Joan Cocks

Professor of Politics on the Ford Foundation

19th and 20th century political thought and contemporary political theory, with a special interest in nationalism, sovereignty, political violence, Marxism, feminism, post-colonial theory, and questions of landscape, place, and the meaning of modern development

As a political theorist, Joan Cocks is interested in the ways that people understand (and fight over) such essentially contested concepts as freedom, power, justice, property, community, and individuality. Over the course of her career, she has focused on the role of ideas in the political struggles of women, ethnic minorities, colonized cultures, and other politically marginalized groups, often looking at those struggles through the eyes of insightful political thinkers.

In her most recent book, Passion and Paradox: Intellectuals Confront the National Question (Princeton University Press, 2002), for instance, Cocks considers the stances that Hannah Arendt, Frantz Fanon, Isaiah Berlin, Edward Said, and other intellectuals took on modern nationalist movements. Cocks is also author of The Oppositional Imagination: Feminism, Critique, and Political Theory (Routledge, 1989), for which she received a research award from the Rockefeller Foundation. While she continues to mull over epistemological conundrums of collective identity and ethical conundrums of ethno-national conflict, her current scholarly research specifically tackles the causes and consequences of Jewish nationalism, and the seductive dangers of national sovereignty as a political ideal.

Cocks' recent articles on national identity, ethnonational conflict, and sovereignty, include "Is the Right to Sovereignty a Human Right? The Idea of Sovereign Freedom and the Jewish State," in Gurminder K. Bhambra and Robbie Shilliam, eds., Silencing Human Rights (Houndmills, England: Palgrave, 2009); two review essays, "Collectivities and Cruelty" (Political Theory June 2004) and "Oh Say Can You See?" (Political Theory April 2007), and "Jewish Nationalism and the Question of Palestine" (Interventions, Vol 8 [1] 2006); and "Sovereignty, Identity, and Insecurity: A Commentary on Patchen Markell's Bound by Recognition" (Polity, January 2006).

Winner of Mount Holyoke College's Faculty Prize for Teaching in 2000, Cocks has always been attuned to students' needs. When she encountered international students who were struggling with their cultural identities, she developed a course in Cultural Politics, shaping it with the help of the students who inspired it. In the 1980s, she noticed students jumping from discipline to discipline to find courses in theory, and she set about establishing Mount Holyoke's interdisciplinary program in critical social thought. Drawing on multiple departments to explore the place of thought in history and society, the program allows students to combine traditions of philosophical inquiry as they engage with themes of their own design, such as the causes of peace and conflict, fractured identities in cross-cultural context, architecture and the social organization of space, and the Western canon and its critics. "It is time-consuming but extremely pleasurable," says Cocks of the intense advising the individualized program requires. "I find the conversations with students fascinating."

During 2009-2010, Cocks is serving as president of the MHC chapter of the AAUP (American Association of University Professors).


  • Confessions, Novels, and Notebooks: The Self and Political Thought
  • Marx and Marxism
  • Classics of 19th century Critical Social Thought
  • Invitation to Feminist Theory
  • Memories of Overdevelopment
  • Portraits of Political Thinkers  (in different semesters the course has focused on Isaiah Berlin, Edward Said, and Hannah Arendt)
  • Contemporary Political Ideas (in different semesters, this course has focused on the ideas of the citizen and the foreigner, nationalism and cosmopolitanism, sovereignty, and conservatism)
  • Cultural Politics
  • Seminar in Critical Social Thought
  • Modern Political Thought

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