such as ruminants, which also did not need the humidity conditions that pigs require.

      Another of the best-known taboos is that which forbids Hindus from sacrificing cows and eating them. The explanation in this case would be given because these animals produce more resources during their lifetime than when they die, as they can be used for plow the fields, to raise more livestock, to produce milk or to produce manure for the fields. In times of famine, the population can harvest food, so a religious taboo would prevent them.

      2. The war

      On the other hand, Marvin Harris considers that the situations of war between different companies of lower rank than that of the State, are the consequence of the arrival of an era where resources are beginning to be insufficient to supply the entire population. This theory is opposed by others like Napoleon Chagnon, an author who argued that it was the aggressiveness of men that inevitably produced wars.

      3. Evolution of society

      In The Contemporary American Culture, Marvin Harris studies the leap this society has experienced from one industrial level to another based on the service sector. One of the phenomena this book focuses on is the integration of women into the world of work and the socio-cultural repercussions what did this paradigm shift mean? It also explores the origins of oligopolies and bureaucracy.

      Finally, in The Work Our Species focuses on other issues of a more modern nature, such as sexuality, gender issues and inequalities.

      Bibliographical references:

      • Burns, A. (2001). Marvin Harris, shocking in Mozambique and Brazil. The Guardian.
      • Marvin, H. (1997). Culture, people, nature: an introduction to general anthropology. Longman.
      • Marvin, H. (2005). Cows, pigs, wars and witches: the enigmas of culture. Alliance.
      • Marvin, H. (1997). Our species. Alliance.

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