Historical Materialism

As a student in sociology and anthropology I have been introduced to a wide array of prominent thinkers associated with each respective discipline. Throughout my various anthropology courses I have become acquainted with Franz Boas, Edward Burnett Tylor, Bronislaw Malinowski, Margaret Mead, and Clifford Geertz just to name a few. Within sociology my exposure has lent itself to Emile Durkheim, Max Weber, Karl Marx, and W.E.B de Bois among many others. And although I have made some loose connections between my training in sociological thought and that of anthropology I have sadly attempted to keep the two disciplines as distinct entities. In one instance I put on my anthropological thinking cap while in other instances it seems more appropriate to engage my sociological imagination. However, as my studies continue I am gaining an increasing awareness of the great overlap that exists in anthropology and sociology. Of course, some of the methodologies and ideologies differ but one can find this same variation even within the disciplines itself.


A recent example I encountered was in my readings of the origins of archaeology. My investigation of this subfield of study is fairly recent, as I have always identified as a study of cultural anthropology and usually try to avoid stepping out of that arena. Nonetheless, it has become evident that in order to fully appreciate the holistic nature of anthropology one must also employ of holistic strategy of inquiry. Upon reading the patterns of prehistory, history, and archaeology I came across an excerpt on historical materialism, a theoretical framework of Karl Marx, and how it has contributed to the importance of archaeology and historical analysis. Initially, I was quite surprised to see that one of the founding fathers of sociology having a profound impact and something that was as seemingly unrelated as archaeology. I asked myself, where is the connection? Marx was mainly concerned the present social structures and their impact on future social structures. From my naïve and narrow view, due largely in part to the nascence of my study, archaeology was preoccupied of societies past. How could the study of material culture ever inform the highly politicized, and sometimes philosophical, theories of Marxian thought?


I quickly disabused that notion after continued reading to realize that there was an overwhelming vastness to which the material culture from archaeological sites could inform Marx’s theory of historical materialism. For the most part it coincides with the means of production. One of the main arguments provided by Marx is that “human history could be understood on the basis of an analysis of how society produces and distributes its wealth” (Wenke & Olszewski, 2007). Everything is able to be examined through technology, economy, and the environment of a given society and this is precisely was archaeologists are recovering at their excavation sites: houses, tools, pottery, jewelry, and weapons, all of which tell us something about the means of distribution as well as the means of production. Furthermore is also gives insight to the means of consumption and trade, which help to further inform the status of the local economy. From the gathering of material culture the intangibles of culture may thus be inferred and thus allowing for the connection between sociological thought and anthropological analysis.

1 thought on “Historical Materialism

  1. Kari Edington

    I think this is interesting that you’ve started to make connections between sociology and anthropology, specifically, archaeology. As an Anthropology minor, I tend to see (cultural) anthropological ideas within a lot of what I study as an Education major, but I’m having a difficult time connecting what we’re learning in class to what I know and want to do in my ‘real world’ life. Your explicit connection between Marxist sociological and Marxist anthropological thought helps me make a little more sense of why I should care about learning what this class has to offer.

    I do start to see where Marx’s philosophy comes into play in both the past and present, and I think I was starting to get there when we read this piece, but you’re getting me thinking differently. I think it has a lot to deal with what we were talking about today in class. We focused on the ceramics (materials) of Upper and Lower Egypt in order to identify differences in culture and complexity, and this kind of separation, not just in style and raw materials, but in practices, shows how the Marxist ideas of understanding culture through material goods. By focusing on the grave/tomb sites, archaeologists have found different types and amounts of pottery in different types of graves/tombs, lending support to the idea that there was significant social differentiation, or an elite.

    In class we didn’t talk so much about the domestic ceramics, perhaps because they’re not as well understood, but this is where I started to feel a breakdown in that argument. It seemed to me that all the domestic ceramics we mentioned were the same. All were ‘roughware’ since that was the most feasible to use within the every day domestic life. However, it seemed like there wasn’t a major difference (that we touched on) between different classes of people. If there is, why isn’t this as obvious in the archaeological record? Is it simply because graves are buried, whereas the living and useful aren’t? I guess I’m basically asking whether the Ancient Egyptians valued material culture in life as much as or in a similar way as they seemed to have in death? If not, where does this put Marxist arguments about social stratification?

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