Ola Stafseng (In memoriam)

Ola Stafseng (27 February 1949- 5 June 2015)
1990-1994: RC34 Board member; 1994-1998- RC34 President

Ola Stafseng was born on 27 February 1949 in Løten municipality close to the small town Hamar, Norway. Hamar is located on the shores of Mjøsa -Norway’s largest lake, and is the principal city of Hedmark county.

Ola’s career as a great pedagogue and prominent youth researcher started from an extensive career, first, as a youth worker in youth clubs and later, as a research fellow and university lecturer at the Department of Sociology and Human Geography, University of Oslo from 1979-1987.

He was a key instigator of the Program for Youth Research in Norway, the predecessor of Norwegian Social Research (NOVA), which is one of the largest social research institutes in Norway, and he worked there for six years as a senior researcher until 1998.

Ola’s research interests were in the areas of educational history of ideas, knowledge and history of science, childhood and youth research. More specifically, he had investigated and re-conceptualised ideas in the sociology of knowledge since Karl Mannheim; the historical-futuristic connections of ideas on childhood and youth between the emergence of early modernity (1880-1920), and ‘late modernity’; and “Hundred years of youth research 1904-2004” as history of the social sciences. His dissertation from 1996 is entitled “The historical construction of modern youth”. In recent years, he produced several publications on the Swedish educationalist Ellen Key, for research and development in the college system, and the knowledge society.

In 1998 he was appointed as associate professor at the Department of Educational Research, University of Oslo and he secured his professorship in 2000. For several years, Ola also took part in local political life in Oslo, both in the Oslo City Council and as head of the Old Oslo District Council. His community involvement and willingness to undertake such duties also benefited the Department of Educational Research. First he was a vice-director for some years and later he was elected as the main director for six years until December 2014. Ola made significant efforts as a leader in challenging times, and his sense of practical political work was a positive force for the development of the Department of Educational Research.

During his time at the Department of Educational Research Ola displayed a great deal of commitment and engagement. He distinguished himself with his interdisciplinary interests and networks. These included his membership of the board of the Center for Gender Research from 2004-2011, and for some years he also served as the chairman. He was also the chairman of the inter-faculty research network HUMSAM (2003-2005), which consisted of a number of researchers from all Humanities and Social Sciences faculties at the University of Oslo. Together with people from this group Ola convened the international conference Childhoods 2005: Children and Youth in Emerging and Transforming Societies. The conference was a part of the University of Oslo’s Centennial Celebration in 2005:1,200 childhood and youth researchers, practitioners and policy makers from 95 different countries met for five days to present research, debate and exchange knowledge about modern childhood and youth. Ola was the head of the scientific committee. Furthermore, Ola was the chairman of the inter-faculty research network Religion in Pluralistic Societies (PLUREL) at the University of Oslo beginning in 2010 until the end of 2013. PLUREL was an important network that brought together a number of researchers from all Humanities and Social Sciences faculties at the University of Oslo.

Former students, colleagues and friends remember Ola as an energetic, knowledgeable, highly principled and straight speaking individual,, but also as a supportive and caring person, and warm and thoughtful friend:


Kristin Beate Vasbo writes: Ola has always been a part of my academic life at the University of Oslo. Good energy, a big smile with a moustache, and the smell of tobacco will always remind me about him. He was my supervisor when I did my MA and my PhD, in the field of education.

As my supervisor and colleague, Ola involved me in several of his network and engagements in order to prepare me for an academic career. After I finished my MA, I first worked as a senior executive officer with among other things interdisciplinary research strategies together with the HUMSAM network. For one year I was head of the secretariat for the Childhoods Conference until I got a position as a research fellow. Later on Ola involved me in the MA EYS network. Together we succeeded in getting the MA EYS accepted as a joint degree at University of Oslo.

Ola has been my most important collaborator and supporter in all my commitments at the Department of Educational Research. I could always ask Ola for advice; however, he always had 100% trust in my judgment. Ola always supported me and, if I found that the task was too challenging, he told me that he knew that I was going to make it. His warm encouragement and his great ability to sing my praise were absolutely priceless. I celebrated my victories with Ola, and I told him about my defeats. However he always gave me the feeling of being good enough, a feeling which is quite rare in our competitive academic world. Ola was a wonderful storyteller and he was interested in a lot of subject areas. He loved people and people loved him. However, due to the Norwegian smoking legislation Ola also gained some ‘enemies’. For a period he refused to quit smoking in his office, which did frustrate some colleagues. Regardless of his attitude as a hardcore smoker he had a generous and inspiring way of being. And I will always miss him.


Helena Helve remembers: Professor Ola Stafseng was a ‘door opener’ in many different directions. He had a prominent role in the history of Nordic youth research for over thirty years. I knew Ola as a colleague who was before me the Nordic Youth Research Coordinator 1994-1998. It was really easy to follow him when I took over this task moving it from Norway to Finland. I just tried to follow his visions and missions.   In this role, Ola started to build a bridge between youth research and youth policy in Nordic countries. He placed a very high priority on ensuring official positions for the Nordic Coordinator in European cooperation on youth research. And in the Council of Europe cooperation his argument was accepted. Ola participated in EC Consultative Meetings in his capacity as Nordic Coordinator, and he was also appointed as one of three ‘scientific experts’ for the youth research component of the EU’s Youth for Europe programme1995-99.

Ola was a heavily used and honored expert in the preparation of a number of programmers. He made a significant contribution to the Youth Directorate of the Council of Europe in Strasbourg. He also expanded the Nordic Coordinator´s role to membership of the Strasbourg Youth Directorate of the Council of Europe and helped to build cooperation through promoting activities and actions between the Nordic Coordinator and the National coordinators.

During Ola´s time as Coordinator, between1994 and 1998, the international recognition of Nordic youth research developed rapidly. He saw the importance of Nordic youth research internationalization within youth policy bodies and authorities.  He realized in the early 1990s that youth policy could have a very central role in the (re)construction of civil society and democracy in Central and Eastern Europe, and in the new formation of a coherent and comprehensive youth policy for the whole of Europe. Ola himself was a brave activist wearing a Palestinian scarf keffiyeh around his neck to show his political commitment.


Howard Williamson recalls: I first met Ola almost exactly twenty years ago. He was already a central figure in the evolution of youth research in Europe, collaborating in the seminal research on ‘la vie associative’ (youth work) and the subsequent publication of Young People and Associations in Europe (Council of Europe Publishing 1996), and pioneering the appointment of a Research Officer within the Council of Europe Youth Directorate in order to advance the place of youth research in what was later depicted as the ‘magic triangle’ of youth research, youth policy and youth work practice. That was the start of the Council of Europe’s network of youth research correspondents from its growing number of member states across western Europe and the former ‘eastern bloc’.   And it was, indeed, in relation to the preparation of the publication that the late Lynne Chisholm whispered to me that I had Ola’s ‘nod of approval’ for the contribution I had made.

This all took place during Ola’s Presidency of ISA rc34 (1994-1998), where he not only consolidated a European network of youth research but also expanded youth research relationships throughout the world, an initiative Lynne later took forward during her own Presidency between 1998 and 2002. In that way, at a European level, Ola laid the foundations for the current Pool of European Youth Researchers (PEYR).

At a more personal level, Ola encouraged and supported my own academic path. He invited me as Visiting Lecturer during his time at Stavanger University College and promoted my position as Guest Professor at the University of Copenhagen. I stayed at his home and met his family, walking round his neighbourhood as he explained his local political engagement and responsibilities.

Most people know Ola liked a drink and I spent many a late evening imbibing with him, sometimes on account of his almost magical ability to produce a bottle of champagne and sufficient glasses for whoever was left around. The balance of his intellectual and professional contribution, and his more gregarious, social persona sometimes tipped a little too far towards the latter, causing his friends concern and those who were hostile to the research agenda he had pioneered a foundation for criticism. But that was Ola in the round – charming, frustrating, inspiring and provoking. When he talked about his relatively recent work on the life of Ellen Key, he could not fail to command respect and attention for both its scholarship and his distinctive capacity to articulate, analyse and explain, as well as his determination to draw out meaning and application to current debates. It was that kind of academic contribution that younger members of rc34 may recall in the debate he led during the youth sessions at the World Congress of Sociology in Brisbane (2002) on the resurgence and contestable contemporary relevance of Mannheim’s theory of generations.

We have much to thank Ola for. His gringo moustache, hat and leather waistcoat may have reminded some of a man from another era but, appearance apart, Ola was certainly never locked in the 1960s. He brought on younger generations of academic youth researchers, contributed to the relatively recent pilot MA in European Youth Studies and always sought to connect his authoritative historical educational knowledge with the issues facing young people in our time.


Lyudmila Nurse remembers: During Ola’s Presidency of rc34 between 1994 and 1998, I was asked to be a keynote speaker at the Nordic Youth Research Symposium held in Tonsberg, Norway in August 1996. My first child Elizabeth was only three month old and I was not sure that I should go to Norway at all. My husband Chris and I were quite moved by Ola’s suggestion that we should all come. We were absolutely stunned by the way Ola arranged our stay in Tonsberg that he picked us up at the Oslo airport and drove us to Tonsberg and back (making some stops en-route to allow Ola to get some rest with a cigarette, but not in the van!). It was our daughter’s first ever visit to continental Europe, which all of us will also remember for a pair of tiny traditional Norwegian mittens that Ola presented to her. The conference was a great success, but Ola’s caring, fatherly attitude to his colleagues will be always remembered.

I also observed Ola’s great sense of humanity and principled, unwavering approach to human rights at one of the international hearings for the Council of Europe youth policy reviews. The issue under discussion at that European Steering Committee for Youth (CDEJ) 26th meeting in Budapest, 25-27 October 2000 was inter alia about the treatment of Estonian and non-Estonian youth in Estonian youth policy. Ola was adamant that there should be no distinction and that treating each young person equally is matter of fundamental human rights. It was a position from which he would not waver: human rights are not negotiable. This was but one of many examples where Ola used his strong Nordic roots and culture of principled direct speaking and humanity in his professional work.

Ola will be greatly missed by so many: by the academic community of the university of Oslo and international community of ethnographic youth researchers, as a human rights and democratic values promoter and simply as a friend who was always ready to listen to and to share a good story with his colleagues and friends. Ola’s legendary moustache and his beaming smile will be remembered by us all alongside his invaluable contribution to the development of the RC34 youth research network, Nordic Youth Research network and the ‘magic triangle’ of youth research, youth policy and youth work practice.

At this time our thoughts and sympathy are also with Ola’s family.

Kristin Beate Vasbo, former PhD student, colleague and member of the MA EYS consortium

Helena Helve, Nordic Youth Research Coordinator 1998-2003 and a President of ISA RC34 2002-2006

Howard Williamson, Organisational Secretary of ISA RC34 2002-present

Lyudmila Nurse, ISA RC34 Advisory Board member, 2002-present; RC34 Vice-President for the Russian Federation 1998-2002