In anthropological theory there has been a clear division and consistent debate between cultural materialists and non-materialist symbolic anthropologists. Theorists such as Marvin Harris and Julian Steward are exemplary of the materialist position, while others such as Sherry B. Ortner and Clifford Geertz were concerned with cultural categories, symbols, and meanings. Using a well-known example of cultural phenomena is helpful in illustrating these theoretical differences. Consider, for this purpose, the common Balinese practice of cockfighting, which Clifford Geertz examined in his famous article Deep Play: Notes on the Balinese Cockfight. Before colonial rule in Bali, the cockfight was a important facet of the culture, with the cock ring often in the center of each village. A favorite pastime of aristocrats and peasantry alike, cockfighting was an everyday occurrence. Though cockfighting is now illegal in the country (except on special holidays), it remains an important aspect of social life for the people there, and matches are still frequently held in secret. Needless to say, cockfighting is frequent and pervasive enough within Balinese culture to be an prime target for the interest and analysis for most anthropologists.
[...] Harris clearly explains his method of analysis: “cultural materialism asserts the strategic priority of etic and behavioral conditions and processes over emic and mental conditions and processes,” and that this strategic position is attempt to build theories about culture that incorporate lawful regularities occurring in nature” (1979, 387). If Harris cared to comment on the cockfights at all, it would most likely be a cursory consideration amidst a larger discussion of the societal patterns in Bali that may have caused such behavior. [...]
[...] point out that the Balinese fascination with cocks must be naturally precluded by a high availability of chickens in the region, without which the sport would be impossible. He may recognize some functional value in the cockfight, for he realizes that any society there are certain cultural factors which potentially give cohesion to aggregates of several families,” in which he says games and group ceremonies are included, both of which the cockfight could be seen to be. But he goes on to explain that “these features must be adjusted to the subsistence patterns that are established through the exploitation of a particular habitat by means of a particular technology” (1955, 236). [...]
[...] If women, through several symbolic and categorical associations, are seen less “cultured” than men, and as closer to nature, and thus animality, this would (in part) explain their subordinate position in Balinese society. It is interesting to note that Julian Steward, in his attempt to find a cause for patrilineal patterns, abandoned for a moment his strictly materialist stance and invoked the biological difference between the sexes, stating simply, human beings could be conceived stripped of culture, it is not unreasonable to suppose that innate male dominance would give men a commanding position” (1955, 230). [...]
[...] He brings his anthropological work into the realm of literary expression, declaring that culture of a people is an ensemble of texts, themselves ensembles, which the anthropologist strains to read over the shoulders of those to whom the properly belong” (1973*, 516). The two general theoretical positions shown by these four theorists acknowledge the others' work, but see their own priorities as important for strategic reasons, depending on the goals of each. The debate between materialist theories and more interpretive symbolic works will continue indefinitely, as neither can definitively eliminate the other. [...]
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