Marxist Anthropology: Analysis and Critique

There are many different theoretical perspectives, or paradigms, in anthropology that view events from a variety of viewpoints. Each one tries to find specific reasoning behind the formation of social groups and traditions, such as the fulfillment of a specific function or the universal need to follow a particular structure. Moreover, due to the relatively recent emergence of the discipline, new approaches emerge often.

Marxist anthropology is one such theory, which focuses on the economic implications of various social practices. It is named after the famous German economist but is not necessarily associated with the political ideology that emerged from his works, representing an independent development branch that is based on the same ideas. This paper will describe the particulars of Marxist anthropology with some examples of its applications and provide an analysis and critique of its positions.

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Description of the Perspective

As mentioned above, Marxist anthropology centers on the economic perspective of society’s formation and development. According to Candea (2018), it has four principal elements: physical human reality and the centrality of labor, the systemic organization of social production, the conflict between different forms of it, and the historical evolution of various development stages. People gather to produce goods for their consumption, eventually forming societies.

These groups organize themselves to produce various items and eventually improve their practices and technology. They form various societal and economic structures, among which Marx particularly focused on capitalism and communism. These formations would clash, entering conflicts where superior paradigms would eventually prevail. As a result, societal economic structures would evolve, leading to the emergence of new social orders. Marx believed that communism was the best form of society that would emerge eventually, but current anthropologists do not necessarily assume this to be the case.

Per Marx’s original ideas and the politics that they inspired, Marxist anthropology focuses on economic power and the disadvantaged populations. This tendency is due to the perspective’s tendency to reduce power to “culture, race, or class” (Yon, 2003, pp. 28) According to Erickson and Murphy (2017), while most anthropologists have not embraced the entirety of dialectical materialism, some use it to analyze the suppression of the economy by ideologies, others explain the economic subjugation of women through it, and many are interested in helping poor populations, in general. Many of Marx’s original ideas have been refuted by history, but they contain a kernel of noteworthy proposals regardless.

One significant aspect that most Marxist anthropologists share is their preference for the materialistic over idealistic, which stems from their focus on the economy. They also use the class as the definitive social unit that defines one’s general ideology and attitude.

Examples of anthropology’s applications include the improvement in the status of various social groups that are harmed as a result of government policies. Nahmad (2016) discusses the work of Gonzalo Aguirre Beltrán, who framed the position of indigenous people in Mexico as a vertical system of domination akin to colonization. The findings of the researcher and his contemporary anthropologists led to the emergence of political movements in the nation that ultimately improved the position of Native Americans in the country and helped them integrate into all aspects of life rather than remain separate.

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There are many examples of the application of Marxist ideas to disadvantaged populations to improve their position. Marxist anthropologists can identify the specific societal constructs and issues that create inequality and focus the attention of political forces on their removal, helping remedy the situation efficiently.

Governments create many systems of oppression, whether implicitly or explicitly, and Marxist anthropologists often research the concept of the state as a result. The paradigm was strongly associated with politics as a result of its foundational philosophy and application in the 20th century. Thus, it is highly suitable for understanding the dynamics of governance. For example, Brandel and Randeria (2018) discuss the Marxist notion that colonial labor caused the emergence of modern European forms of governance, which is supported by the postcolonial theory.

The argument contradicted the traditional perceptions of European cultural superiority to less technologically developed countries. It showed that all people are capable of significant and quick development, given the appropriate resources. It has also helped highlight the complexity of power and its relation to the state, ultimately contributing to the concept of limited statehood as opposed to classic theories of governance.

Analysis and Critique

Overall, Marxist anthropology appears to have evolved from the original concepts put forward by Marx and Engels, which proved not to be viable in the long term. It retained the focus on class as an important unit of society and the interest in capitalism as a dominant social-economic system. However, it has moved away from the evolutionary framework proposed by the economist, particularly the assertion that all societies will ultimately achieve communism as the best form of organization. This idea stems from evolutionism, which temporarily emerged alongside Marxism but could not adapt to the new framework of anthropology as a sophisticated network of relationships (Wolf, 2018).

These changes allow it to maintain its original focus on observing power relations and helping disadvantaged populations without making misguided and dangerous assertions. Current Marxist anthropology recognizes the value of capitalism even as it highlights its various dangers. It tries to observe society and propose ways to improve it without massive changes such as those implemented in the 20th century’s socialist countries.

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The paradigm is also faithful to its roots in its focus on economics and the means of production. As the possession of resources is one of the most significant forms of power, this attitude generates a powerful relationship between Marxist views and power. It is also strongly materialistic, critiquing idealism for its usage of abstractions that ignore various aspects of the situation, such as its history.

However, proponents of the approach still believe in objective scientific understanding rather than subjective analysis. With the increases in globalist tendencies, Marxism’s interest in colonialism is also becoming relevant, highlighting how distant events can influence local happenings. With that said, the approach is less interested in the relationship between language or nature and cultural development, asserting that they do not have a significant impact on the general economic structure.

With that said, while Marxist anthropology can be valuable for many types of situations, it also has some significant issues. The first is its lack of interest in culture and the general ethnic aspects of populations, as it generalizes people based on their economic situation or class. As Morris (2014) notes, Marxist thought is generally dismissive of anthropology despite the German economist’s interest in it, and there were no developments made in the paradigm between Marx and the French school of the 1970s. Moreover, as mentioned above, the application of the school of thought in the discipline led to the gradual departure from some of its concepts. Ultimately, it appears that Marxism is not compatible with anthropology, and its scholars will either disregard many aspects of culture and society or abandon many theoretical concepts.

The other prominent issue with Marxist anthropology is the lack of a unified framework, which may be the result of many different attempts to adapt the paradigm and the differences that emerge in the process. Hann and Hart (2018) highlight how the French school introduced a divide into the community by decrying what they called ‘vulgar materialism’ and moving away from production. By ignoring a critical aspect of classical Marxist thought, its members made it highly challenging for other proponents of the approach to support them. As a result of this lack of unity, the school was unable to survive as a significant entity in the anthropological narrative.

Marxist thought was unable to evolve, and its models are unable to accommodate the increasing globalization and decentralization of the world economy (Appadurai, 1990). Some researchers still follow its approaches nowadays, but they tend to be isolated and find it challenging to communicate and organize.


Marxist ideas have affected many areas of science and governance in the 20th century, though their influence lessened as time passed. Anthropology is one discipline where a prominent school that followed these beliefs emerged, likely due to Marx’s interest in the topic. The paradigm went on to analyze colonialism and the power structures in a society, contributing to the improvement of the positions of many disadvantaged populations.

However, ultimately, Marxists were uninterested in many aspects of anthropology, and their attempts to accommodate it led to internal disagreements. As a result, they were unable to formulate a unified paradigm, and eventually, interest in their way of thinking waned. Nowadays, there are few representatives of Marxist anthropology, as is the case with many other manifestations of the position. Regardless, the approach is of some interest to anthropologists, as it can help understand many social relationships and address issues when utilized non-intrusively.


Appadurai, A. (1990). Disjuncture and difference in the global cultural economy. Theory, Culture & Society, 7, 295-310.

Brandel, A., & Randeria, S. (2018). Anthropological perspectives on the limits of the state. In T. Risse, T. Börzel, & A. Draude (Eds.), The Oxford handbook of governance and limited statehood (pp. 68-88). Oxford, the United Kingdom: Oxford University Press.

Candea, M. (Ed.). (2018). Schools and styles of anthropological theory. New York, NY: Routledge.

Erickson, P. A., & Murphy, L. D. (2017). A history of anthropological theory (5th ed.). Toronto, Canada: University of Toronto Press.

Hann, C., & Hart, K. (2018). Economic anthropology: History, ethnography, critique. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.

Morris, B. (2014). Anthropology, ecology, and anarchism. Oakland, CA: PM Press.

Nahmad, S. (2016). Applied anthropology, the state and ethnic groups in Mexico in the twenty-first century. Society and Anthropology, 4(6), 466-472.

Wolf, E. R. (2018). Introduction. In E. R. Wolf (Ed.), Europe and the people without history (pp. 3-23). Los Angeles, CA: University of California Press.

Yon, D. (2003). The discursive space of schooling: On the theories of power and empowerment in multiculturalism and anti-racism. In A. Cheater (Ed.), The anthropology of power: Empowerment and disempowerment in changing structures (pp. 27-39). New York, NY: Routledge.

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