Firth, Raymond

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FIRTH, RAYMOND . Raymond Firth (19012002) was born in New Zealand and grew up in a rural area on the edge of Auckland. He attended Auckland Grammar School, where, at the age of fourteen, he found a copy of F. E. Maning's Old New Zealand, which, he said, laid a foundation for his interest in the indigenous Polynesian people of New Zealand, the Maori. As a schoolboy he also discovered the Journal of the Polynesian Society in the Auckland Public Library, became a reader, and later a contributor. In 1925 he published an article in the journal on a Maori pa site, and seventy-six years later, at the age of one hundred, an article by him on Tikopia dreams was published in the same journal.

Growing up in New Zealand, Firth had Maori friends and learned their language, which helped him acquire fluency in the cognate language of Tikopia, where he later carried out anthropological fieldwork. His interest in Maori ritual and belief laid a foundation for his later work on religion in Tikopia.

In 1921 Firth graduated in economics from what was then Auckland University College, and in 1924 he wrote a masters thesis on the kauri gum industry. He arrived at the London School of Economics in 1924 to work towards a doctorate in economics, intending to focus his work on the frozen meat industry in New Zealand. However, he came under the influence of the then professor of social anthropology Bronislaw Malinowski and changed the direction of his work. His thesis, Primitive Economics of the New Zealand Maori, was published in 1929.

In 1928 Firth set out for Tikopia, a small Polynesian outlier in the Solomon Islands, where he would carry out his first truly anthropological fieldwork. He would return to the island several times. His publications about Tikopia provide a corpus of work about a small preliterate society that is probably unrivaled, comprising nine books and some one hundred articles. His ethnography of the island, We, the Tikopia (1936), has been reprinted many times. It introduces Firth's analysis of traditional Polynesian religion, which he developed in later publications, including The Work of the Gods in Tikopia (1940), History and Traditions of Tikopia (1960), Tikopia Ritual and Belief (1967), and Rank and Religion in Tikopia (1970).

Firth has provided a unique record of traditional Polynesian religious thought and practice. In general, missionization of the Pacific had been successfully carried out on the majority of island groups, beginning in the early 1800s. Therefore, a record of traditional beliefs often remained only in the journals of early missionaries, who regarded as benighted or inferior the religions they were replacing with Christianity. Tikopia escaped the earliest onslaught of missionaries because of its isolation. The Tikopia themselves were also extremely resistant to outside intrusion and successfully kept both missionaries and colonial government at bay until the early 1900s.

The first missionary to settle on the island in the 1920s was not European; he was a man from the Banks Islands working for the Melanesian Mission (Church of England). This man, Pa Pangisi, later married a Tikopia woman, and his more sympathetic view of traditional beliefs probably contributed to the fact that by the time Firth carried out his first fieldwork in Tikopia, fewer than half the inhabitants of the island had converted to Christianity, and only one of the four chiefs had done so. Firth, therefore, had the opportunity to record ritual practices firsthand, and his excellent knowledge of the language allowed him to translate the allusive and complex words of the various rituals.

Firth himself had been brought up a Methodist and taught Sunday school as a young man, but at the London School of Economics his opinions changed to a humanistic rationalism and he regretted the proselytization of Tikopia. In We, the Tikopia he wrote, "what justification can be found for this steady pressure to break down the customs of a people against whom the main charge is that their gods are different from ours?" (1936, p. 50). His sympathy and respect for the customs of Tikopia persuaded the chiefs of the island to share their ritual knowledge with him, and they later recalled Firth's distaste for the missionary habit of referring to traditional beliefs and paraphernalia as "things of darkness."

On return visits to the island in 1952 and 1966, Firth was able to record Tikopia's final conversion to Christianity. Social Change in Tikopia (1958) records the pragmatic decisions taken by the remaining three pagan chiefs, which led to all non-Christian Tikopia (with the exception of one old woman) converting to Melanesian Mission practice.

After Firth's initial period of fieldwork, he served as acting professor at Sydney University from 1930 to 1932, after which he returned to the London School of Economics, where he became a lecturer (19321935), reader (1935), and professor (in 1944). He remained there, with brief interruptions, until his retirement in 1968. While Tikopia remained central to his publications, he also carried out fieldwork in Malaya and in London, as well as writing more generally on topics of theoretical and anthropological interest. He received many honors during his long and distinguished career: he was knighted in 1973 and appointed Companion, New Zealand Order of Merit, in 2001. In 2002 the British Academy announced it was awarding him the first Leverhulme medal to be given to scholars of exceptional distinction in recognition of his "outstanding and internationally acknowledged contributions to 20th century anthropology." Raymond Firth died in February 2002.


Firth, Raymond. We, the Tikopia: A Sociological Study of Kinship in Primitive Polynesia. London, 1936.

Firth, Raymond. The Work of the Gods in Tikopia. London, 1940; 2d ed., 1967.

Firth, Raymond. The Fate of the Soul: An Interpretation of Some Primitive Concepts. Cambridge, UK, 1956.

Firth, Raymond. Social Change in Tikopia: Re-study of a Polynesian Community after a Generation. London, 1958.

Firth, Raymond. History and Traditions of Tikopia. Wellington, New Zealand, 1960.

Firth, Raymond. "The Spirits Depart." New Society 11 (1966): 683685.

Firth, Raymond. Tikopia Ritual and Belief. London, 1967.

Firth, Raymond. Rank and Religion in Tikopia: A Study in Polynesian Paganism and Conversion to Christianity. London, 1970.

Judith Macdonald (2005)