An Experimental Analysis of Cultural Materialism: The Effects of Various Modes of Production on Resource Sharing

Article excerpt

ABSTRACT: The 1980s witnessed an increased interest among behavior analysts regarding a paradigm in cultural anthropology known as cultural materialism. This perspective suggests that all behavior ultimately rests on the relationship between the natural environment and the methods used to obtain resources needed to maintain survival and a high standard of living, known as the mode of production. While useful, scientists in this area have overlooked one valuable resource-the laboratory. We manipulated the amount of resources dyads could harvest within blocks of five trials and across six conditions. Behavior consisted of harvesting and allocating resources. Token retention and a survival analogue were made contingent on resource sharing. Five of the seven dyads shared resources and no sharing occurred when participants could harvest sufficient resources to survive independently. Opportunities to integrate this research with optimal foraging research are discussed along with potential applications to real-world social issues.

KEYWORDS: cultural materialism, mode of production, resources, cooperation, token economy, analogue

The prediction and control of behavior drives behavior analytic theory (Skinner, 1953). As such, behavior analysts should consider ways to enhance the prediction and control of real-world behavior. One source of such enhancements could come from behavior analysts' increased interest in cultural anthropology (cf. Glenn, 1988, 2003; Lloyd, 1985; Malagodi, 1986; Malagodi & Jackson, 1989; Malott, 1988; Vargas, 1985). The present study seeks to begin the development of an experimental methodology to investigate relations between behavior analysis and cultural anthropology.


In their research, behavior analysts typically examine behavior-environment relations while assuming or "holding constant" survival contingencies. Marvin Harris's (1979) cultural anthropological paradigm known as cultural materialism, on the other hand, examines the behavior of human populations relative to survival as a dynamic variable. While behavior analysts assume survival in their research, cultural materialists do not.

Before the essential concepts of cultural materialism are discussed, consider the following. One could conclude that behavior-environment relations are nested within a culture whose characteristics are largely influenced by the means in which the members of the culture acquire the resources needed for survival. Cultural materialism could benefit behavior analysis by examining the effects of survival on behavior in greater detail, thus potentially increasing the prediction and control of behavior to unknown levels. Behavior analysis, in turn, could benefit cultural materialism by exposing its concepts to what may be the most rigorous and practical experimental methodology in all of the behavioral sciences (cf. Sidman, 1960; Skinner, 1953).


Cultural materialists posit that the interaction between the mode of production (i.e., the means by which the members of a culture obtain resources, such as farming or various types of employment) and the mode of reproduction (i.e., the means by which the members of a culture influence population growth, such as mating patterns and nutrition) form the primary impetus in cultural development (Harris, 1979). Stated briefly, an ever-expanding population requires production intensification (i.e., working to produce more food, water, and energy), which temporarily raises the standard of living (i.e., brings more reinforcers into the environment), but eventually requires further intensification to accommodate the larger population, and simultaneously depletes the surrounding resources (Harris, 1977, 1979). According to Harris (1979) such intensification/depletion cycles then probabilistically determine the rest of a population's interactions, which is divided into a tripartite scheme: the (a) infrastructure (i. …