The ASA is delighted to make its annual Firth lectures available online. Use the buttons below to read the lecture abstracts, watch the video recordings and download fulltext PDFs.
The Firth Lecture series is named for Sir Raymond William Firth CNZM FRAI FBA (1901-2002) a renowned pakeha anthropologist from Aotearoa and founding member of the ASA. He was among the earliest doctoral students of Bronislaw Malinowski and was part of a cohort at the London School of Economics that included Isaac Schapera and E.E. Evans-Pritchard. Firth drew upon his prior training in economics to make several significant contributions to both the sub-field of economic anthropology and to the anthropology of Oceania. His most significant works include the ethnographic monograph ‘We the Tikopia’, the first of nine books he would author about the people of that island, and the textbook ’Elements of Social Organisation’. He was also an early contributor to the anthropology of Malaysia and Britain through the ethnographic monograph ‘Malay Fishermen’ and the co-authored volume ‘Two Studies of Kinship in London’ respectively. Firth spent the bulk of his career at the LSE where he mentored generations of anthropologists including Kenneth Little, Eslanda Goode Robeson, and W.E.H. Stanner.
According to the then ASA committee chair Richard Fardon the Firth Lecture series has its origins in the Firth Centenary Appeal. The appeal was launched in March of 2001 and was inaugurated with a gift of £10,000 from Sir Raymond himself on behalf of his wife, the anthropologist Lady Rosemary Firth. These funds were combined with the already existing Wesley Firth Fund, which was named for Firth’s father. The intention was that the Fund’s resources were to be used towards support of outstanding applicants to the Radcliffe-Brown Fund, the occasional support of a lecture, and for any other purpose that the ASA Committee thought appropriate. Thus, for example, in 2003 some of the funds were, fittingly, donated to the Tikopia Appeal following the devastating hurricane.
The inaugural Firth lecture was organised by the ASA committee and given by Nicholas Thomas in March 2002 at SOAS. Thomas was chosen because the committee believed that his research might be of interest to Firth, but, sadly, Firth died in the month before the lecture was given. Since then, the Firth lecture has been given annually, usually at the ASA annual conference. A list of Firth lectures, and many of the lectures delivered, can be found below.
2023: Nayanika Mookherjee (Durham University) - Irreconciliation and its divergences
In Denktagebuch (Thought Diaries, 1950-1973) Hannah Arendt wrote that acts which cannot be forgiven are beyond punishment and hence cannot be reconciled to. In this annual 2023 Firth lecture, I draw from Arendt to further theorize and extend the concept of irreconciliation and reflect on the lessons that we can learn from it. Following Raymond Firth’s focus on individual divergences as a source of social change rather than social organizations, I reflect critically on the interdisciplinary scholarship on reconciliation, apology and forgiveness and theorise irreconciliation as a less examined lens of analysis through which such change can be aspired for. Most post-conflict reconciliatory exercises make it incumbent upon survivors to forgive and seek closure as an exhibition of ‘moving on’. Rather than being in opposition to ‘peace’, irreconciliation instead allows us to interrogate the status quo by refusing to forgive endemic impunities, particularly in the aftermath of staged processes of justice and absence-presence of the rule of law. Drawing from Firth’s exposition on social organisation and behaviour, his work on the Naval Intelligence Report and kinship in Europe, I will try to explore the political and psychic potentials that might lie dormant in the phenomenon of irreconciliation. As an ethnographically less examined phenomenon (which doesn’t just provide critique), I argue that irreconciliation allows an important examination of the rule of law within processes of unresolved genocidal injustices, debates relating to the ‘enslaved’, Black Lives Matter, institutional responses and might offer some possibilities for an engaged anthropology in these troubled times.
2022: David Mills (University of Oxford) - Unlearning Anthropology
Abstract: What does it mean to unlearn anthropology? Amidst calls to decolonise and transform universities, does unlearning help us understand how imperial pasts shape our disciplines and institutions today? I use Raymond Firth’s vivid description of social anthropologists as a ‘band of brothers’ to open up these questions. His Shakespearian allusion evoked a close-knit intellectual fraternity spread across the British empire and its ‘dominions’. He used his organisational skills and scholarly vocation to assemble the discipline of social anthropology in a colonial university world. Its contested legacies remain with us, shaping academic affiliations, institutions and identities. What forms of disciplinary unlearning best untangle these colonial presences and affects?
2021: Aparecida Vilaça (Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro) - The paradox of the long term: human evolution and entanglement
Abstract: Beginning with some recent reflections of Amazonian peoples concerning the animal origin of infection by Covid-19, I intend to discuss human-animal relations, which in this ethnographic region are based on a mythology that presupposes an indiscernibility between different types of beings. The sociocultural transformations arising from contact, especially Christianization, a theme central to Firth’s work, will allow us to approach this topic from another angle, revealing some of the paths taken by the response-ability of these peoples to changes.
2019: Anne Stoler (The New School for Social Research) - Colonial disorders past and present: some planetary considerations
Abstract: In our current fraught – fiercely inequitable and environmentally precarious-- world order, colonialism – as process, as condition, as situation, as metaphor, and as a shorthand for injustice-- is invoked in a set of both intensely familiar and wholly new ways: at once as a regrettable history to be acknowledged and as decidedly over; increasingly as the logic underpinning a contemporary array of brutal forms of governance (either understood as colonial vestige or reinvention), and not infrequently as a dark diagnostic of where the world is heading on a planetary scale.
In this latter scenario, colonialism extends as a multiplex phenomenon: as imminent proliferating condition, as warning, and as strategic accusation. Naming here is a political practice, part of an alert system on a new scale. And the alert is pointed: to intensified, accelerated differentiations, manifest in ever uglier, blatant forms of expulsions, erasures, and selective dispossibilities. These rival those licit and illicit entwined networks that conferred the right to kill “to defend society” at another time, always imagined as exceptions and urgencies but never on an imperial wide scale. Today the accretions are seen to be new, more encompassing, a division of the earth as empire with sites of damage and reward, precarity and safety, vulnerability and security marking out a clarity of catastrophic differentiation and difference that has never been seen before.
How well does our collective concept-work measure up to grappling with this crescendo? How well does it reckon with metaphoric strategies developed to address physical and psychic damage and long delayed political claims? And how much are state systems dependent on producing internal enemies of their own making? Are those quasi citizens and non-citizens, rendered as the interior frontiers of the polis, the underside of a new imperial logic and division of the world?
This presentation offers an uneasy pause at this conjuncture to consider what these varied sorts of attention to, around and on the edges of “the colonial” politically entail? Do they signal the urgent quest for a more active, vivid conceptual grammar or a more acutely accurate one? Might we treat the range of scenarios and their affective politics as in itself a new measure of a spatial and temporal set of dissonances, a world out of sync with the temporalities in which we think and write? Could one argue that the colonial call does not hark back to Fanon but registers an awkward and only partially effective move: a brazenly non-disciplinary dissent from the disorder and discrepancies of choice, resources, possibilities that the carceral archipelago of empire imposes and that the “the carte blanche” of capital confers on some, insuring that wars over communitas in the idiom of immunitas will continue to shape how, where, and who constitutes the “we” with whom we live.
2018: Ian Hodder (Stanford University) - The paradox of the long term: human evolution and entanglement
Abstract: Over recent decades many archaeologists have eschewed evolutionary theories, and in doing so they have turned away from the identification of long-term trends that are of great relevance to present-day matters of concern. In particular, there is clear evidence for an overall long-term increase in the amount of human-made material and associated human-thing entanglements, an increase tied up with environmental impact and global inequalities. The directionality of these long-term changes is clear and yet evolutionary theory largely eschews notions of overall directional change. This paradox and its implications are the subject of this talk, with the suggestion made that, for human evolution at least, notions of directionality and path dependence need to be embraced, with concomitant changes in human evolutionary theory, and with implications for environmental and social policy.
2017: James Scott (Yale University) - Against the grain: a deep history of the earliest agrarian states
Abstract: The first evidence of domesticated grains appears at least four millennia before anything like agrarian societies based on cultivation appear and even longer before the first identifiable states pop into view on the southern Mesopotamian alluvium. These two facts challenge the implicit standard narrative of plant domestication being the spark that sets Homo sapiens on the beneficent and royal road to sedentary civilization. This account of the earliest states explores the advantages of mobile forms of subsistence, the unforeseeable epidemic diseases arising from the crowding of plants, animals, and grain, and the reasons why all early states were based on millets and cereal grains as a basic subsistence and tax crop. Why have rice, wheat, barley, maize and millet dominated state-formation virtually everywhere? Why, in other words, have there been no cassava, potato, yam, lentil, chickpea or banana states (banana republics don’t count!)? It contends that high mortality and flight led to “wars of capture” and unfree labor in the early states and to fragile polities liable to frequent collapse. The process leading to the first agrarian states may be seen as an accumulation of domestications: of fire, of plants, of livestock, of state subjects, and, finally, of women in the patriarchal family. Each domestication must be seen as gaining control over the reproduction of the life form in question.
2016: Laura Bear (London School of Economics) - Time as Technique
Abstract: A rapproachement between the anthropology of history and the anthropology of capitalism has created a temporal turn. This has generated new theories of the times of capitalist modernity and vectors of inequality. Yet, so far, research has been divided into three separate streams of inquiry. Work addresses either the techne (techniques), episteme (knowledge) or phronesis (ethics) of time, following traditions in the social sciences derived from Aristotelian categories. This talk explores the potential and limits of such distinctions. It also traces contemporary dominant representations and experiences of time such as short-term market cycles; the anticipatory futures of the security state; and precarity. It follows how time-maps are assembled into technologies of imagination with associated material practices. In conclusion, it proposes a new theoretical vista on time for anthropology based on the heuristic of timescapes. Within timescapes, techniques, knowledges and ethics of time conjoin in the mediating labor in/of time carried out by individuals and collectivities. This is better captured by the myth of the Indian deity, Vishwakarma, than that of the Greek God, Prometheus. Vishwakarma, the god of craft and iron-working, brought the entirety of space, time and the world into being by sacrificing himself to himself. His sphere of action is not circumscribed to an arena apart from epistemes and phronesis. Here is an image of techne, creative making, that does not follow in the Greek tradition of Aristotelian distinctions that have shaped anthropological approaches to time.
2015: Anna Tsing (University of California, Santa Cruz) - In the midst of disturbance: symbiosis, coordination, history, landscape
Abstract:: “Symbiotic anthropology” - the subject of this conference - has both metaphorical and material objects, and I aim to address both in drawing attention to earthy botanical symbioses as these create landscape assemblages. (Yes, there will be mushrooms.) Honoring the legacy of Raymond Firth, I will show how field observations can be the basis of theory building - including the creative transdisciplinary exercises necessary to rethink the human within multispecies worlds. Firth’s legacy can take us, too, to formalist-substantivist debates in contemporary biology, in which neoDarwinism and “ecoevodevo” contest the meaning of symbiosis as “rational choice” or “symbiopoiesis,” respectively. Such debates challenge us to watch symbiosis in action, as it assembles more-than-human socialities. Drawing on Matsutake Worlds Research Group fieldwork in the anthropogenic woodlands of southwest China and central Japan, I will attempt to conjure landscapes in the friction of symbiosis, coordination, and history. Landscapes are social-natural enactments of world-making. Following their emergence opens a symbiotic anthropology that builds theory from the details of everyday life.
2014: Marilyn Strathern (University of Cambridge) - Becoming enlightened about relations
Abstract: Some sixty years ago Raymond Firth thought it necessary to point out that social relations could not be seen by the ethnographer, they could only be inferred from people’s interactions. Abstraction was necessary. -- Others have thought making concrete was the problem, and resorted instead to personification. -- At the same time Firth unproblematically talked of relations in the abstract when he was comparing (for example) economic and moral standards. The issues would have not been unfamiliar to Hume, and other luminaries of the Scottish Enlightenment, who dwelt on the power of relations in (human) understanding and (scholarly) narrative, as well interpersonal empathy. At this early stage of the conference, it seems appropriate to evoke an antecedent period in the European Enlightenment at large, among other things for its interest in narratives of the ‘unknown’. We also find in this epoch some peculiarities in the English language that many Scots were making their own. These usages thicken the plot as far as ‘relations’ in the eighteenth century go, with implications that still tease us.
2013: Prof Lourdes Arizpe (National Autonomous University of Mexico) - Arbitrating collective dreams: anthropology and the new worlding
Abstract: The theme of this lecture is the role of anthropology as the world reconstructs the foundational concepts of being human, living together and finding global solutions. I address this issue in the light of my own past experience as an academic working in UNESCO with diplomats and politicians, and in terms of my recent research on cultural pluralism, intangible cultural heritage and identities in a global context, which I use to provide a final ethnographic exemplification of some of the points that I am making. I also link my analysis directly to parts of the work by Raymond Firth on human types, dreams and religion, and, in particular, the Humanist Manifesto II, to which he was a signatory and which I, too, signed as a student at LSE.
2012: Ghassan Hage (University of Melbourne) - The transnational family as an aesthetic field
Abstract: This paper begins with two questions: does a transnational family have a culture? and, to what extent is it manifested or located in the aesthetic domain ? Based on fieldwork among a Lebanese family spread between Lebanon, Venezuela, US and Australia, this paper uses the analytic observation of a number of family gatherings to examine the way the family operates as a space structured by aesthetic differences, and as a field of gendered strategies of national and class distinction. It is argued that while the aesthetic dimension can be an expression of these differences, and can therefore highlights divisions grounded in different social locations and power relations within the family, the aesthetic is also an autonmous field where the family has a different mode of existence outside such power relations which produce a unified sense of familial space.
2011: Tim Ingold (University of Aberdeen) - Walking with dragons: an anthropological excursion on the wild side
Abstract: Contemporary scientists often compare the natural world to a book whose contents can be read by those with the requisite expertise. There is indeed a parallel in the modern constitution between the book of nature and the nature of the book. For mainstream science the division between what there is and what we know seems self-evident; the problem lies in reaching an accommodation between them. I argue, however, that the opposite is true. The hard thing is to force a rupture between the existence of a world and the possibility of our knowing it. Moving through the world rather than roaming its surface, our knowledge is not built up on the outside of our earthly being but unfolds from the inside. We grow into the world, as the world grows in us. Perhaps this grounding of knowing in being is key to the kind of sensibility we call ‘religious’. It is because of the way it subverts the effort to divide knowing from being that religious sensibility seems to collide with objective science. For science turns the relation between knowing and being inside out. This inversion has silenced both nature and the book. Drawing on studies of medieval monasticism and of indigenous peoples, with particular reference to encounters with other-than-human beings, I suggest an alternative way of reading which allows us to take counsel from the voices of the pages and of the world around us, and to heal the rupture between the world and our imagination of it.
2010: Vincent Crapanzano (CUNY) - Contortions of forgiveness: betrayal, abandonment, and narrative entrapment among the Harkis. This will be included in the ASA monograph from the 2010 conference, published by Berg. More info on our monograph series go here.
Abstract: Triggered by research on the Harkis, I explore the social dynamics and mental gymnastics of apology, forgiveness, and revenge and their consequences. The Harkis are Algerians, around 250,000, who served as auxiliary troops for the French during the Algerian War of Independence and who were refused entry to France at the war’s end. Within months, as many as 150,000 were slaughtered by the Algerian population at large. Most Harkis who managed to escape to France were interned, some for sixteen years, in camps and forestry hamlets. They have demanded recognition of the sacrifices they made for France, compensation for their losses, and an apology for their abandonment. Although the French have given them recognition and some compensation, they have not apologized. What are the consequences of this refusal? Would the Harkis accept an apology? Would their refusal to forgive be their vengeance? I argue that France’s failure to apologize perpetuates the Harkis’ identity and entraps them in their story. Are apology, forgiveness, and vengeance simply forms of social etiquette? Or, do they require inner transformation (say, contrition)? Or, is inner transformation simply rhetorical? By contrasting inter-personal forgiveness and political apology I call attention to how articulating collective dynamics in terms of mental ones can legitimate political acts. In part, this possibility lies in the asymmetrical relationship between apology by proxy (i.e. by a representative who speaks for the collectivity) and its reception by individual members of the collectivity. In part it rests on the variable value societies give to inner life
2009: Tapati Guha-Thakurta (Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Calcutta) - Careers of the copy: simulating sites and monuments in colonial and post-colonial India
Abstract: It is an aphorism of our times that we are living in the age of the copy. The notion of this age stretches backwards in time to different nodal points in modernity when new technologies of reproduction invested the duplicate and double with the full powers of substituting the original, and allowed it a mobility and circulation that gave it a life far in excess of its authorizing source. But it also keeps hurtling towards a present that is connoted by the unruliness and ungovernability of the copy, in the way it tends to completely extricate itself from its referent, subvert its authority and become a sign only of itself. A capacity for limitless proliferation, ingenious improvisations and transplantation in different settings becomes the contemporary hallmarks of the copy. In this paper, I will be focusing on architectural replicas and recreations, and on the kinds of travels they embark on in India's colonial and contemporary histories. In keeping with the theme of this conference, I will treat the monumental replica as a central entity that has sustained, over time, the popular imaginaries of the disciplines of archaeology and anthropology, and has served as the grounds on which professional knowledges came to be configured within new public domains of display and spectatorship. I will also use the divergent forms, claims and aspirations of these fabrications as a way of marking out their post-colonial careers from their colonial pasts – and as a way of distinguishing the popular from the official, the regional from the national, the local from the global trends of replications.
2008: Prof Janice Boddy (University of Toronto) - Anthropology and the Civilizing Mission in Colonial Sudan
Abstract: The Anglo-Egyptian Sudan was a crucible of anthropology. Not only the place where several notable figures did path-breaking research, it was also one of the contexts in which the contribution of ethnography to administration was assayed. The lecture examines the assumptions behind ethnographic information-gathering and practice during Sudan's colonial period, from the first Wellcome expeditions at the turn of the 20th century, through the founding of Sudan Notes and Records in 1919, Dame Margery Perham's description of colonial officers as "unconscious anthropologists," and the different methods adopted by scholars to understand Muslim and non-Muslim Sudanese.