A Firth who went forth to flourish in a foreign field

March 30, 2001

To celebrate anthropologist Sir Raymond Firth's 100th birthday, Peter Loizos looks at his career.

Raymond Firth celebrated his 100th birthday on March 25. A pioneer in the establishment of British social anthropology and an exemplary ethnographer, he has, in a long career characterised by quiet diplomacy and tact, set an unmatched example of productivity. He has written at least 17 books, immersed himself in painstaking field research and devoted support both to the discipline itself and to young scholars - particularly those from former British colonies.

He initiated the study of kinship in Britain and significantly extended the influence of anthropology internationally. His pioneer generation has had a mythic quality and those who have come after him have felt themselves inheritors of a strong tradition. Firth was a foundation builder.

He was born in New Zealand and grew up in Auckland, where he learnt from his father, Wesley Firth - a prosperous building contractor - a lifelong respect for precision and craftsmanship. He taught in a Methodist Sunday School, studied economics at Auckland University and became interested in Maori culture. His MA dissertation was on the economics of the local kauri gum industry, in which the collecting work was done by Maoris and immigrants from Southern Europe.

Firth came to London and worked under Bronislaw Malinowski for a PhD, awarded in 19, the first in the anthropology department. The subject was Maori economics, and it was well received. But his best-known book is his postdoctoral monograph, We, the Tikopia (1936), a study of kinship and livelihood among 1,200 people on a remote Polynesian atoll. Firth vividly depicts the way of life of an unfamiliar people, packing the volume with telling ethnographic detail. It conveys the immediacy of being present in the many intense daily encounters that make up field research.

Today, young anthropologists strain to write with this immediacy, and some dress up their efforts in jargon. Firth made it look natural and easy. For those who have neither studied anthropology, nor lived for a long period in a machine-free community, this book provides a revealing immersion in an unfamiliar way of life. Firth made his exotic informants both human and comprehensible. The distance between anthropologist and native was reduced to common membership in the human race. Five centuries of European colonial condescension were expunged in Firth's insistence on Polynesian rationality.

We, the Tikopia drew all kinds of people into trying their hand at anthropology -doctors gave up medicine, actuaries set aside calculations and film-makers forgot Fellini to emulate Firth. But none did it so well.

Firth returned twice to Tikopia, in 1952 and in 1966, to study economic, social and religious changes. The 1952 visit coincided with a hurricane that resulted in a famine, so Firth helped his Tikopian friends obtain food relief, while not neglecting to study the social impact of food shortage, for the disaster made all too clear what were core structural loyalties. He later wrote an essay on social change in the Western Pacific that warned the colonial authorities that the native peoples would seek better rewards for their labour and, indeed, were worthy of more skilled employment.

Firth's Tikopia studies add up to the most comprehensive account produced of a small-scale society, first as a steady state system, and later as affected by external change. There are separate studies of pre-monetary economics, of a pagan religion oriented to fertility, of history and traditions, of rank stratification and of how Christianity and modernity were to change all that had gone before. Admirers have built introductory courses around Firth's Tikopia corpus, and if styles of ethnography have changed, professional admiration for his thoroughness remains constant.

But Tikopia was not Firth's only fieldwork. Before the return visits to the Pacific, he had wanted to study how the Chinese peasantry was affected by living in a market economy. He was diverted from this by political conflict in China and instead studied a Malay fishing community, which, he subsequently argued, was also an example of a peasant economy. In this close-grained economic work, he laboured alongside his wife, Rosemary, who produced an important account of women and households, a matter Firth could not himself have accomplished in an Islamic society, where a male outsider could not enter the women's social space without causing offence.

In addition to these two major bodies of ethnography, and pioneering studies of middle-class kinship in London, Firth has been energetic in contributing to theory. His mind-set has been rationalist, with a bias towards inductive empiricism: his theoretical analyses remain close to the facts observed, and his comparative theoretical work, such as his book on symbolism, tend more to a wide-ranging review.

Firth is not known so much for big ideas as for meticulous investigation. But his forays into theory have been timely. He developed a focus on social change and the role of the choice-making individual in it, which was an important, if understated advance on Malinowski's portrayal of the "pragmatic" people of the Trobriand Islands.

Where Malinowski asserted the importance of choice and manoeuvre in society, Firth attempted to theorise it. In several influential essays written in the 1950s on the importance of "dynamic theory", he opened up in a common-sense way issues that would be obscurely over-theorised by structural-Marxists 20 years later. The Marxists wrote as if they had discovered the problem of social change. Had they read Firth more thoughtfully, they might have built enduringly on his foundations.

During the second world war, Firth contributed to naval intelligence on the Pacific, and when the war ended, he served as secretary of the Colonial Social Science Research Council, setting up major research programmes in Malaysia, Melanesia and West Africa. Equally important, he nurtured the London School of Economics department of anthropology, which Malinowski left in his hands in 1938. Firth was an outstanding consolidator, and under his leadership, research flourished on Oceania, East Africa, South America, Southern Europe, Malaysia, Japan, and among the overseas Chinese.

The LSE attracted anthropologists from many countries - Jomo Kenyatta and Fei Hsaio Tung being among the first. The anthropology department trained them, helped them publish their PhDs and encouraged them to set up the subject in their own countries. In a quiet way, this was an important exercise in freeing the discipline from its colonial baggage and, although varied radicals had been predicting that anthropology would collapse once the colonies were freed, the subject developed to engage with new configurations of power and privilege.

In Firth, there is an openness and a tolerance of diverse opinions. When in 1968, the student radical movement at the LSE put Firth head-to-head with his son, Hugh, who was taking part in a sit-in, his response was to reread Marx and write a re-evaluation for anthropology that can still be recommended. Some of his colleagues were less tolerant.

Firth's skills in leading a seminar could give you a sense of starting in confusion, but ending with a clear head. He invited research students to comment, in turn, around the table on specific issues of fact and theory raised in the presentation. You could get away with passing up your invitation once, but few dared seem so dull as to pass twice. His seminar skills are matched by the clarity of his public speaking, which he kept up into his 90s, always insisting that each appearance is likely to be his last.

He stopped smoking cigarettes in middle age, and has hardly touched alcohol in later life. He complains that one of the unexpected pains of old age has been attending the funerals of so many friends, but there is also a sense of survivalist triumph - the vindication of a sober lifestyle. One is reminded wordlessly of the parable of the talents, even though, as a rationalist, he does not mention it. Hearing a younger colleague complain that his own ethnography would never match that of the pioneer generation, Firth answered feelingly: "None of us has done our ethnography as well as we wanted."

His restless energy in his 90s has been extraordinary. In 1993, a comment that his Tikopia photographs were interesting led to him sending out a book proposal in the next morning's post. He has seen no reason to stop thinking and writing, and he has at least two papers in print this year. It is notable that despite a life in which a dozen honorary doctorates were granted him, he has remained concerned with his final place in the development of social anthropology. In his commitment to high standards, sobriety and service, and in the intensity of his concern to excel, Firth has perhaps been closer in spirit to his Methodist father than he would acknowledge.

Peter Loizos is professor of anthropology at the London School of Economics. On March 30, the Association of Social Anthropology of Great Britain and the Commonwealth is holding a lunch in honour of Raymond Firth's centenary at its annual conference.

CV - Professor Sir Raymond Firth

25/03/01 - Born in New Zealand

1929 - Publication of Primitive Economics of the New Zealand Maori

1930-32 - Lecturer, then acting professor of anthropology, University of Sydney

1932 - Lecturer in anthropology, London School of Economics. Made professor emeritus in 1968; honorary fellow in 1970

1936 - Publication of We, the Tikopia

1936-39 - Honorary secretary of Royal Anthropological Institute. President from 1953-55

1938 - Publication of Human Types: An Introduction to Social Anthropology

1944 - Becomes full professor at the LSE

1944-45 - Secretary of Colonial Social Science Research Council

1957 - Publication of Man and Culture: An Evaluation of the Work of Bronislaw Malinowski, which Firth edited

1958-59 - Fellow, Centre for Advanced Study in Behavioural Sciences, Stanford

1964 - Publication of Essays on Social Organisation and Values

1966 - Publication of Malay Fishermen: Their Peasant Economy

1968-69 - Professor of Pacific anthropology, University of Hawaii

1970 - Publication of Rank and Religion in Tikopia

1973 - Publication of Symbols: Public and Private

1973 - Receives knighthood

1975 - Life president of Association of Social Anthropologists

1990 - Publication of Tikopia Songs
1997 - Publication of Belief and the Reason to Be

A genuine tour de force in an age of ephemeral enthusiasms

J. Davis recalls salutary seminars at the LSE.

Raymond Firth ran his Friday seminar for 30 years. As a new graduate student in anthropology you would hear rumours about it; after a year or so you would be invited to attend, and after an apprenticeship you were put on the rota to give a paper. It was an accolade: you were among the rising elite of this small community.

By the 1960s, when I was a diffident new member, the seminar was already famous, usually attracting a distinguished visitor or two (often former members) and an occasional adjunct Hampsteadite. Other teachers from the London School of Economics department were barred, or at least condemned to silence. Firth took notes while we delivered our papers. He had green, red and blue pens, and appeared to use a different colour for the different themes he intended to raise in discussion. The paper over, Firth gave a thematic summary and then asked each of us to comment on each point.

Then he summarised the discussion ("Mr Colclough suggested very interestingly I would be interested to hear your reply to Mr Wilmot... The consensus is that you may perhaps have put too much emphasis on..."); invited the speaker to reply; and, at 12.30 sharp, announced next week's speaker.

It was a process of socialisation: acceptance was a reward for learning how to be a sensible graduate student. I had a first degree in history, and, for about a year, when my turn came to comment, Firth would ask: "And what does our historian think?" I think I can still remember the nonchalance I adopted to hide my pleasure when he dropped this excluding preamble.

Firth was, still is, imperturbable. Our comments were often youthful and ignorant and he would interpret them and put them into an articulated (blue, red, green) context. I saw him nonplussed only once, by a distinguished visitor's hysterically obscene and barely consequential contribution; and he could turn even the weakest of our papers into an event from which we all learnt.

A Saudi, writing a thesis on the married life - a euphemism in those days for sexual practices - of some group or other in Arabia, produced striking statistics about how many did what to whom. Firth began the discussion, admirably straight-faced and straitlaced: the speaker had given very precise figures, to two decimal places, about the prevalence of certain practices that are often extremely private. How had he got the information? "I asked them." And how did he know they had told the truth? "My people would not lie to their prince." That was the only Friday seminar I went to that ended early, but I suppose we in the audience had got the point; and the Saudi, it seemed fairly certain, never would.

Firth was, and is, invariably courteous and, in those days, even when he did not think well of us, took pains that we should do rather better than we could have done without his help. You noticed this, of course, with others, and never with yourself, but in retrospect, it is clear your fellow students saw as forbearance what you felt as friendly encouragement.

Many of us were enthusiasts for some system or other - Marxism, structuralism, psychoanalysis: the corridors of the LSE echoed to the pitter-patter of graduate students bubbling over with excitement at the possibility of applying some newly acquired idea to anthropology. Firth was gently resistant: for it usually turned out he had read more linguistics or proxemics than we had; and then he would direct us to asking what anthropology could teach exchange theorists or topologists. Anthropology was paramount, the princess of disciplines, and while you might get good questions from, say, economics, you would not get very far if you tried to analyse other people's social organisation as if it were an example of formulaic reductionist market rationality. Much better to look at the economic activities of the Tikopia, or of Malay fishermen, and seek to modify accepted economic truths.

In an age of enthusiasms, Firth stood for sober distinction, and still does, in less excited times. This brought upon him vehement condemnation from the pyrotechnicians. People exist, some anthropologists among them, who think their work must be good if the ideas are exciting. Still today, Firth avoids selecting simple principles of social life. He seeks to describe the complexity and the ambivalence of Tikopians or Malays or the inhabitants of Highgate as they go about their daily business. He is concerned with named people in named places, expressing purpose and doing things within a framework of social constraints.

His rival, Sir Edward Evans-Pritchard, used ethnography to reveal principles of social structure: he described habitual action in the present tense, eliding unannounced into an account of social structures. Firth's characteristic tense is the past, and he writes of "social organisation", something that people can change, are (ultimately) in control of, rather than controlled by.

Firth's world is one of mixed motives, of men and women with inconsistent ideals and obligations making the best of it, rather than of natives who are slaves of custom or creatures of structure. His contemporaries mocked his directness, his failure to abstract and to discover social structure. They represented him as uninterested in the higher things, and slightly ridiculous when he ventured to advocate theory that was not concerned with patterns or principles of structure.

Sir Edmund Leach famously denied that Firth was capable of theoretical work; but it is fairly clear that Leach did not recognise Firth's rejection of controlling structures, his insistence on purposes, intention, dilemmas and costs, as "theory".

Firth has the affection and loyalty of his pupils, and the admiration of those who read his accounts of the peoples he lived among. These readers, incidentally, include the children, grand and great-grandchildren of the young men he first met in the 1920s in Tikopia. His courtesy and honesty also made him an effective administrator and advocate.

After Bronislaw Malinowski's wayward egotism, Firth gave stability to the LSE department. He was elected to the British Academy as an economist, and worked slowly and carefully to establish a section in social anthropology. As secretary of the Colonial Social Science Research Council, he ensured that anthropology, with its international calling, was part of the Social Science Research Council founded under Harold Wilson's government. The trust he inspired, his lack of flamboyance and his search for uncontroversiality ensured his notable successes in academic politics.

Firth's century is in Mike Atherton's style rather than Brian Lara's: battier and flashier anthropologists have come, have played their part in developing the discipline, and have gone to the pavilion. Firth has provided the rock-steady, absolutely straight bat: a man sure of himself, giving assurance to others. For which we all give thanks in his 101st year.

J. Davis is warden of All Souls College, Oxford.

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