Professor Alfred Stepan

The department is very sad to learn of the recent passing of Alfred Stepan, former Gladstone Professor of Government at Oxford and a widely respected figure in the study of politics.

Professor Archie Brown, friend and Emeritus Professor of Politics, writes:

One of the most outstanding political scientists to hold a professorship at Oxford, Alfred Stepan, died of cancer at his home in New York on 27 September 2017. He was aged 81. Al, who held the Gladstone Chair of Government with a Fellowship of All Souls, from 1996 to 1999, remained as active as ever until very recently, researching, writing and agreeing to requests for special lectures. At the time of his death – from cancer which developed rapidly – he was working on a book on Islam and democracy aimed at a much broader than purely political science readership, work he believed was especially needed with Donald Trump in the White House.

Al Stepan was a professor of political science at Yale until 1983 when he returned to Columbia, where he had gained his political science Ph.D., as Dean of the School of International and Public Affairs. Immediately before taking up his Oxford appointment, he was the first Rector and President of the Central European University in Budapest (1993-1996). When he left Oxford, it was for the Wallace S. Sayre Professorship of Government at Columbia where he became also the founder and Director of the Center for the Study of Democracy, Toleration and Religion.

Stepan’s books and articles on comparative politics (often in collaboration with Juan Linz) were exceptionally broad-ranging, perceptive and innovative. He began as a Latin Americanist, with a particular focus on Brazil and Peru, but the important book he published with Linz, Problems of Democratic Transition and Consolidation: Southern Europe, South America, and Post-Communist Europe (1996) was equally illuminating on Southern and Eastern Europe. An article he published on American politics, ‘Comparative Perspectives on Inequality and the Quality of Democracy in the United States’ in the APSA journal, Perspectives on Politics, Vol. 9, No. 4, 2011, added, as the retiring editor of that journal, Jeffrey C. Isaac, recently noted (‘Making America Great Again?’, Perspectives on Politics, Vol. 15, No. 3, 2017), much-needed understanding that the United States is a problematical polity among many and not ‘some exceptional “city on a hill”’.

Al Stepan wrote on many countries, but never in a desk-bound way. He visited frequently every country he wrote about and, when there, interviewed political actors from different parts of the ideological spectrum. He had endless intellectual curiosity and physical and mental energy. In recent years he made half a dozen or more visits to Tunisia and published a number of articles on that country where, notwithstanding its ‘difficult neighbourhood’, more of the democratic upsurge of the ‘Arab Spring’ survives than anywhere else. Among Stepan’s articles which emerged from this particular focus was his ‘Multiple but Complementary, Not Conflictual, Leaderships: The Tunisian Democratic Transition in Comparative Perspective’, Daedalus, Vol. 145, No. 3, 2016.

Al Stepan was elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1991 and, at the earliest possible moment after he became eligible through moving to Oxford, a Fellow of the British Academy in 1997. Among many other honours, he was in 2012 accorded the Karl Deutsch award (which is given out only once every three years) for exceptionally distinguished work in Comparative Politics. His three immediate predecessors were Juan Linz (2003), Charles Tilly (2006) and Giovanni Sartori (2009).

Stepan returned to Oxford frequently, especially to St Antony’s where he was an Honorary Fellow and had many friends. He will be hugely missed by them all.

For further appreciation of Alfred Stepan’s achievements, see Douglas Chalmers and Scott Mainwaring, Problems Confronting Contemporary Democracies: Essays in Honor of Alfred Stepan (2012) and Archie Brown, ‘Alfred Stepan and the Study of Comparative Politics’, Government and Opposition, Vol. 49, No. 2, 2014.