Joan Cocks

Professor Emeritus of Politics
Specialization: 
Modern and contemporary political theory, with a special interest in nationalism, sovereignty, political violence, Marxism, feminism, post-colonial theory, and questions of landscape and place.

As a political theorist, Joan Cocks is interested in clashing political ideals, including the ways people understand the meaning of and fight over freedom, power, equality, identity, property, and political belonging. Over the course of her career, she has focused on the role of ideas in the political struggles of women, ethnic minorities, colonized peoples, and other subordinated or marginalized groups, often looking at those struggles through the eyes of insightful political thinkers.

Cocks’ most recent book, On Sovereignty and Other Political Delusions (Bloomsbury Academic, November 2014), reveals the seductive promise and danger to self and others of sovereign freedom as a political ideal. Drawing on Hannah Arendt’s provocative claim that true freedom requires not the embrace but the repudiation of sovereign power, Cocks shows how and why sovereign freedom and domination are inextricably linked. She illustrates that theoretical point with two case studies: the first, of the erasure of Indian life worlds required by the founding and expansion of a free and sovereign United States; and the second, of the emancipatory impetus to the Jewish search for sovereign freedom in Palestine and the damaging effects of that search on Palestinian Arabs. The book concludes with meditations on the global sovereignty of capital and the environmentally destructive dream that human beings are sovereign masters of the earth.

Cocks’ last book, Passion and Paradox: Intellectuals Confront the National Question (Princeton University Press, 2002), tackled conundrums of collective identity and ethno-national conflict by investigating the ambiguous stances towards nationalism of Hannah Arendt, Isaiah Berlin, Tom Nairn, Edward Said, and other 20th-century intellectuals. Cocks is also author of The Oppositional Imagination: Feminism, Critique, and Political Theory (Routledge, 1989 and 2013), for which she received a research award from the Rockefeller Foundation.

Cocks has published numerous articles, essays, and blog and symposium contributions on national identity, political violence and loss, sovereignty, Marxism, feminism, and political thinkers from St. Augustine to Frantz Fanon. Her most recent articles include “An Epilogue – or an Epitaph? – for Freedom, Liberation, and Revolution” (forthcoming in Kei Hiruta, ed., Hannah Arendt on Freedom, Liberation, and Revolution, Palgrave Macmillan); “Political Predicaments of Exile,” (in Bashir Abu-Manneh, ed., After Said: Postcolonial Literary Studies in the Twenty-First Century, Cambridge University Press, 2019); “Dignity and the Limits of Liberal Individualism,” Symposium on Democratizing Dignity, (Law, Culture, and the Humanities, vol. 14, Issue 3, October 2018; “Immune from the Law? The Curious Case of the Sovereign Citizens Movement,” (Lapham’s Quarterly Vol. XI, no. 2 ,Spring 2018); and “Disappearance,” Political Concepts: A Critical Lexicon, www.politicalconcepts.org, Issue 3.5/Fall 2016.

Winner of Mount Holyoke College's first 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 established Mount Holyoke's interdisciplinary program in critical social thought, which allowed students to combine traditions of philosophical inquiry as they engage with thematic questions of their own design. "It is time-consuming but extremely pleasurable," says Cocks of the intense advising the individualized program requires. "I find the conversations with students fascinating."

In the course of her tenure at the College, Cocks served as chair of the Politics Department, founding Chair of the Program in Critical Social Thought, president of the MHC chapter of the AAUP (American Association of University Professors), founding chair of the Mellon-funded thematic minor on comparative empires, co-chair of the FCC (Faculty Conference Committee), member of many elected and appointed committees, and participant in numerous faculty seminars and workshops. She was a faculty fellow with the Disappearance Project at the Smith College Kahn Liberal Arts Institute, a winner of the American Political Science Association 2014 David Easton Award for the best book in political theory, chair of the 2017 David Easton Award Committee, and member of the APSA 2018-19 Benjamin E. Lippincott Award Committee.