Obituary: Professor Sir Raymond Firth

By Strathern, Marilyn | The Independent (London, England), March 5, 2002 | Go to article overview
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Obituary: Professor Sir Raymond Firth


Strathern, Marilyn, The Independent (London, England)


THE FUNERAL was held yesterday of the last of the great founders of modern Social Anthropology.

At his hundredth birthday party, given him by the Association of Social Anthropologists of which he was Life President, Sir Raymond Firth remarked that the mounting number of years was beginning to overshadow anything else. But people there were not marvelling at the years - they were marvelling at the command of the discipline which this scholar kept up till the end. The affection with which Firth was held by social anthropologists for more than 30 years after his formal retirement from the London School of Economics in 1968 included immense respect for his continuing contributions. In his last decade he had completed to his own great satisfaction some outstanding work on Tikopia.

Tikopia is a tiny island in the Pacific; in 1929 when Firth first went it had a population of 1,300, grown to 1,750 when he revisited it in 1952. If it seemed a stereotypical location for a field anthropologist, what he did there broke some moulds. He had been writing about a subject people in his own state, New Zealand, and Primitive Economics of the New Zealand Maori (1929) was an account of what these days would be called TK (traditional knowledge) and of how Maori economic life fared under colonisation. Firth held a large view of the world, and it was not a view that a small island was going to shrink.

From Auckland, where he completed an MA in Economics, Firth came to the LSE in 1924 to continue his studies. And in a fashion he did, but he filtered his economics through anthropology. He has recounted how when he arrived the economics professor was away, and he ran into the anthropologists C.G. Seligman and Bronislaw Malinowski; after sitting on the fence for six months he took the plunge, and what had been a subsidiary interest became his principal one.

Yet he remained faithful to his early training. Indeed Raymond Firth began a tradition in social anthropology that is like no other corner of the subject except law. Unlike the otherwise inspiring Malinowski, who (Firth observed) didn't really understand economics very well - he just produced an account of relationships "in an economic frame of expression" - Firth sustained a serious engagement with the categories of this discipline. It was economics as the discipline and not just economics as an aspect of social life that he injected into anthropology.

Firth's interventions were at the forefront of one of the most enduring paradigms of anthropological research, and had implications far beyond economics. What exactly could be learnt from the tenets of Western (economic) theory about the activities of peoples such as the Maori or Tikopia? Significant categories of Western knowledge were there for anthropologists' edification, if only they would apply a bit of professionalism.

This highlighted fundamental issues in translation and cross- cultural comparison which have never gone away. If Firth's overt attempts at general theory (such as Elements of Social Organization, 1956) never possessed his contemporaries' panache, here he helped build a theoretical backbone with staying power. It it did not matter if a location was large or small - or near or remote - if the questions were important.

Tikopia grew under his labours, and these took him beyond economics as such. The nine books he wrote about this apparently tiny Polynesian population began with family life, We, the Tikopia (1936) which became the most well known, and continued with Primitive Polynesian Economy (1939), his monumental The Work of the Gods in Tikopia (1940) and, after his return, Social Change in Tikopia (1959) as well as History and Traditions of Tikopia (1961).

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