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The Brian Ferguson Interview

Friday, April 17, 2020

Brian Ferguson on Infrastructural Determinism

I posted my interview with anthropologist Maxine Margolis recently and included a link to the book she co-edited with Martin F. Murphy, Science, Materialism and the Study of Culture.

I also interviewed anthropologist R. Brian Ferguson last year, and he has a chapter in the Margolis/Murphy book called Infrastructural Determinism, which he has posted on the Academia web site and which can be read in PDF format here.

Infrastructural determinism is the most important concept of cultural materialism, a research strategy most prominently championed by anthropologist Marvin Harris. It is summed up very nicely by Ferguson in his chapter:
The principle of infrastructural determinism begins with a simple premise: the physical world conforms to physical laws that must be accommodated by a society's infrastructural organization. This interface with nature is what gives the infrastructure causal priority within socio-cultural systems. In simplified form, the principle of infrastructural determinism holds that changes in the infrastructure probabilistically determine changes in the rest of the sociocultural system.
It seems common sense, and Karl Marx acknowledged the importance of the means of production, an infrastructural aspect, which Harris considered an important intellectual breakthrough. But Harris notes the infrastructural insights of Marxism were rendered virtually useless by the primacy of the quasi-mystical Hegelian dialectic inserted into Marxist theory.

Meanwhile infrastructural determinism is essentially denied by other research theories like postmodernism, which holds the primacy of thought as the determinative factor as opposed to material conditions, and which denies the possibility of objective standards; and sociobiology which holds that biological differences among humans is the causal factor in human social differences, and which is the ancestor of contemporary hereditarian theories such as evolutionary psychology and race science.

Pinkerite holds that cultural materialism is the most useful and even predictive approach to human culture. And even Steven Pinker has expressed admiration for Marvin Harris, although he apparently never really understood what Harris was saying.