In praise of Sir Raymond Firth (1)
A few years ago, while working on a chapter in my PhD thesis relating to the ritual significance
of the Torres Islands stone ovens (L-T: gwe), I ran into the unabridged first edition (1936) of We, the Tikopia. To my astonishment, I discovered that
for much of the opening descriptions in the book Sir Raymond went on and on about ovens, cooking and -most importantly- the various roles that diverse people played in the construction of ovens and the cooking process. In his words:
Cooked food has a direct bearing on kinship in that so many obligations are fulfilled in terms of food, and to some extent the nature and quality of the dish are indices of the timbre, as it may be called, of the relationship. (We, the Tikopia, 1967: 103)
If I haven’t lost you yet, the points I want to make here are twofold.
First, as I have discovered over the course of several field trips to the Torres, many of the key moments of ritual exchange in North Vanuatu (and across the broader North Van-South East Sols region) are intimately related not only to cooking, but to the full process of constructing a stone oven, cooking the relevant food, and finally, distributing the kakae. In effect, it is clear to me that ovens are inseparable from, and indeed function as key indices for, the manner in which relationships – both ritualised and quotidian- play themselves out in local and regional socioscapes. This much was clear to Firth himself, who, when describing the “principal avenues” of his approach to kinship, mentioned biography, residence, linguistics, material culture, and what he referred to as “the alimentary approach”.
Old Oceania hands will realise that I’m not saying anything new here. Nevertheless, as Pat Kirch and Roger Green pointed out some time ago,
“The comparative ethnography of food is a neglected topic.” They also noted that “Perhaps only in Firth’s classic, We, the Tikopia is the entire process from lighting the earth oven to the consumption of the family meal exquisitely detailed”, but mentioned that “Inexplicably, the fascinating section detailing Tikopian recipes was eliminated from the later, paperback edition now read by students.”
The second point I wanted to make, and that I suppose will come up again in future references to Firth, is the exquisite style of ethnographic narrative that is to be found throughout his ouvre. His was a careful, meticulous, and sometimes even lyrical form of description; importantly, it was rendered in such a way that the analysis never really got in the way of the descriptive flow, thereby making for quite a page-turner (at least in my eyes), by which I mean a very lengthy, but ultimately fluid, sort of ethnographic text. More importantly, to one familiar with the context of Melanesian anthropology, the richness of his ethnographic descriptions and insights in We, the Tikopia are all the more impressive when one considers that the first and original period of fieldwork from which that book emerged lasted only for twelve months. Certainly I speak for myself when I say that many of Firth’s first observations carry a sensibility regarding the nuances of local cosmology and values which I have only begun to experience after four return trips to the Torres Islands (from which, incidentally, one can spy Tikopia on a REALLY clear day…if standing on the top of the highest rise on Hiw island).
In sum, I do believe that Firth’s writings offer a tidy exemplar of what a rich, theoretically unobtrusive and careful ethnographic narrative can be – so long as it is supported by equally penetrating powers of observation and synthesis while in the field. I also suspect that some of the freshness in this style of anthropological writing has sometimes been lost to the excessively self-reflexive precautions of poststructural strategies of writing and reading. But here I realise that I am getting into potentially hot water, and since that is a whole other kettle of bonito, as it were, I will end this post simply by inviting those of you who might have an interest in anthro topics to take some time out to reread (or discover for the first time) the work of this most distinguished predecessor of Oceanic studies.