Ralph O’Reilly Piddington was born on 19 February 1906 in Sydney, Australia, the son of Albert Bathurst Piddington, a barrister and later judge, and his wife, Marion Louisa O’Reil'ly, a eugenist writer and lecturer. He enrolled at the University of Sydney in 1925 and graduated BA in 1928, majoring in psychology and studying anthropology from 1926 under A. R. Radcliffe-Brown. On 23 February 1929, in Sydney, he married Marjorie Eileen Barnes.
Piddington worked as assistant psychologist at the Australian Institute of Industrial Psychology in 1929. Funded by field-work grants, in 1930–31 he carried out research among the Karadjeri (Garadjari) people of north-west Australia, investigating traditional social organisation and administering psychological tests, for which he trained at the University of Hawaii in 1931. He graduated MA (Sydney) with first-class honours in psychology and anthropology in 1932 and was awarded a Rockefeller Foundation fellowship for study overseas.
However, Piddington’s keen sense of justice brought him into conflict with authority. In 1930 he had reported abuses in the treatment of Aborigines in north-west Australia to the chief protector of Aborigines. When his charges were dismissed, he repeated them in a Sydney newspaper in 1932. He was censured by the Australian National Research Council, who retracted promises of future support.
That year Piddington took up his Rockefeller fellowship at the London School of Economics and Political Science. He studied under Bronislaw Malinowski and wrote a thesis on ‘Culture and neurosis’, graduating PhD in 1936. He then edited the papers of Pacific anthropologist R. W. Williamson, and worked for several years as a lecturer and keeper of the anthropology museum at the University of Aberdeen. His first marriage having been dissolved, Piddington married Marjorie Idris Carr, an Australian actress, in London on 14 November 1936.
During the Second World War he served in the British Army as a psychologist (1941–44) and in the Australian Army School of Civil Affairs, training administrators to work in New Guinea (1944–46). He then returned to Britain as reader in anthropology at the University of Edinburgh, where he wrote a textbook; it was published in 1950 (a second volume followed in 1957). In October 1949 he accepted the chair in anthropology at Auckland University College.
Arriving in Auckland in September 1950 with his wife and son, Piddington tackled the establishment of a new anthropology department with vision and energy, undeterred by conservative opposition. Although he was a social anthropologist, he faithfully carried out the college council’s directive to cover the whole field. In the 1950s he launched the teaching of social anthropology, Maori studies, physical anthropology, prehistory and linguistics, and presided over the development of all branches to postgraduate level. Dignified, courteous and firm, he supported staff members in their specialties, involved them in departmental decision-making and set the tone of a friendly, challenging and effective department.
Piddington extended the focus on small-scale traditional societies to include studies in peasant and complex societies, prescribed a wide range of texts, emphasised field work, highlighted issues of change as well as stability, and supported graduates doing field work in New Zealand as well as overseas. He fostered a network of international contacts, secured funding from overseas foundations, hosted a stream of Fulbright fellows and arranged for visiting scholars to give lectures and meet students socially in his home.
Active in supporting Maori aspirations, Piddington started the teaching of Maori language immediately and led the fight for approval to advance its study past first-year level. He helped the first Maori studies lecturer to gain a doctorate overseas and to establish a language laboratory on his return. Piddington and his staff nurtured increasing numbers of Maori students and in 1953 he sponsored a Maori research conference.
A gifted teacher, Piddington communicated his passionate belief in anthropology and its relevance in carefully crafted lectures, made memorable by a fund of jokes. His two-volume textbook reflected an acute perception of student needs. Stressing the importance of theory to field work, he used Malinowski’s ideas and elaborated aspects of them in his own way; in teaching, he tended to study other theories through his own lens. Though limited in some respects and marginalised by later theoretical developments, his approach provided students and field workers with sound basic principles and illuminating insights.
While on leave Piddington made field trips to investigate French-Canadian kinship (1957 and 1962) and revisited the Karadjeri in 1967. In 1965 he edited a special kinship issue of the Canadian International Journal of Comparative Sociology. He valued the practical applications of anthropology. He planned courses for administrators working in New Zealand and the Pacific, but the government declined funding. From its development in the 1950s he was an enthusiastic proponent of ‘action anthropology’, which aimed to empower indigenous and minority groups to make their own decisions.
Piddington wrote many papers for New Zealand conferences and journals, often challenging current orthodoxy. His presentation at the Royal Society of New Zealand’s Seventh Science Congress in 1951 dismissed current reconstructions of Polynesian origins and migrations as unscholarly in method and emphasised the importance of the study of living communities. At an Australasian conference in 1957 he argued that colonised peoples (such as Maori) did not simply abandon their own ways to adopt introduced ones, but developed new forms out of traditional practices in a process he called emergent development. He identified the relationship between Maori and Pakeha in New Zealand as one of cultural symbiosis, where two groups live together in close interdependence while maintaining different cultural features and values. These ideas were hailed by Maori leaders as validation of their own plans, but ignored by government officials working to assimilate Maori into mainstream society. The Royal Society recognised his contribution to New Zealand science with the Hector Memorial Medal and Prize in 1962 and his election as a fellow in 1963.
When declining health shadowed his last years as professor, Piddington was supported loyally by colleagues. He retired on 31 January 1972 as professor emeritus, leaving the Anthropology Department firmly established and widely respected. He died at Takapuna on 8 July 1974, survived by his wife and son. In 1979 the Anthropology Department’s library was formally named the Piddington Room in his memory.