Obituary: Professor Sir Raymond Firth

By Strathern, Marilyn | The Independent (London, England), March 5, 2002 | Go to article overview
Save to active project

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).

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
Loading One moment ...
Project items
Cite this article

Cited article

Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited article

Obituary: Professor Sir Raymond Firth


Text size Smaller Larger
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

While we understand printed pages are helpful to our users, this limitation is necessary to help protect our publishers' copyrighted material and prevent its unlawful distribution. We are sorry for any inconvenience.
Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.

Are you sure you want to delete this highlight?