In the social sciences, materialism signifies a preoccupation with materiality and material processes, and how these contribute to forming the social. This can take on a variety of forms, which are all accompanied by different bodies of theory. At present, social scientists who describe themselves as materialists tend to fall into one of three categories: 1) they look at material culture – i.e. how we use things as part of everyday life – this is not tied to a particular theoretical framework 2) they look at the economic conditions of production, usually following a Marxist framework (historical/dialectical materialism) or 3) they look at relations between humans and ‘nonhumans’ such as rocks, animals, bacteria under a ‘new materialist’ framework. This entry is looking at the two theoretical directions called historical/dialectical materialism and new materialism.
Both directions of materialism engage with material inequalities, whether it is between different social classes, or between humans and nonhumans. At the same time, they have been accused of being insufficiently attentive to racial inequality. In terms of Marxist analyses, critics such as W.E.B. Dubois, Aimé Césaire, Frantz Fanon or Stuart Hall attempted to draw greater attention to the intersection of racial and class struggle, and especially female Marxists of colour such as Claudia Jones, Grace Lee Boggs, Angela Davis and Sylvia Wynter have insisted on extending intersectionality to race and gender. Césaire, for instance, writes in his 1956 resignation letter to the French Communist party that he wants ‘Marxism and Communism to be placed in the services of Black peoples and not the Black peoples in the service of Marxism and Communism’, and Jones writes in 1949 about the “triply-oppressed status of Negro women” that results from multiple inequalities in access to the means of production.
New Materialism, by contrast, has been criticised for failing to highlight differences among humans and their impact on the non-recognition of the nonhuman. Geographer Juanita Sundberg (2014), for instance, voices her discomfort with new materialisms such as posthumanism that, in her view, “tend to reproduce colonial ways of knowing and being by enacting universalizing claims and, consequently, further subordinating other ontologies”. Indigenous academics such as Zoe Todd have argued against the on-going marginalisation of non-European ontologies (ways of conceptualising what there is) and for their inclusion in non-appropriative ways.
Both critiques ultimately ask that, if both types of materialism are seeking to erase existing inequalities, they need to address these in more intersectional ways. Attempt to not only perform intersectional analyses, but also to include the concerns of both materialisms have been made by a variety of scholars, such as Donna Haraway, Angela Davis and Achille Mbembe. One of the most well-known examples is Donna Haraway’s “Cyborg Manifesto” (1984), in which she takes as a starting point the increasing breakdown of the human/animal, human/machine and physical/non-physical boundaries, as noted in a variety of work by critical race and feminist scholars such as Chela Sandoval.
Davis, Angela Y (1981) Women, Race and Class. London: The Women’s Press Ltd.
Haraway, D (1984) A Cyborg Manifesto.
Lee, Salome (2011) Until We Are All Abolitionists: Marx On Slavery, Race and Class
Sundberg, J (2014) Decolonizing posthumanist geographies. Cultural Geographies 21(1)
Todd, Z (2016) An Indigenous Feminist’s Take On The Ontological Turn: ‘Ontology’ Is Just Another Word For Colonialism. Journal of Historical Sociology 29(1); Blog post version
Allwaert, Monique (2013) On Ariels’ Ecology: Monique Allewaert, interviewed by Angela Last. Society and Space Open Site.
Jones, Claudia (1949) We Seek Full Equality For Women.
Mills, C W (2003) From Class to Race: Essays in White Marxism and Black Radicalism.
Robinson, C J (2000) Black Marxism. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press.
Weheliye, A (2014) Habeas Viscus: Racializing Assemblages, Biopolitics, and Black Feminist Theories of the Human. Durham, NC: Duke University Press. London: Rowman & Littlefield.
Why do materialists focus on the material world?
What is the difference between the different materialisms in how they look at inequality? What are the strengths and weaknesses?
One of the key issues in materialism is material hierarchies: how we order and manage the world. Do you think that social and environmental relations in many parts of the world could be different if a different ‘world ordering’ was dominant?
Submitted by Angela Last