Why is it that the practitioners of a particular academic discipline think theirs is superior? I used to think that this annoying trait was due to individual egos, to social pathologies endemic among intellectuals, to the desperate need for some intellectuals to assert that they are more important than they really are. The catch with this approach is that it fails to account for the sheer pervasiveness of this attitude. You find it with historians, anthropologists, neurosurgeons, engineers, cultural critics, sociologists, religionists, even the odd theologian … Why?
I suspect this disciplinary chauvinism is built into the very structure of disciplinary identity. This finally became a little clearer with my investigations into the emergence of economics as a discipline, although I had encountered this question a while in my inquiries into cultural studies. Basically, the moment of disciplinary independence requires a careful brushing over of the footprints on the path along which a discipline has tramped. And with that independence come claims to universality, superiority – in short, disciplinary chauvinism. In the case of economics, the specific and troubled engagement with the Bible and theology (Grotius, Hobbes, Locke, Malthus), is subsumed under a moral agenda (Smith, Mill, Ricardo) which carefully banishes the account of the road to independence. Only by this means may such a discipline assert its independence, its universal relevance, its deeper insight and superiority over all others. That would mean that chauvinism is an inescapable and defining element of what it means to be a ‘discipline’. Of course, the very existence of a pure, distinct discipline is itself a fable.