It is a major anthropological perspective for studying relationships between physical and economic aspects of the society. Through cultural mechanism, most aspects of human culture can be explained in material terms. It helps the researchers to understand the social organization and different values and beliefs of different societies. The word ‘materialism’ is the opposite of the word ‘idealism’ which represents the free and independent play of talented individual mind. The concept of cultural materialism was given by Karl Marx, and the concept is rooted in Marxist theory. According to this theory, societies go through several stages and eventually change. Earlier, their work drew very little attention. However, since the late 1920s, this theory is largely used for analyzing the development and change in society. It can be used as a research method for a better understanding of values and beliefs of a society of present or even past.
According to cultural materialism, there are three levels of a social system, which are as follows:
- Infrastructure: it refers to the way in which society interacts with the local environment. It also includes how the basic needs of the society are met, and the resources that are required. For example- labor, equipment, and technology.
- Structure: it refers to the organization of the society in terms of economy, politics or social behavior. For example- government, educational institution.
- Superstructure- it refers to the ideology that dominates a particular era. It usually consists of social institutions. For example- law, religion, politics, etc.
All three levels of the social system are related to each other. It means that change in one level will result in changes in other levels as well, though the change is not seen immediately. Infrastructure is the basis for change in all other levels. It includes how the basic needs of society are fulfilled and how it interacts with the local environment. When there is a change in infrastructure, it results in the change of structure and superstructure, which is gradual. Though cultural materialism is rooted in Marxist theory, there are some differences between the two. According to Marxist materialism, social change is beneficial only for the ruling class. However, cultural materialism believes in the idea that social change benefits both the ruling class and the working class. Also, according to cultural materialism, a society works on the basis of hit and trial method, where if an organization is not beneficial to the society, it eventually fades away, and the one which is beneficial stays. This theory has been criticized by many, including Marxists