Re: Harris

llacta-shungu (
Wed, 10 May 1995 20:01:22 -0500

On Tue, 9 May 1995, John W. Arnn wrote:
> On 8 May 1995, Bruce D. Scott wrote:
> > [Posting only to sci.anthropology -- this has nothing to do with cosmology]
> >
> > Gil Hardwick ( wrote:
> >
> > : In article <3od1e8$>, Bruce D. Scott ( writes:
> >
> > : >Ob this thread: I would be quite interested, actually, to see some serious
> > : >anthropologists give comment. So far it has just been the jealous ranting
> > : >club of what Marvin Harris calls the "obscurantists" (although I do confess
> > : >I got into it initially to bask in the afterglow of Gil's enlighted
> > : >offerings).
> >
> > : Marvin Harris? Do you actually mean the paperback writer after the
> > : fashion of Von Daniken and Wilson? Please any "serious anthropologist"
> > : do give comment. Welcome indeed.
> >
> > Please give the series of arguments by which you denigrate Wilson and
> > Harris in this fashion. I hope you don't make the mistake of claiming
> > Harris defends the status quo. He most certainly does not, as several
> > passages in _Cultural Materialism_ and _America Now_ make clear. As a
> > non-anthropologist, _I_ know Harris mainly through his books, but are you
> > as an anthropologist actually claiming he hasn't written several texts and
> > a large number of articles in peer-reviewed journals?
> >
> > What is your critique of the emics/etics distinction raised by Harris?
> >
> > Do you think environmental constraints are important in limiting the
> > freedom of action of a culture deciding, consciously or otherwise, what its
> > power structure is going to be?
> >
> > This is enough for a start.
> >
> >
> > --
> > Gruss,
> > Dr Bruce Scott The deadliest bullshit is
> > Max-Planck-Institut fuer Plasmaphysik odorless and transparent
> > -- W Gibson
> >
> >Dear Doctor,
> I'd like to address your question concerning the limiting factors
> of environmental constraints on a society's power structure. Since you
> seem to be familiar with Harris's writing, I believe you're also aware of
> his affinity with Marx (Karl). Now, before all the Marxists get bent
> out of shape, let me say that Marxist anthropology and Marxist
> archaeology have both made valuable contributions to the field. The
> fundamental problem with applying Marxist theory to anthropology is
> that everything centers on economy first and conflict second. While
> these are certainly key elements in the composition of society they
> are not the only ones and perhaps not even the most significant ones.
> However, let me clarify some rather legitimate complaints within the
> anthrpological community concerning Harris.
> First and perhaps foremost is the complaint that he has reduced
> everything to K calories. Essentially, if you follow the line of
> reasoning that the environment is the primary factor in determining
> culture, you are left with nothing except extracting resources from the
> environment and to people in general this translates to food (calories).
> No environment, no culture. Another way of looking at it is by looking at
> different cultures with the same basic environments (i.e. desert, jungle,
> savannah, etc.). They should all have basically the same culture if
> environmental factors are dominant. They do not all have the same culture.
> The problem with Harris's approach was that some in the
> anthropological community followed the line of reasoning that I outlined
> above. The conclusion they arrived at was that all this studying of
> culture was ridiculous. All we really had to do was study the environment
> peoples lived in. "To hell with culture, we can make anthropology a "hard
> science"." Most anthropologist would agree that no decent anthropologist
> should ignore the environment of a people. Most anthropologist would
> also agree that no decent anthropologist should ignore culture.
> Some of Harris's students reduced anthropology to nothing more than
> human behavioralism. You are a scientist yourself, I think you can
> easily imagine what sort of innane work came out of all of this.
> Again not all of it was bad, most was good. In fact, as you might also
> imagine, there was a great deal of empirical data that was added to the
> data base. The problem was that it set a very big precedent.
> Hundreds if not thousands abandoned the study of people and became
> environmentalologists. If you couldn't quantify it-then it was
> worthless. Some things are simply not "measurable" in the
> scientific sense and people are often one of those things. One of the
> founders of American anthropology, Franz Boas, was a physicist.
> He recognized that people must be studied from a holistic
> perspective to be fully understood. One could make the same
> argument in virtually any "science."
> At anyrate, this is just one side of the "Harris controversy"
> and there are many more. He has also been criticized for his
> rabid attacks on other anthropologists. Young students looked on with
> glee as the "old masters" were "dragged through the mud." This behavior
> has been viewed by some as unprofessional and others as just plain mean
> spirited. He has also been accused of using this tactic to draw
> more attention to himself and thereby further his career (possibly a
> Marxist interpretation).
> Again, I am merely pointing out just some of the criticisms that
> have been made of Harris and his actions. Since you labeled
> yourself as a non-anthropologist and I judged that you were a
> scientist from your e-mail address, I thought you might be
> interested in an anthropological counterpoint. I realize of
> course that if you ignore this message it might be due to a
> lack of relevant environmental information on my part. On the
> other hand if you reply this might signal your interest in
> conflict. Well, there we are! Environment and conflict is really
> all there is to it. Circular reasoning was another criticism, I
> think.
> Regards and en guarde!
> John W. Arnn
John I think that you have made a good case, however, I think that you do
not make justice to Harris work sying that his explanation of
environmenta constartins imposes on culture are measure in Kcalories.
You obviously reduce the whole content to many of his writings to
indicate that because Harris has been associated with Marxism his
explanations are reduced to economic determinism and the idea of
conflict. Well if you state the whole marxist theory in those terms, of
course you have a case. I think that your oversimplification of the
Marxists theory and your obvious anti-marxist sentiment- i suppose that
you have read extensively marxism as to be opossed to it-has made you
make the same cirticism to Harris as you accuse him of doing to the old
anthropologists. I am not myself complete in agreement with many of the
Harris ideas, but I think that in general terms he has offered an
approach to explain key issues in athropology. That is why after more
than 30 years his books are still the most readedeven in very
conservative circles of the American academia. I only hope that the anti
Harris can produce a new approach that can take anthropology out o fthe
caos in which is inmersed.
Best regards John