Obituary: Alfred Stepan

Alfred Stepan

Obituary: Alfred Stepan

28 September 2017

Author: Archie Brown, Emeritus Professor of Politics (University of Oxford) and Emeritus Fellow (St Antony’s College)

Professor Alfred Stepan

Alfred Stepan, who was one of the most outstanding political scientists of his generation, an  Honorary Fellow of St Antony’s and good friend of the College, died yesterday (27 September 2017) at his home in New York at the age of 81. His wife Nancy, son Adam, and daughter Tanya were with him when he died. Al (as he was known to all his friends) had been as active as ever until this summer when he was hit by fast-developing cancer. Up until his last few weeks he was working on a book on Islam and democracy, aimed at a readership broader than the political science profession, which he believed was all the more needed in the light of the pronouncements and policies of Donald Trump.

            Al Stepan’s first degree was at the University of Notre Dame, followed by PPE at Balliol. In quick succession, he was an assistant professor, associate professor and full professor of political science at Yale (at a time when it had the strongest Political Science department in the USA). In 1983 he returned to Columbia University, where he had gained his political science Ph.D., as Dean of the School of International and Public Affairs. A decade later he moved to Budapest to serve from 1993 until 1996 as the first Rector and President of the Central European University. Between 1996 and 1999 Al held the Gladstone Chair of Government at Oxford and a Fellowship of All Souls. During his all too brief Oxford years, he spent a lot of time at St Antony’s (where he had earlier been a Visiting Fellow in the 1978-79 academic year) and his meetings in this College and his seminars at All Souls are fondly remembered by many graduate students as exceptionally stimulating, even exciting, occasions. When Stepan left Oxford, it was for the Wallace S. Sayre Professorship of Government at Columbia where he became both the founder and Director of the Center for the Study of Democracy, Toleration and Religion.

            Stepan’s books and articles on comparative politics were exceptionally broad-ranging, perceptive and innovative. He began as a Latin Americanist, with a particular focus on Brazil and Peru, and he retained his strong interest in the area. The range of his intellectual curiosity and restless comparison became, however, quite exceptionally wide. The important book he co-authored with his great friend and frequent collaborator, Juan Linz, Problems of Democratic Transition and Consolidation: Southern Europe, South America, and Post-Communist Europe (1996) was just as illuminating on Southern and Eastern Europe as on the area of Stepan’s primary speciality. An article he published on American politics, ‘Comparative Perspectives on Inequality and the Quality of Democracy in the United States,’ in a journal of the American Political Science Association, Perspectives on Politics (Vol. 9, No. 4, 2011) attracted wide attention. The outgoing editor of that journal, Jeffrey C. Isaac, in a valedictory article published this month (‘Making America Great Again?’, Vol. 15, No. 3, 2017), noted that the Stepan and Linz contribution had enhanced a much-needed understanding that the United States was a problematical polity among many rather than ‘some exceptional “city on a hill”’.

            Al Stepan wrote on many countries, but never in a desk-bound way. He was a frequent visitor to the countries whose politics he studied. When there, he would ask probing questions of politicians and scholars who, before long, were asking Al for guidance, having become eager to draw on his own knowledge of how particular institutional arrangements had worked elsewhere. In recent years Stepan made half a dozen 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 the several scholarly articles which emerged from this particular focus was ‘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 as a result of his move to Oxford) a Fellow of the British Academy in 1997. His numerous other honours included the  2012 Karl Deutsch award from the International Political Science Association. This is given out only once every three years for exceptionally distinguished work in Comparative Politics. Stepan was following in the footsteps of scholars of similar eminence who received the Deutsch award - Juan Linz in 2003, Charles Tilly in 2006 and Giovanni Sartori (2009).

            Al Stepan returned to Oxford often – for conferences, to see friends, to consult scholars on questions that interested him, and to attend the annual Honorary Fellows’ Dinner at St Antony’s. For his many friends, not least in this College, his death is a great loss. He will be hugely missed, and to Nancy, Al’s children and grandchildren, for whom the loss is still greater, we extend our deepest sympathy.

For a much fuller 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. 

A longer obituary by Professor Brown can also be found on the British Academy website here, where it is available for download.





Tributes to Professor Al Stepan from his former students at Oxford

Jeff Kahn (MPhil Russian and East European Studies, 1994-1996, DPhil Politics 1999)

Professor of Law and Gerald J. Ford Research Fellow at Southern Methodist University, USA

Al Stepan was a force of nature.  To be in his company, even for a short time, was an exhilarating experience.  When his attention focused on you, the feeling was of being at the center of things with a trusted guide. 

I was one of the many, many graduate students around the world who experienced his whirlwind of thoughts, arguments, and telling anecdotes.  My first exposure was in 1995 or 1996, when he came to St. Antony’s College, Oxford, to speak at one of the Monday Night Seminars hosted each term by the Centre for Russian and East European Studies (as it was then called; I was a graduate student there working under the equally extraordinary guidance of Professor Archie Brown).  Speakers presented their work with different styles; some read from prepared texts, others flipped transparencies on overhead projectors (the analog era’s PowerPoint).  Even during the most interesting of these lectures, I’m sure mine were not the only thoughts occasionally drifting to the glass of wine always promised at meeting’s end.

Al Stepan’s Monday Night Seminar was different.  He practically bounced down the steps of the hall with a jaunt and a smile powered by an almost irrepressible eagerness to share his findings.  He came with no written lecture and no transparencies, just a three-inch, three-ring binder in which he carried the draft of his latest book (with Yale’s Juan Linz), Problems of Democratic Transition and Consolidation: Southern Europe, South America, and Post-Communist Europe (Johns Hopkins, 1996).  He shared stories from fieldwork and argued about theory and practice with the same energy and enthusiasm.  Agree or not, no one was thinking about the sherry. 

The Stepan whirlwind was not just experienced in large groups.  Its effects were also felt one on one.  But his calendar filled up quickly.  So it was not uncommon to meet in places other than his rooms at All Souls when he held the Gladstone Professorship of Government from 1996 to 1999.  I remember one afternoon when I was invited to the back garden of his home near the Maison Française on Norham Road to work through his comments inked all over one of my dissertation chapters.  All afternoon he worked with me, page after page thrust into my hands with his many suggestions (these were not phrased, I have to admit, as suggestions per se; I usually did what I was told, to my ultimate advantage).  At a certain point, Al pulled out a cigar but was visibly frustrated that he could find no matches.  I happened to have a book of matches in my coat pocket and handed them to him.  His face broke into a wide grin as he proclaimed me very well prepared for fieldwork.  I never told him the matches were there by accident. 

Although a former United States Marine, Al did not always seem to be a practical man in the everyday sense of the term.  When we prepared to leave his garden, I remember his wife, Dr. Nancy Leys Stepan, required that he check his pockets to make sure that he had his house keys and wallet with him.  He was very skilled, however, in the practical arts of academia.  At the late bar at St. Antony’s in the evening after a conference years later, Al asked me what I planned to do with the paper I had presented.  Well, I had promised it to the co-editors of a volume of collected work on the topic.  No, he commanded with a shake of his head, don’t wait for them.  Predicting years of delay waiting for the editing and publishing gears to turn, he urged me to send it out now as an article and update it later for the book.  Once again, I did as I was told and, of course, he was right again.  Five years passed between the article and that book chapter.

Al Stepan’s legacy extends beyond his many books and articles.  The careers he helped launch, guide, or encourage are underway throughout the world.  None of us will forget the time spent in his company.  He is greatly missed.


Tomila Lankina (DPhil Politics, 2001)

Professor, Department of International Relations, LSE

I received with great sadness the news of the death of Professor Alfred Stepan, a scholar who has made ground-breaking contributions to theorizing and empirical study of democratic change. I was extremely lucky to have been at Oxford not only at the time when I could benefit from the supervision of Professor Archie Brown, a leading specialist on Russia, but also during the few years that Professor Stepan served as Gladstone Chair of Government at All Souls College in 1996-1999.  Al—as he liked to be called—was then working on comparative federalism in the context of the democratization wave of the 1980s-1990s.  Al has done very much to enrich the intellectual life of students at Oxford, who, like me, were working on federalism and democratization. He was always happy to become an informal supervisor to students—I certainly count him as one of my key mentors at Oxford and the seminars we had with him at his office at All Souls college were some of my most memorable and lasting intellectual experiences I have had as a PhD student.

Al and I last met when he was on a brief stay in London earlier this year.  He and his wife Nancy asked me out for lunch in Hampstead Heath. As before, I was struck by Stepan’s boundless intellectual curiosity and energy—he told me about his trips to Tunisia and to Asia where lectured, mentored, gathered material for his latest book on Islam, and found inspiration for the many future intellectual endeavours that he was very much looking forward to.  In turn, I used this lunch—to use Al’s often-used expression—to “pick his brain” for my own book in progress.  I am forever grateful for the words of wisdom I received from both Nancy and Al during that memorable meal. 

One of Al’s greatest sources of pride were the literally dozens of books his students and mentees have published in the course of his academic career. After my last meeting with Al, I very much looked forward to sharing with him the intellectual excitement of bringing my book project to fruition. I will be proud to count my book among the many that have benefitted from Al’s words of wisdom.

Al will be greatly missed by his many students.


Claire Gordon (DPhil Politics, 1997)

Teaching Fellow in East European Politics, LSE

I was saddened to hear about the recent death of Al Stepan. Though I only had a few brief and fortuitous encounters with Al Stepan while a D.Phil student at St Antony’s College in Oxford University, he had a profound effect on my intellectual development, on my journey away from being a deeply rooted area studies Soviet/Russian specialist to becoming a comparative political scientist.

In the third year of my PhD under the supervision of Archie Brown, I had the good fortune to attend a term of co-led seminars in the hallowed rooms of All Soul’s where Al Stepan had been appointed Gladstone Chair of Government. This was in the mid-1990s when Russia was grappling with its post-Soviet inheritance and the prospects of a further fragmentation of the Russian Federation was a real prospect. Archie Brown and Al Stepan conducted the seminars with enthusiasm and thoughtfulness, generously opening up space for discussion, critique and analytical development for our cohort of doctoral students. For me it was eye-opening to hear Al Stepan modelling the comparative method drawing comparisons with Indian federalism to shed light on the situation in Russia. It was during these brief hours that I truly understood for the first time the affordances of the comparative method in political science.

I became further acquainted with the work of Al Stepan as I assumed an academic role at the LSE and found myself drawing on his seminal 1996 work Problems of Democratic Transition and Consolidation(co-authored with Juan Linz) in my teaching and his insights based on the study of comparative transitions with their broad comparative sweep enabled me to encourage my own students to see their application in a regional context. Al touched the lives of so many budding young academics through his encouragement, enthusiasm and scholarship. He will be greatly missed.