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Marxist Anthropology

  Marxist anthropology emerged primarily from France in the 1960s. It developed out of two motives: the need to evaluate anthropology\'s historical relationship with colonialism, arising out of a discontent with earlier functionalist paradigms for the study of societies; and to conduct social enquiry with a greater sense of political and economic perspectives.

In the 19th century, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels were inspired by anthropological accounts, particularly those of Louis Henry Morgan about North American Indians. A historical development was proposed in which economic factors were seen to be the major dynamic in evolving from ‘primitive’ hunting and gathering, slave society, feudal society, capitalism and ultimately to communism. Central to this framework was the concept of ‘modes of production’, which referred to the forces of production, such as technologies, natural resources and human labour, combined with the social relations of production, such as class or property relations.

By the 1960s, Marxist anthropologists had dropped the evolutionary assumptions underlying Marx\'s and Engel\'s theories, but adopted their political and economic analyses to consider social formations and the wider global and historical contexts of precapitalist societies. In this way, Marxist anthropology provided for a critique of the ideologies or the systems of ideas associated with the dominant group, and analyses of historical processes, both in the societies the anthropologists were studying and their own societies in so far as these have played, and continue to play, a large role in imposing these changes.

Marxist anthropology also fitted in with growing areas of concern in the 1960s, such as feminist perspectives (which sought to redress the male bias of conventional anthropological research and literature). Prevalent topics such as economics and power were given a new lease of life by Marxism and feminism, particularly in discussions about their relevance to social groups and gender roles in non-Western societies. The concept of ‘mode of reproduction’ was proposed to take account of the way women\'s reproductive activities are controlled through social expectations, especially concerning marriage, the care of children and domestic work within the family, and how these act to condition their roles and evaluations in the external labour market.

Other strands of Marxist anthropology include the combination of a Marxist class analysis with theories about the human mind and systems of ideas to concentrate on the philosophical and cultural dimensions of society.

On a geographical scale, the ‘articulation of modes of production’ takes account of the way different social, economic and political systems interact and affect each other. This phenomena is of significance when capitalism, for instance, has expanded over large sectors of the world to interact with, and often dominate, indigenous ways of organizing social production.

Debate continues as to how far Marxist approaches to the study of society may distort by reducing all social phenomena to a material or economic basis, and whether the notion of class as a social division based on economic means is applicable to all social groupings. RK

See also economic anthropology; evolutionism; gender; political anthropology; structuralism; Westernization.Further reading Maurice Bloch (ed.), Marxism and Anthropology; , Maurice Godelier (ed.), Perspectives in Marxist Anthropology.



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