Scholarship and humanity: Sir Raymond Firth
Jim Herrick celebrates the life of a staunch humanist
Raymond Firth, an Honorary Associate of the RPA, has died aged 101. He was a leading twentieth-century anthropologist: a man of great learning, an original thinker, and an inspiring teacher. Born and educated in New Zealand, he first studied economics and his first work was Primitive Economics of the New Zealand Maori (1926). When he moved to the London School of Economics he was influenced by Malinowski and turned to anthropology. He was the founder of British social anthropology, placing emphasis on empirical research in the field and the importance of the individual. He was among those who founded the Association of Social Anthropology. Over a long career he wrote 9 books on the Polynesian people of Tikopia. This oeuvre spanned from We the Tikopia: a Sociological Study of Kinship in Primitive Polynesia (1936) to Tikopia Songs (1990). He published a dictionary of the Tikopia language (1985). He implicitly criticised the structural functionalism of anthropology believing in the importance of personal choice. The emphasis on the human individual which accompanied his research separated him from Malinowski and marks his characteristic humanism.
He was Reader in anthropology at the LSE from 1935 and Professor from 1944 to his retirement in 1958. Not that retirement made any difference to his prodigious research and teaching. Many subsequent leading anthropologists learnt from him including Edmund Leach and Ernest Gellner. In his career at the LSE he transformed the subject of anthropology into a well-established subject with a full undergraduate and graduate programme. The breadth of his approach encompassed the study of peasant societies and of kinship in London.
His enormous achievement was recognised in being knighted and given many honorary degrees. Recently he became a Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit; at the time of his death the British Academy was planning to award him the first Leverhulme medal to be given to scholars of exceptional distinction in recognition of his 'outstanding and internationally acknowledged contributions to twentieth-century anthropology'.
Although (perhaps because) brought up a Methodist, he became a life-long rationalist. Characteristically his interests were broad and included Romanesque architecture and early music. His influence as a great scholar and humanist will long remain.
Raymond Firth published in his 96th year a book entitled Religion: a Humanist Interpretation (1996). He wrote in the opening chapter:
To an anthropologist such as myself, religion, including ideas of God, is clearly a human construct. It grows and is maintained by the wish to have answers to fundamental human problems. Religion supplies reasons for the forms of nature, for human existence. It faces questions of pain and suffering and the ultimate fate of the human personality. According to its particular tenets, it encourages love, charity and respect for others.
It can also provide a great pillar of strength, both by the alleged certainty of the proposition it proclaims, and by a body of faithful who support one another. But religion is a human art. It has produced, like other arts, some of the greatest literary and intellectual constructs, analyses of thought and emotion, and stirring aesthetic experiences of a creative order in painting, poetry and music. But it has also been treated as a ladder to personal and group advancement, as an instrument of manipulation in ideas and behaviour, the purveyor of ready-made solutions to traumatic issues of human conduct. In its corporate aspect, a church, it can be a sociological force of great impact. It can be of positive value in helping to maintain moral standards. But it can also offer a field for controversy about doctrine and ritual, for divisive sectarian activity and opposition. It can even act as a force of destruction, as violent collisions of religious wars have demonstrated in many faiths