Dr Emma Mackinnon

Photo of Dr Emma Mackinnon

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

Official Fellow
University Lecturer in History

I came to Cambridge from the University of Chicago, where I completed a doctorate in Political Science. I arrived as a Junior Research Fellow at Emmanuel; as of January 2020, I have taken up a university lectureship in the History Faculty and become an official fellow of Emmanuel. My teaching and research is in contemporary political theory and the history of political thought, with broader research interests in the history of human rights, international political thought, liberalism and empire, and the relationship between history and politics. My work combines readings of canonical and contemporary texts with archival research.

My current book project concerns the legacies of the eighteenth-century French and American rights declarations in mid-twentieth century politics of race and empire. It serves to question 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 identify alternative critiques of hypocrisy, drawing out an anti-imperial version of human rights promise-making. That version, I argue, called not for the fulfilment 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 fulfilment.

My work has been published or is forthcoming in Political Theory, Humanity, The Blackwell Companion to Arthur Danto, and additional edited volumes. It 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.

At Cambridge, I lecture in "Political Philosophy and the History of Political Thought Since c. 1890" (History Part II Paper 5 / POL 11). I supervise in that paper and in POL1, "The Modern State and its Alternatives". I am also part of the MPhil program in Political Thought and Intellectual History.

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.


Mackinnon, Emma Stone. "Declaration as Disavowal: The Politics of Race and Empire in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights." Political Theory 47, no. 1. February 2019. https://doi.org/10.1177/0090591718780697

Mackinnon, Emma Stone. "Promise-Making and the History of Human Rights: Reading Arendt with Danto," Humanity 19, no. 2 (Summer 2018). https://muse.jhu.edu/article/703634

Mackinnon, Emma Stone. "Arthur Danto as Human Rights Activist," invited submission to Blackwell Companion to Arthur C. Danto, ed. Lydia Goehr and Jonathan Gilmore, forthcoming.

Additional information on my research and teaching is available on my personal website.