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Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should be aware that this website contains names, images, and voices of deceased persons.

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Firth, Raymond William (1901–2002)

by Michael W. Young

Raymond Firth, by Sarah Chinnery, 1932

Raymond Firth, by Sarah Chinnery, 1932

National Library of Australia, 21225166

‘It is no great virtue to live for a long time’, said Raymond William Firth a few years short of his 100th birthday. Perhaps not, but his awesome longevity did much to validate his stature as one of the most eminent anthropologists of the last century. He embodied the golden era of British social anthropology.

It seems presumptuous to attempt to package a life of such length and such solid achievements. Though premature to seek biographical patterns, one can discern the lineaments of a master narrative in the successful career of this native of New Zealand who spent three-quarters of his life elsewhere: the barefooted boy who rode a horse to school and ultimately became the most venerated elder of British anthropology, a knight of the realm, life president of the Association of Social Anthropologists, Rivers medallist, Fellow of the British Academy, Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit, and holder of a swag of honorary degrees. He was the Sunday School teacher who became an atheist yet wrote voluminously on religion, the classless Kiwi who married the daughter of an English knight. Most striking, perhaps, is the image of the ethnographer, diligently recording all and everything about the 1,200 inhabitants of a Polynesian outlier in the British Solomons. Raymond Firth’s Tikopia is every bit as famous as Bronislaw Malinowski’s Trobriands or Margaret Mead’s Samoa. His painstaking, lucid ethnography, with its ideal balance of theory and description, won Firth a permanent place in anthropology’s hall of fame.

As a master’s student of economics at Auckland University College, Firth conducted original field research into the kauri gum industry. Winning a scholarship to the London School of Economics (LSE) in 1924, he was set to pursue economics but fell under the charismatic spell of Malinowski, who was then embarking on his first academic year of teaching anthropology. Firth attended his dynamic seminar with Evans-Pritchard and Ashley Montagu; soon they were joined by Hortense Powdermaker, Isaac Shapera, Camilla Wedgwood, Audrey Richards and many others who eventually propagated the new anthropology throughout the world.

Firth would adopt Malinowski’s own magisterial way of conducting his seminar—though he was more charitable to those who betrayed ignorance or muddled thinking—and his preparation for each seminar was scrupulous. As Chair, he would summarise the speaker’s presentation, select key points for analysis, and orchestrate the discussion, concluding with a creative review of the lessons learned.

In July 1928, having completed his PhD on the economics of the Maori, Firth began his first intensive fieldwork on Tikopia. We, the Tikopia, published in 1936 and dedicated to his parents, is an ethnographic masterpiece that has never been out of print. A meticulous study of kinship with enlivening novelistic touches, as an exemplary monograph it ranked with Argonauts of the Western Pacific. The ‘arrival scene’ of the opening chapter is a classic account (which today would verge on parody) of an ethnographer’s first contact with his chosen people. Noting the ‘tawny, surging crowd’ that swarmed aboard the Anglican mission boat, Firth ‘wondered how such turbulent human material could ever be induced to submit to scientific study’. The hard graft was to come: ‘Four kava ceremonies; up at 4 a.m., bed at 10 p.m. And to be up before dawn again! The life of an anthropologist in Tikopia is no soft bed of down!’ So he wrote in his field diary on 2 December 1928. Although he did not know it at the time, Firth’s lonely stretch of fieldwork was more heroic, more demanding of stiff-upper-lip character than his mentor’s had been in the Trobriands a decade earlier. For the first nine months of his year’s stay on the island, Firth saw no white man and received no mail. Short of taking a local wife, his gift-exchanging involvement with his hosts seemed complete. He was indeed the complete ethnographer, as the Tikopia acknowledged in a dance song (‘Firth is a chief in writing/Your fame is there in far lands …’) that remained in the island’s repertoire for over 30 years. Another kind of commemoration lay in some of the gifts he had made in 1928–29. As he discovered on his return in 1952, an adze he had presented to one of the chiefs had been consecrated as a sacred implement. Today, according to Judith Macdonald of Waikato University, Tikopia practically live by ‘what Raymond said’.

Firth’s Tikopia corpus (comprising eight books, nine if his Tikopia–English dictionary is included, and some 80 articles) is the most comprehensive ethnographic description of any pre-literate, small-scale society in the world. The claim could well have been made that Firth wrote many more pages on the Tikopia than there were Tikopia people, living or dead. He published several books on other topics, of course, and also found time to write a popular introduction to anthropology. First published in 1938, Human Lives went through several editions and was translated into nine languages.

Firth’s debt to Malinowski was considerable. It was Malinowski who recruited him to anthropology, who secured him a Lectureship at the LSE and who guided his promotion to a Readership. And, of course, it was to Malinowski’s professorial chair that Firth eventually succeeded in 1944.

He had been present at the launch of Malinowski’s functional revolution, present when the ultra-diffusionists of University College London (Elliot- Smith and Perry) were routed and Rockefeller funding was secured for the new-fangled brand of social anthropology at the LSE. If it was Malinowski who began the revolution, it was Firth who, with less fuss and fanfare, helped consolidate its gains. Firth also propagated Malinowski’s pitch for a ‘practical anthropology’ that would address the problems created by colonial rule, though he hesitated to call himself an applied anthropologist. There were awkward episodes during the early 1930s, however, when Malinowski, with his insistence on absolute loyalty, became infuriated with what he suspected was Firth’s apostasy in adopting Radcliffe-Brown’s theoretical approach to social structure. Having defended Malinowski against RadcliffeBrown in Sydney, Firth found himself defending Radcliffe-Brown against Malinowski in London.

While Firth lacked the maverick intellectual brilliance of his fraternal rivals and fellow knights of British anthropology, Edwin Evans- Pritchard of Oxford and Edmund Leach of Cambridge, his theoretical contributions to the discipline were no less valuable in their time. These broadly concerned what used to be called ‘primitive’ economics and ‘primitive’ religion. In Tikopia, Firth seized a unique opportunity to study a living Polynesian religion. Return visits enabled him to describe its transformation under the onslaught of Christianity. Indeed, change social, economic and religious became the dominant theme of his long-term Tikopia project. It was to cope with the phenomena of change (endemic to the tribal worlds of the era), and also with vexed questions of the role of individual agency, that Firth developed, in the 1950s, a systematic theory of social organisation. This was in part a response to his British colleagues’ obsession with the reified abstractions of social structure. Firth’s revitalised concept of social organisation provided a more flexible framework for understanding individual choices in social transactions and how these might lead to structural changes. In short, his theory dealt with social process. It foreshadowed the transactional and ‘action anthropology’ of the 1960s and 1970s, and latterly the sociological thinking of Anthony Giddens.

As an administrator, Firth accomplished a good deal in his characteristically conscientious and measured way. Never an academic prima donna, he was trustworthy, modest, reasonable, even-tempered. Sometimes a reluctant administrator, he nevertheless bore the burdens of office with good grace and quiet efficiency. The LSE Department of Anthropology burgeoned and thrived during the quarter century of his leadership. Earlier, in 1931, he had rescued the fledgling Sydney department by smoothing Australian feathers ruffled by the imperious Radcliffe-Brown (whom Firth was permitted to call ‘Rex’). During the war, Firth served with the Admiralty’s Naval Intelligence. Together with J.W. Davidson, he compiled and edited a series of handbooks on the Pacific Islands.

After the war, Firth spent a year with the British Colonial Office, helping to establish a Social Science Research Council, and it was under its auspices that he subsequently conducted social research surveys in West Africa, Sarawak and Papua. Keen to enhance the professional standing of his discipline, in 1946 he co-founded the Association of Social Anthropologists—of which he was made Life President in 1975. It seems superfluous to add that he served as Honorary Secretary of the Royal Anthropological Institute in 1936–39, and as its President in 1953–55.

One of Raymond Firth’s most significant consultative roles was his active involvement—together with Howard Florey, Mark Oliphant and Keith Hancock—in the establishment of The Australian National University during the late 1940s. The organisational design of the Research School of Pacific Studies was in large measure his own. He set the future course of its four foundation departments by his inspired recruitment of geographer O.H.K. Spate, Pacific historian Jim Davidson, political scientist W.R. Crocker and anthropologist S.F. Nadel. Another brilliant catch was made with a second anthropologist, his erstwhile pupil W.E.H. Stanner. Twice was Firth urged by University Council to accept the Directorship of the Research School of Pacific Studies, and twice he regretfully refused: the pull of kin and affinal ties in Britain was too great. After acting in the post for a year, he returned to London—to Nadel’s evident relief—though not before he had done some fleeting research in coastal Papua (visiting Malinowski’s first field site among the Mailu) and paying a longer visit to his friends on Tikopia. A hurricane had devastated the island, and Firth found himself administering emergency aid to the indurated Tikopia.

The Lancastrian Firths traced ancestral connection to John Wesley, and during a happy childhood in rural New Zealand Raymond had been tutored in the beliefs and values of Methodism. (Until his arrival in England, he abjured tobacco and drink—his first alcoholic beverage, he recalled, was a glass of wine poured by Evans-Pritchard in a London restaurant.) The moral background of Methodism remained important to him, but its belief system failed his intellectual scrutiny. Ever an empiricist and a pragmatist, he became an atheist and a humanist, a believer in the value of human individuality and human creativity. A profound fascination with religion remained, however, and was reflected in his private passions for early church music and Romanesque architecture. Such interests illuminate the statements that conclude his last book, Religion: A Humanist Interpretation (1996), to the effect that ‘religion represents a vast series of rescue operations’ and fertile fields for exercise of the human imagination. His approach to anthropology was all of a piece: he viewed it as a legitimate offspring of the Enlightenment.

The Firths lived for over 50 years in the same house in leafy Hampstead, the middle-class London suburb that Raymond once investigated—by methods he called ‘microsociology’—in order to uncover traces of what remained of the English kinship system. The Firths’ house was but a few minutes’ walk from the grotesque, monumental stone head of Karl Marx in Highgate Cemetery—something one recalled when Firth described himself as a Marxian but not a Marxist, ‘a liberal anthropologist with socialistic tendencies’.

When first I interviewed him in 1992, he had already turned 90. Straight-backed, clear-eyed, neatly dressed in crisp shirt and cravat, his chiselled face was adorned by the thin moustache he had kept trimmed for as long as anyone could remember. His skin was paper-thin, and his sandy-grey hair had turned to gossamer, but his carriage remained erect. He agreed with his wife Rosemary (by then a spry 86) that ‘You realise you are old when the soldiers don’t obey the commander. There’s insubordination among the ranks; your limbs don’t always do what you want them to do’.

Throughout this and subsequent conversations, Rosemary interjected frequently and sometimes contradicted her husband, whose eyes would roll in quiet exasperation. Despite the habitual bickering, theirs had been an uncommonly fruitful and enduring partnership. She was his sternest and most loyal critic. Married in 1936, they had done fieldwork together in Malaya in 1939–40 (they would have worked in China but for the Japanese invasion), and to Rosemary he dedicated Malay Fishermen: Their Peasant Economy (1946). This was Firth’s most technical work, and it marked the beginning of a distinctive school of economic anthropology to which he gave a Marxist turn in the 1970s.

Raymond’s memory was unimpaired by age, but Rosemary kept an obituary book in which she recorded the deaths of their friends and acquaintances. Firth had outlived all of his mentors, peers and colleagues, and many of his students as well—among them, Anthony Forge and Derek Freeman. 

* Abridged from the originally published ‘Raymond William Firth’, Journal of Pacific History 38(2) (2003): 277–280.

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Citation details

Michael W. Young, 'Firth, Raymond William (1901–2002)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/firth-raymond-william-32605/text40466, accessed 4 December 2022.

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