The University Record, September 16, 1998

Obituary

Sharon K. Stephens

The discipline of anthropology and the profession of social work lost a unique presence and a beloved colleague with the death from cancer of Sharon Stephens on June 17. She was 46.

Born in Walla Walla, Wash., and educated in the Seattle area, Stephens was both an undergraduate and graduate student at the University of Chicago, where she received her Ph.D. in anthropology in 1984. After teaching at the Johns Hopkins University, she became an assistant professor of anthropology at the University of Chicago, where she taught in 1987-93. Taking a position at the Norwegian Centre for Child Research in Trondheim, Norway, in 1993, Stephens subsequently joined the faculty of the U-M in 1995 as an assistant professor of anthropology and of social work.

A foremost ethnographer of the northern Scandinavian Sami (Lapps), Stephens devoted her early work to exploring the articulation of systemic cultural transformations with historical transitions in Sami economic orders. This mode of analysis was exemplified in her Ideology and Everyday Life in Sami (Lapp) History (1986), which questioned the wisdom of making unmediated connections between preconceived realms of material practice and ideological structure. The Chernobyl reactor accident in April 1986 catastrophically transformed Sami life, however, and its aftereffects increasingly compelled Stephens to participate in public intellectual life. While pursuing a range of scholarly activities, she also wrote a series of articles on Chernobyl and the Sami for publications such as Natural History, Not Man Apart (Friends of the Earth), and Cultural Survival Quarterly.

Her engagement with environmental issues intensified when she joined the Norwegian Centre for Child Research in 1993. As director of the Centre's International Children and Environment Program, Stephens organized and facilitated a remarkable number of major international conferences on children in a global context. Many of these symposia focused on documenting the effect of radiation on the lives of children throughout the world, and her work on this subject will be published posthumously.

Stephens' scholarship broke completely new ground in what is still the nascent field of the anthropology of children. Recognizing that children constitute yet another realm of difference and marginality, Stephens devoted her considerable political and intellectual energies to thinking about children and the risks they both face and signify in the late 20th century. Indeed, her edited volume Children and the Politics of Culture (1996) has become the standard collection in this area, and her lengthy introductory essay, "Children and the Politics of Culture in 'Late Capitalism,'" is exemplary for its synthesizing vision and its ever-thoughtful questioning of the categories-of politics, of culture, of "the child" itself-that make up the received landscape of social scientific work on children.

Stephens was continuing her important work on children at the University and was actively involved in a long-term research project on the internationalization of child research. In keeping with her idea of making a difference, she created and taught a class on environmental justice and social welfare in the School of Social Work. She was known by her students as the most generous and caring of teachers. For all who knew Sharon Stephens, her singular qualities of mind, extraordinary integrity and deep compassion make her utterly irreplaceable.

She is survived by her daughter, Kaisa Talaga; her mother, Elizabeth Schulz; and her sister, Jimi Norton.

Remembrances may be made in her name to the Sharon Stephens Memorial Fund for Children, Account #179-1455372, Washington Mutual, Silverlake Financial Center, 11014 19th Ave. S.E., Ste G, Everett, WA 98202-5121.

Submitted by the Department of Anthropology and School of Social Work

 


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