Difference Between New Historicism and Cultural Materialism

Key Difference – New Historicism vs Cultural Materialism

New historicism and cultural materialism are two literary theories that have similar characteristics. The key difference between new historicism and cultural materialism is that New Historicism focuses on the oppression in the society that has  to be overcome in order to achieve change whereas cultural Materialism focuses on how that change is brought about.

What is New Historicism?

New historicism is a literary theory that involves the parallel reading of non-literary and literary texts of the same time. These non-literary texts are often used to frame the literary works, but both are treated equally; it does not give priority or privilege to a literary text. This theory is based on the concept that literature should be evaluated and interpreted within the context of the history of the author as well as the critic. This is because the critic’s response to a work is always influenced by his beliefs, prejudices, culture and environment.

New historicism acknowledges and is based on the concept that our understanding of literature changes with the changes in time. At the same time, New Historicism is considered to be anti-establishment and favours liberal ideas and personal freedoms.

The term New Historicism was coined by Stephen Greenblatt around 1980s. J.W. Lever and Jonathan Dollimore are two practitioners of this theory.

Difference Between New Historicism and Cultural Materialism

What is Cultural Materialism?

The origin of cultural materialism can be traced back to work of the left-wing literary critic Raymond Williams, who coined the term cultural materialism. It can be described as a blending of leftist culturalism and Marxist analysis. This theory came into being in the early 1980s along with new historicism. Cultural materialism deals with specific historical documents and attempt to analyse and recreate the dominant set of ideals or beliefs of a particular moment in history.

Jonathan Dollimore and Allen Sinfield identifies four characteristics of cultural materialism.

Historical context: what was happening at the time when this work was created?

Theoretical method: incorporation of older theories and models such as structuralism and post-structuralism

Close Textual analysis: building on theoretical analysis of canonical texts that are identified as ‘prominent cultural icons.’

Political Commitment: Incorporating political theories such as Feminist and Marxist theory

What is the difference between New Historicism and Cultural Materialism?


New Historicism focus on the oppressive aspects of society people has to overcome to achieve change.

Cultural Materialism focuses on how that change is formed.


New Historicists claim that they are aware of the difficulties, limitations, contradictions and problems of trying to establish the truth; nevertheless, they believe in the truth of their work.

Cultural Materialist sees new historicism as politically ineffective since it does not believe in absolute truth or knowledge. They feel that cultural materialists do not believe in the truth of what they write.

Political Situation:

New Historicists situate a text within the political situation of its contemporary society.

Cultural Materialists situate a text with the political situation of the critic’s contemporary world.

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