A Response to Cultural Materialism: The Struggle for a Science of Culture by Marvin Harris

Marvin Harris's argument against what he terms "phenomenological obscurantism" is that science can do much more than the Boasian anthropologists give it credit for in the delineation of cultures. In fact, Harris contends, "phenomenological obscurantism" leads to "intellectual suicide." He cites the multiple takes on the story in the film Roshomon. He contends that, though each story is viewed through the subjective impressions of its storyteller, the filmmaker could just as well have taken the common elements of each story and created a version that everyone would have to admit was the truth. His point is that the methods of science are applicable trans-culturally, and that we do not have to accept the vagaries of subjective interpretation alone in the establishment of truth. There are several major flaws in his argument. I'm going to look at three of them.

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  1. The methods of science are applicable trans-culturally. Of course, this is true when dealing with physical properties, but it isn't so clear-cut when examining culture itself. At about the same time that Harris was writing his study, a survey was being conducted in Southern California of Japanese women who had married American soldiers stationed in Japan. Bilingual interviewers met with the same women on two occasions. The first interviews were conducted in Japanese. The second, taken several months later, were conducted in English. Though the questions asked in both interviews were identical, the answers differed radically depending upon the language in which they were asked. For example, to the question in Japanese, "What happens when you and your husband disagree about something?" one woman responded "It is a time of great difficulty for us." When the same woman was later asked the question in English, her answer was "I do whatever I want." Similar contrasting responses characterized the survey. What accounts for this? The study concluded that beyond subjective or objective reactions to it, culture itself, through the vehicle of language, determines a great degree of practical reality.
  2. The methods of science and of "Boasian" anthropologists are opposed. Franz Boas, as I've written on a couple of occasions, was a physicist who became an anthropologist because he believed that the science he knew could not answer the questions that his experiences in the field demanded. If we believe (as Harris seems to take as a given) that science is monolithic and purely objective, then we have to conclude that Boas was a poor scientist. However, the science that Boas knew was limited by two factors. First, Boas was a student of Wundt and Fechner, who were the founders of psychophysics, which posited the physical measurement of human perception--a formal methodology that failed Boas in his experiences with the Inuit on Baffin Island. Second, the culture of science in 19th century Germany took for granted that European culture was the highest and best on earth and that Germany was at the pinnacle of European culture. Boas' field experiences shattered the notion of cultural superiority for him utterly. Boas' anthropology was a response to the limited science available to him. Like science, anthropology is not static--or shouldn't be. Both attempt to answer questions, but neither alone has yet proved adequate in answering all the questions.
  3. "Phenomenological obscurantism" leads to "intellectual suicide." In theory, Harris makes a good argument against the futility and self-referential spinning of the phenomenologists. But only in a theoretical sense. In practice, much good method has developed since Harris wrote his book--method that Harris' argument denies. Here are two examples: First, the work of Richard Bandler and John Grinder, authors of The Structure of Magic books. In these studies the authors observed some of the world's most talented psychotherapists in action and distilled the similarities of their techniques--despite their divergent intuitive approaches--into usable knowledge. These studies have been instrumental in the techniques of NLP. Second, the "utilization-focused" research methodology pioneered by Michael Quinn Patton and others. This is a collection of techniques researchers can bring to the understanding of the needs of institutions and their administrators in order to effect practical change. The methods employ both "scientific" modeling and "phenomenological" observation in order to arrive at a concrete set of procedures that will bring about the desired ends. I emphasize that the works of Bandler and Grinder, and of Michael Quinn Patton are reality-based. That is, the proof of their validity is in their continued effectiveness in the practical world. Harris may have proved them invalid in theory, but in reality they've left him far behind.

--Sandy McIntosh