Aristide Zolberg was a leader in our shared long standing intellectual home, The New School for Social Research, as he was a path breaking, broad ranging political scientist. He also was, crucially, a good man. In this post, Kenneth Prewitt, Michael Cohen and Riva Kastoryano join me in remembering a great scholar and gentleman. -Jeff
Ary started his career as an Africanist, whose work on the Ivory Coast stands as a classic in the field. He became famous as a stellar essayist, whose sharp creative insights could illuminate in elegant strokes great puzzles of the human condition, including perhaps most significantly his “Moments of Madness,” a deeply learned piece reflecting on the telling question he posed: “If politics is the art of the possible, what are we to make of the moments when human beings in modern societies believe that ‘all is possible’?” And then there is his great achievement: A Nation by Design, his magnum opus. It is both a crucial account of an under examined part of the American story, while it is rich with comparative insights, as Riva Kastoryano describes in her reflections. It is a classic for reasons that Ken Prewitt underscores.
Ary was a disciplined scholar, as Michael Cohen highlights, who crossed disciplines freely, a tough – minded empiricist with great imagination. He was also a man who experienced a great deal, both the good and the bad life offered in his times. A Holocaust survivor, whose memoirs of his childhood await publication, he was married to the great sociologist of memory and art, Vera Zolberg. (For my appreciation of my intellectual relationship with Vera click here)
Ary and Vera, co-conspirators, together for sixty years, they were a beautiful team, and as a team they contributed to family (their children Erica and Danny and many more), friends, colleagues and students, and the world of arts and sciences broadly. “The Zolbergs” hosted innumerable New School events, as well as informal dinners, in their beautiful SoHo loft, with impeccably prepared meals, setting the stage for intriguing conversation, featuring Ary, the great cook and storyteller.
We at The New School and a much broader academic and personal world are in mourning. Here are some thoughts of Kenneth Prewitt, Riva Kastoryano and Michael Cohen, Ary’s good friends and colleagues. More sustained discussion of Aristide Zolberg’s work will surely follow. A memorial event at The New School in September is now being planned.
Kenneth Prewitt, Columbia University
The mark of an unusual intellect is scholarship that is timely – it speaks to today’s issues – and timeless – it will be read a century and more from now. Ari Zolberg’s scholarship, and especially his magisterial A Nation By Design, is a case in point. This was his last major work, where perhaps one is less surprised to find a lifetime of scholarship put to such brilliant use. More surprising is that his earliest major book Creating Political Order, written nearly a half-century ago, has the same remarkable feature. It was must reading for any interested in the newly independent nations of West Africa, but it is still being read today – and not just for its value as political history. Each of these books, as was true of all his writings, has an air of immediacy. But each is theoretically rich in a manner that speaks across decades if not centuries.
This combination of immediate relevance and insights that cross time and place made Ari an exceptionally valued colleague and teacher, as hundreds can testify. I offer one personal example. Shortly after finishing my Ph.D., Ari was instrumental in my recruitment to the University of Chicago. In one simple and wise sentence he taught me what the life of the mind was about – “what matters is to do one piece of scholarship truly well, because if you can do it once you can do it again, and you will want to.”
Michael Cohen, The New School
Ary was intellectually tough. I had gone to Chicago to study with him because of his unique approach to understanding African politics and my desire to do fieldwork in the Ivory Coast, the site of his early work. I still remember receiving my first paper back from him. It looked like a war zone, every page filled with comments, questions, and suggestions written in bright red. I was stunned. At the bottom of the last page, he wrote, “pretty good paper.” I still have it, 47 years later.
I now know that he was preparing me for serious social science research. He demonstrated, by example, what it meant to “prepare,” to be aware of the intellectual commitment required before one went into the field. It was, as he once remarked, “just showing respect for the people you would be meeting. You should know who they are and where they came from.”
This was more than just advice about fieldwork, but also I came to understand, about him. People should know that he had traveled a long way himself – at that time from Belgium, to New York, to Chicago, to Abidjan, and the journey continued.
I am forever grateful for these lessons. Not easy, but profoundly helpful.
Riva Kastoryano, Sciences Po
I first met Ary in 1984 in a workshop in Paris, at Sciences Po. I had just finished my Ph.D. on migration and urban sociology and gotten a Lecturer position at Harvard, in Social Studies. We talked about migration studies in France and the United States, the questions it raised in the two countries, and the challenges. This discussion was very important for me, it was a very valuable initiation to (re)think my thesis with his arguments and in comparative perspective. He would say afterwards that “Migration studies were not a priority at Sciences Po. I kept telling them how important it is and very soon they will have to realize it.” He was right.
It was Ary who introduced a political approach to the study of migrations in France, in the early 1980. Until then, research, theses and books were mainly on the economic implications of migrations, taking migrants as a part of the labor force. We also had sociological studies on the process of migration itself, inspired mainly by the urban sociology of the Chicago School. Ary stimulated students to think of migrants as political actors… That was new! And he had a lot of echoes, influencing the orientation of many research projects in France.
Ary’s views and writings on migrants’ political participation, on the one hand, and migration on a more macro level as border controls on the other, have had a great influence on the next generation. He studied refugees, immigrants and immigration from many various angles: border control, immigration policy, immigration and foreign policy, integration, ethnicity, citizenship of course, with a historical perspective. He questioned the responsibility of the international community, human rights and development policy, and wondered about the future, when he wrote in 1991 on “the future of international immigration.”
In an interview I conducted of him in 2007 in New York that has been published in CERI’s book series on “challenges of the globalization,” we talked about the changing understanding of borders and the new challenges of the globalization. “On the political level state borders still matter, but I think they will go through transformations in the XXIst century.” He was always using a comparative perspective: “the nature of borders has changed in the European Union, maybe we will get to the same situation in North America. It would be easy for the United States of America with Canada, but more difficult with Mexico.”
Comparisons – spontaneous and reflexive – have been the basis of his thoughts and writings. Even in his last book A Nation by Design is about immigration in the United States, it is impossible not to think of other contexts, and he himself questioned whether the American nation is not after all “a nation like others.” Comparisons led him to develop global visions before the age of globalization in social sciences: already in 1995 he writes about “global flows, global walls, global movements, global system.”
Historian, sociologist, political theorist, Ary thought discussed and wrote about all aspects related to the arrival, settlement, integration and assimilation of migrants. New challenges led him to question conventional approaches without rejecting them. He questioned the resistance around language (Spanish in the United States) and religion (Islam in Europe), as new perspectives to review the classical patterns with new lenses of multiculturalism, citizenship, dual citizenship and transnationalism emerged, always in different contexts. Ary Zolberg, the cosmopolitan, at the same time Africanist, Europeanist, Americanist. He didn’t have any choice but to compare within a global perspective.
His fame and work is not limited in Europe to France. Belgium – his native country of course, Austria, Germany, Netherlands; you will see Ary’s name in every prestigious institutions in these countries, and conferences, and in the tables of contents of influential journals and collective books.
I had the privilege to participate in many conferences with Ary in many different cities in Europe and the United States. Beyond very stimulating presentations and fascinating general discussions, it was a real pleasure to stroll with Ary in those cities, go to museum, bars, restaurants… He was a bon-vivant, full of energy, always discovering new places, new tastes… He always had many stories to tell.
When I visited Ary in the hospital in Paris after his stroke, I was scared. When I saw him recovering so wonderfully, I thought that he was as we say in French “the force of the nature” “the force of life”. And he was…. I repeated that when I last saw him a month ago in New York, with the idea of rejecting that he can reach an end. I will miss him for all of that.