Professor Sir Raymond Firth

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The Independent Online

Raymond William Firth, anthropologist: born Auckland, New Zealand 25 March 1901; Lecturer in Anthropology, University of Sydney 1930-31, Acting Professor of Anthropology 1931-32; Lecturer in Anthropology, LSE 1932-35, Reader 1935-44, Professor of Anthropology 1944-68 (Emeritus); Hon Secretary, Royal Anthropological Institute 1936-39, President 1953-55; Secretary, Colonial Social Science Research Council, Colonial Office 1944-45; Secretary, Association of Social Anthropologists 1946-51, Chairman 1958-61, Life President 1975-2002; Academic Adviser, ANU 1948-52; FBA 1949; Fellow, Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences, Stanford 1958-59; Professor of Pacific Anthropology, University of Hawaii 1968-69; Kt 1973; CNZM 2001; married 1936 Rosemary Upcott (died 2001; one son); died London 22 February 2002.

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). They gripped me as an undergraduate in the early 1960s: an unparalleled spread of detailed information for the exploration. Firth's corpus stands out as one of the most comprehensive observational records anyone has ever produced.

The people of Tikopia have never forgotten what he did, nor have Pacific Islanders at large. On his hundredth birthday, the Polynesian Society presented him with the Rusiate Nayacakalou Medal; he had already become a Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit.

In full spate of publishing on Tikopia there was still room for other interests. Nineteen thirty-six saw the beginnings of a lifetime of what he would have called intellectual collaboration with his wife, Rosemary. Together they went to Malaya, and Malay Fishermen: their peasant economy (1946) opened up a fresh world. Rosemary died in 2001.

After two years lecturing in Sydney, Firth had returned to the LSE in 1932, and was to assume Malinowski's chair in 1944. One set of encounters encapsulates his reputation during this period. He showed immense kindness to a gawky young lecturer who had arrived from the United States in 1949 – he "was almost beyond belief: good, warm, supportive, generous", the late David Schneider recalled. It was a profound sense of obligation that led Schneider 10 years later to collaborate with Firth on a pioneering study of Western society.

The idea was to compare American and English kinship. The two volumes that emerged from their work in London and Chicago could not have been more different: Firth's 460 pages of painstaking ethnographic observations (Families and Their Relatives, 1970), and Schneider's little more than 100 pages of abstract ideas on American kinship as a cultural system (American Kinship, 1968). Towards the end of his own life, Schneider recalled how "fabulously" good an observer his British counterpart was, and then added slyly that it is ideas that make people famous – no one is remembered for the ethnography they do, even the "the really, really great fieldworkers" which is he where he put Firth. But the idea for the whole enterprise, that led among other things to Schneider's still much-quoted work, had actually been Raymond Firth's.

It was not his only organisational idea. Firth was instrumental in helping establish the Colonial Social Science Research Council towards the end of the Second World War, and was its first Secretary. He was also the Founder Secretary of the ASA, and later the association's chair, as well as a key adviser to the Australian National University's plan to set up a research school of pacific studies. He was elected a Fellow of the British Academy in 1949, and knighted in 1973.

His colleagues still had plans for him. He was due to receive the British Academy's first Leverhulme Medal, and the inaugural ASA Firth Lecture will be held in London tomorrow.

Marilyn Strathern