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Oliver, 1st Year

Dr Emma Mackinnon

Photo of Dr Emma Mackinnon

BA (Harvard) MA (Chicago) PhD (Chicago)

Research Fellow

I came to Cambridge from the University of Chicago, where I completed a doctorate in Political Science. My research is in contemporary political theory and the history of human rights, with broader research interests in international political thought, liberalism and empire, and global justice. My work combines readings of canonical and contemporary texts with original archival research.

My current work concerns the legacies of the eighteenth-century French and American rights declarations in mid-twentieth century politics of race and empire. The project questions a narrative in which those foundational declarations are viewed as universal in their aspirations but often contradicted in practice. In this story, rights promises may have been unfulfilled – or, worse, a mask for imperial ambitions – but nonetheless enabled later rights claims. I argue against viewing ideals as separate from practice, and trace how, historically, narratives about gradual universalization helped justify forms of imperial and racial domination in the twentieth century. Drawing on the work of political actors who opposed such domination, I try to identify an anti-imperial version of human rights promise-making. That version, I argue, called not for the fulfillment of past promises, but for the initiation of new, more mutual ones; demanding a reckoning with history, rather than appealing to a future universal vision, it stands as an alternative to narratives of gradual fulfillment.

My work has been published or is forthcoming in Political Theory, Humanity, and The Blackwell Companion to Arthur Danto, and has been supported by the Mellon Foundation, New York Public Library, France Chicago Center, Pozen Family Center for Human Rights, and University of Chicago Social Science Division. My dissertation, "Imperial Promises: The Contested Politics of Human Rights in the Twentieth Century," won the 2018 Richard Saller Dissertation Prize from the University of Chicago Social Sciences Division.

I grew up in Brooklyn, New York, and did my undergraduate studies at Harvard, where I concentrated in Social Studies. Before graduate school, I lived in New York City and in Washington, DC, working for four years at a political communications firm and for one year at a social policy research organization.


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