Raymond Firth

Sir Raymond Firth
Born (1901-03-25)25 March 1901
New Zealand
Died 22 February 2002(2002-02-22) (aged 100)
Fields Ethnologist
Academic advisors Bronisław Malinowski
Doctoral students Edmund Leach

Sir Raymond William Firth, CNZM, FBA (25 March 1901 22 February 2002) was an ethnologist from New Zealand. As a result of Firth's ethnographic work, actual behaviour of societies (social organization) is separated from the idealized rules of behaviour within the particular society (social structure). He was a long serving Professor of Anthropology at London School of Economics, and is considered to have singlehandedly created a form of British economic anthropology.[1]

Early life and academic career

Firth was born to Wesley and Marie Firth in Auckland, New Zealand, in 1901. He was educated at Auckland Grammar School, and then at Auckland University College, where he graduated in economics in 1921.[2] He took his MA there in 1922, and a diploma in social science in 1923.[3] In 1924 he began his doctoral research at the London School of Economics. Originally intending to complete a thesis in economics, a chance meeting with the eminent social anthropologist Bronisław Malinowski led to him to alter his field of study to 'blending economic and anthropological theory with Pacific ethnography'.[2] It was possibly during this period in England that he worked as research assistant to Sir James G Frazer, author of The Golden Bough.[4] Firth's doctoral thesis was published in 1929 as Primitive Economics of the New Zealand Māori.

After receiving his PhD in 1927 Firth returned to the southern hemisphere to take up a position at the University of Sydney, although he did not start teaching immediately as a research opportunity presented itself. In 1928 he first visited Tikopia, the southernmost of the Solomon Islands, to study the untouched Polynesian society there, resistant to outside influences and still with its pagan religion and undeveloped economy.[2] This was the beginning of a long relationship with the 1200 people of the remote four mile long island, and resulted in ten books and numerous articles written over many years. The first of these, We the Tikopia: A Sociological Study of Kinship in Primitive Polynesia was published in 1936 and seventy years on is still used as a basis for many university courses about Oceania.[5]

In 1930 he started teaching at the University of Sydney. On the departure for Chicago of Alfred Radcliffe-Brown, Firth succeeded him as acting Professor. He also took over from Radcliffe-Brown as acting editor of the journal Oceania, and as acting director of the Anthropology Research Committee of the Australian National Research Committee.

After 18 months he returned to the London School of Economics in 1933 to take up a lectureship, and was appointed Reader in 1935. Together with his wife Rosemary Firth, also to become a distinguished anthropologist, he undertook fieldwork in Kelantan and Terengganu in Malaya in 1939-1940.[6] During the Second World War Firth worked for British naval intelligence, primarily writing and editing the four volumes of the Naval Intelligence Division Geographical Handbook Series that concerned the Pacific Islands.[7] During this period Firth was based in Cambridge, where the LSE had its wartime home.

Firth succeeded Malinowski as Professor of Social Anthropology at LSE in 1944, and he remained at the School for the next 24 years.[2] In the late 1940s he was a member of the Academic Advisory Committee of the then-fledgling Australian National University, along with Sir Howard Florey (co-developer of medicinal penicillin), Sir Mark Oliphant (a nuclear physicist who worked on the Manhattan Project), and Sir Keith Hancock (Chichele Professor of Economic History at Oxford). Firth was particularly focused on the creation of the university's School of Pacific Studies.[8]

He returned to Tikopia on research visits several times, although as travel and fieldwork requirements became more burdensome he focused on family and kinship relationships in working- and middle-class London.[6] Firth left LSE in 1968, when he took up a year's appointment as Professor of Pacific Anthropology at the University of Hawaiʻi. There followed visiting professorships at British Columbia (1969), Cornell (1970), Chicago (1970-1), the Graduate School of the City University of New York (1971) and UC Davis (1974). The second festschrift published in his honour described him as 'perhaps the greatest living teacher of anthropology today'.[3]

After retiring from teaching work, Firth continued with his research interests, and right up until his hundredth year he was producing articles. He died in London a few weeks before his 101st birthday: his father had lived to 104.


Personal life

Firth married Rosemary Firth (née Upcott) in 1936 and she died in 2001; they had one son, Hugh, who was born in 1946. He was raised a Methodist then later became a humanist and an atheist, a decision influenced by his anthropological studies.[9][10] He was one of the signers of the Humanist Manifesto.[11]

Māori lament (poroporoaki) for Sir Raymond Firth

Composed on behalf of the Polynesian Society by its then-President, Professor Sir Hugh Kawharu (English translation)[2]

You have left us now, Sir Raymond
Your body has been pierced by the spear of death
And so farewell. Farewell,
Scholar renowned in halls of learning throughout the world
'Navigator of the Pacific'
'Black hawk' of Tamaki.
Perhaps in the end you were unable to complete all
the research plans that you had once imposed upon yourself
But no matter! The truly magnificent legacy you have left
will be an enduring testimony to your stature.
Moreover, your spirit is still alive among us,
We, who have become separated from you in New Zealand,
in Tikopia and elsewhere.
Be at rest, father. Rest, forever,
in peace, and in the care of the Almighty.

Selected bibliography

Other sources


Sir Raymond Firth's papers are held at the London School of Economics - including his photographic collection


  1. Bloch, Maurice (26 February 2002). "Obituary: Sir Raymond Firth". The Guardian (UK). London. Retrieved 29 November 2006.
  2. 1 2 3 4 5 Huntsman, Judith (2003). "Raymond Firth (1901–2002)". American Anthropologist. 105 (2): 487–490.
  3. 1 2 Watson-Gegeo, Karen (1988). "Raymond Firth". asao.org. Archived from the original on 3 July 2007. Retrieved 29 November 2006.
  4. Kessler, Clive S. (2002). "Obituary: Raymond W. Firth, 1901-2002". Australian Journal of Anthropology. 13 (2): 224–229.
  5. Macdonald, Judith (2002). "Sir Raymond Firth 1901-2002". Oceania. 72 (3): 153–155.
  6. 1 2 Ortiz, Sutti (2004). "Sir Raymond Firth". Archived 11 June 2011 at the Wayback Machine. Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 148 (1): 129-133.
  7. "The Naval intelligence Handbooks" (PDF). Progress in Human Geography, 27,2. 2003. Retrieved 29 November 2006.
  8. "History of ANU". Australian National University. Retrieved 11 May 2016.
  9. Kitchin, Peter (2002). "Sir Raymond (William) Firth". The Independent (UK). Retrieved 17 January 2010.
  10. "His Methodist upbringing soon turned into a thoroughgoing humanistic atheism. This freed him for the sympathetic study of exotic religions, and for discussions of the role of faith in the anthropologist's own perceptions. He tended to feel a sort of good-natured intolerance of the religious beliefs of his friends and colleagues." Obituary: Professor Sir Raymond Firth, The Times (London), February 26, 2002.
  11. "Humanist Manifesto II". American Humanist Association. Archived from the original on 20 October 2012. Retrieved 3 October 2012.

External links

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