From his position as a professor of anthropology at London School of Economics (LSE), Sir Raymond William Firth was in a position to influence studies of Pacific anthropology while contributing to anthropological theory in many areas, but he did so most prominently in economic anthropology. Firth studied at LSE, primarily with Malinowski, though he initially wavered between becoming an economist or an anthropologist. Born in Auckland, New Zealand (March 25, 1901), Firth received his PhD from LSE in 1927, based on a dissertation on Maori economics, and then began work among the Tikopia (19281929), which produced multiple monographs (from 1936-1970). Firth spent 1939 to 1940 in Malaya doing fieldwork, with his wife Rosemary studying fish marketing while she studied household economics.
Firth taught in Sydney from 1930 to 1932 and in 1933 took up a lectureship at LSE, where he stayed except for many brief stints elsewhere, particularly in Sydney, until his retirement in 1968. After retirement, Firth held brief visiting professorships in a number of North American universities: University of British Columbia (1969), Cornell (1970), Chicago (19701971), Graduate School of the City University of New York (1971), and University of California-Davis (1974). He was knighted in 1973 and died February 22, 2002, in London.
Firth claimed to be a Marxist of sorts. His analysis in Tikopia stressed the mutual imbrication of kinship and economic relations, with economic relations as a guide and controller of religious process. In his analysis of Malay fishermen, he used careful analysis of fish market bargaining to illustrate the relationship between social structure and economic rationality, again with the emphasis on the economic motivations for social action. Firth proposed that any adequate social theory had to have both a concept of structure and a more dynamic one of social organization emphasizing social choice and innovation. Having begun with training in Marshallian economics, Firth kept a key place in his anthropological work for economic maximizing but did recognize, in discussion and teaching, that over time, anthropology had moved from a concern with stability to an interest in conflict-based change, areas to which even dynamic maximizing activity was less relevant, and Marxism perhaps more.
Firth’s work on symbolism and religion was always premised on religion being significant because it constituted important work done in society for either functionalist reasons or materialist ends. Though raised a Methodist, Firth soon abandoned any religious beliefs in favor of an almost Durkheimian perspective on religion: Thus, he initially claimed that religious trance could be said to vary along a continuum ranging from minor to major control by society, allowing no place for individual trance without attempts by others to control the spirits involved.
In an area of recent interest, the relationship between informants and anthropologists, Firth contributed an early and insightful article on his key informant in Tikopea, Pa Rangifuri. The article discusses Firth’s relationship and friendship with his informant, the latter’s biographical development over the course of 20 years, and, more generally, Tikopian attitudes toward Firth and the informant.
As a teacher, Firth had quite possibly even more influence than as a researcher. He emphasized detailed ethnography, a preference for process over structure, and the study of social organization firmly anchored in the material economy, with concomitant divergences from ideal rules. Despite or because of structure, people had much work to do on multiple levels.
- Firth, R. (1956). Human types: An introduction to social anthropology. New York: Barnes & Noble. (Original work published 1938)
- Firth, R. (1966). Malay fishermen: Their peasant economy. Hamdon, CT: Archon Books. (Original work published 1946)
- Firth, R. (1970). Rank and religion in Tikopia. London: Allen & Unwin.
- Firth, R. (1973). Symbols: Public and private. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
- Freedman, M. (Ed.). (1967). Social organization: Essays presented to Raymond Firth. Chicago: Aldine.
- Watson-Gegeo, K. A., & Seaton, S. L. (Eds.). (1978). Adaptation and symbolism: Essays on social organization. Honolulu: University Press of Hawaii.