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historical materialism

  An analytical method that emphasizes the material basis of society, and looks to the historical development of social relations to comprehend societal change. Opposed to idealism, historical materialism is generally associated with Marxism, though the term itself was coined by Engels. Historical-materialist analysis assumes the importance of ideas and argues that \'life is not determined by consciousness, but consciousness by life\'. As social beings, men and women develop \'their material intercourse\', and thereby alter \'their history and the products of their thinking\' (Marx and Engels, 1970, p. 47).

In geographical research, historical materialism rose to prominence in the 1970s but its pedigree in economics, history, literary studies, and sociology is much longer. Historical materialism in geography attempts to explain patterns and processes of spatial and environmental change as the result of the specific social relations of capitalism or other modes of production (see Marxist geography). While initially somewhat independent from the prevailing paradigm in geography (spatial science), historical materialist research has more recently integrated with broader social and cultural theory. Historical materialists rejected in particular the self-proclaimed objectivity of logical positivism, and more generally the intellectual hegemony of \'bourgeois geography\', mainly because both have been complicit more with oppression, imperialism, and racism than with any substantive form of social emancipation (Harvey, 1984). Interest in historical materialist analysis was prodded by the social upheaval of the 1960s in many western nations, but has received a wider acceptance in Europe (rather than North America) where its intellectual and political roots are much older than elsewhere.

Fairly or not, historical materialism has become associated with the base-superstructure model of society. Although Marx never advocated a base-superstructure model, other Marxists did. Some social theorists reacted negatively to this rigid conception which viewed the mode of production as constitutive of all other societal relations. Yet since most Marxists did not dogmatically accept this framework in the first place, the cultural turn away from this model has actually served more to enrich contemporary political economy with nuanced cultural analysis than to inspire a recalcitrance among historical materialists.

During the late 1970s and 1980s, postmodernism posed a significant challenge to traditional historical materialism. If postmodernists argued that the assumptions of Enlightenment rationality and modernity were now antiquated, defenders of historical materialism responded that the postmodern cultural efflorescence was itself integrally connected to a new flexibility in economic, political, and social relations (Jameson, 1984; Harvey, 1989). No such independence of culture from economy was yet achieved, despite capitalist social relations having undergone a significant evolution.

post-colonialism also served as a critique of historical materialism from the 1970s onward. Post-colonialists argued that historical materialism is Eurocentric and does not adequately reflect the experience of colonized peoples. Historical materialism, to post-colonialists, glosses over the cultural dimension to the colonial project and its aftermath, by using rigid epistemological dichotomies. Like the influence of the cultural turn however, this critique has been absorbed more than resisted by historical materialists interested in colonialism (see for example Blaut, 1993). Poly-vocal rather than uni-vocal theorizing about the colonial experience is now more commonplace. (NS)

References Blaut, J. 1993: The colonizer\'s model of the world : geographical diffusionism and Eurocentric history. New York: Guilford. Harvey, D. 1984: On the present condition of geography; an historical materialist manifesto. Professional Geographer 36: 11-18. Harvey, D. 1989: The condition of postmodernity. Oxford: Blackwell. Jameson, F. 1984: Postmodernism or the cultural logic of late capitalism. New Left Review 146: 53-92. Marx, K. and Engels, F. 1970: The German ideology, trans. C.J. Arthur. New York: International.

Suggested Reading Harvey (1984). Marx, K. 1967: Capital, volume I. New York: International. Marx, K. 1971: Preface. A contribution to the critique of political economy. London: Lawrence and Wishart.



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Other Terms : anti-humanism | political geography | Asiatic mode of production
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