First published on Bitcoin Magazine.
I am an anthropologist and economist who went down the Bitcoin rabbit hole. I wrote this paper to clarify my thoughts around why these two disciplines respond so differently to Bitcoin.
Let’s start with…What is Anthropology?
Anthropology is a social science that is concerned with understanding culture through participatory observation, or ethnography: cultural immersion in the social worlds being studied. This research method is at the heart of the discipline, and it forces practitioners to “get out there,” to expose themselves, and to experience the culture being studied as a local.
This might explain why anthropologists often end up in heated debates with economists, who instead understand the world through numeric aggregates and abstract models. Mainstream economists take a top-down view of the world based on deductive reasoning stemming from their models and assumptions, which are heavily influenced by classical Newtonian physics and its notion of “equilibrium of the heavenly bodies” and lack the “systems perspective” that emerged from thermodynamics and influenced engineering (Alizart, 2020).
In contrast, anthropology, which involves both deductive and inductive logic, is mostly focused on the latter. Observed and experienced real-life evidence leads to the formation (and recalibration) of theoretical frameworks: first comes the evidence, then comes theory, and so forth (more on this in the Limitations section).
Another key element of anthropology is its concern for the “emic” (people’s subjective beliefs and experiences of the world) above the “etic” (objective truth). So, anthropology takes the view that objective measures such as various economic growth parameters can mean very little when abstracted away from people’s experiences and lived realities. Looking at the emic gives anthropology a superpower: the ability and need to be open to alternative belief systems, challenge its own mental models, take in additional insights, and craft a more nuanced and holistic view of the world as a result.
Anthropology’s superpower is its ability to be open to alternative belief systems and craft a more nuanced and holistic view of the world as a result.
Anthropologists are not scared of dealing with people’s belief systems because it relativizes them. That means that each culture must be viewed as “a truth” that must be understood as a rational system on its own terms, which is why judging a culture from an external point of view often leads one to miss the point.
In Anthropology, emic truth is multiplicitous and relative, rather than universal and absolute.
In anthropology, emic truth is multiplicitous and relative rather than universal and absolute. What does this mean? “Cultural relativism” doesn’t mean that “2 plus 2 does not equal 4” (these claims by self-proclaimed anthropologists are bogus). It just means that a particular belief system may have come to that conclusion, and that in itself may reveal something about that culture. Anthropologists recognize that math and physics have more adequate tools, languages and frameworks to assess the etic (and to establish that 2 plus 2 does equal 4 — for that we need mathematicians).
Anthropology is not afraid of dealing with the complexity of people’s beliefs — it thrives in them thanks to its toolkit of methods and frameworks to make sense of belief systems and behaviours.
Why is Anthropology interested in Bitcoin (and Economics isn’t)?
Anthropology has a long tradition of writing about the alien “other,” and bitcoin certainly represents a new type of exotic “other” for the majority of the world’s population. So, anthropologists have approached the culture of Bitcoin as it would approach any other: with no judgment and with openness to challenge its own preconceptions of it.
Anthropologists have ventured to study the world of bitcoin miners, holders, speculators, and local bitcoin merchants, among others. This has allowed them to understand the communities’ beliefs and points of view by going beyond their own perspectives. Many anthropologists have come out of the studies inspired by the ethos and beliefs of these communities, as I will explain in more depth in the next section.
In contrast, mainstream economists continue looking at Bitcoin from the comfort of their ivory towers. Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman, Nouriel Rubini, Steve Hanke, and many others have systematically dismissed bitcoin as a bubble, tulip, or speculative asset with little regard to how people actually use and view it today.
Economics as a discipline is locking itself in an echo chamber, siloed from other perspectives and receiving little feedback from the outside. It also lacks the methodological tools to make sense of cultures. No wonder it mistakenly reduces Bitcoin’s meme culture to an irrelevant tribal phenomenon.
Economics as a discipline is locking itself in an echo chamber, siloed from other perspectives and receiving little feedback from the outside. It also lacks the methodological tools to make sense of cultures. No wonder it mistakenly reduces Bitcoin’s meme culture to an irrelevant tribal phenomenon.Economics as a discipline is locking itself in its own eco chamber, siloed from other perspectives, and receiving little feedback from the outside. It also lacks the methodological tools to make sense of cultures. No wonder it mistakenly reduces Bitcoin’s meme culture to an irrelevant tribal phenomena.
But the core of economist’s fallacy is epistemological: what is recognised as truth and where does truth come from? Does it come from the ‘top’ (meaning the state or god), or the ‘bottom’ (the local beliefs of people)? When it comes to money, who decides what is money (the truth of money)? Mainstream economics lives off the assumption that money is money by ‘fiat’ — meaning, its value is determined by the state’s ultimate judgment and formal decree. On the other hand, Anthropology, being interested in people’s views and beliefs, has no problem accepting Bitcoin as money because ultimately, this is what people believe it is and how they use it as.
At the core of economists’ fallacy is the belief that money is money by decree (because the state and its expert economists say so), which means they don’t fully recognise the power held by people’s collective decisions.
Anthropology is also interested in Bitcoin because it’s not a threat to the discipline’s status quo. Anthropology is mostly a descriptive discipline, concerned with making sense of things as they are rather than ‘messing with things’. On the other hand, Economics is all about prescribing and ‘intervening’ on the economy: the economy needs to be ‘stimulated’ and then ‘stabilised,’ and employment needs to be ‘maximised’. As a result, Bitcoin, which can’t be controlled in terms of the monetary policy, massively limits Economics’ scope to act on the economy — in fact, Bitcoin may well be challenging the economists’ core beliefs and, perhaps, their relevance (ouch!). Having said that, this is not true of all of Economics — there are for example heterodox approaches that take more of a systems perspective, such as the Austrian school, which flips the episteme around: truth and economic activity come from the economic action of the individual rather than the state, which is not seen as fundamental to economic life.
So, what are Anthropologists saying about Bitcoin?
After looking at the foundational methods, theories, and epistemologies of Anthropology, it’s worth looking at what anthropologists are specifically saying about Bitcoin.
1. Bitcoin is money
Anthropologists have no problems admitting Bitcoin is money, first and foremost “because people call it so [and] many use it as money” (Kavanagh, et al).
2. Bitcoin leverages people’s ethos
Research of Bitcoin miners reveals the degree of excitement and creative energy that surrounds the Bitcoin space (Calvão), and it is this “ethos and ethic” of the Bitcoin community that may come to infect the world.
3. The values and rituals of the Bitcoin community are important for Bitcoin’s success
A study by Kinney demonstrates that the adoption of Bitcoin follows a distinct process: first, adopters discover the value Bitcoin on their own terms. Next, they reflexively overcome challenges to these initial perceptions of value. Finally, they reaffirm their embeddedness in the system through rituals of commitment (Kinney), such as today’s ‘Laser rays to 100k!” phenomena on cryptotwitter. This reaffirms the importance of group identities for the social construction of Bitcoin as money.
Thus, its Bitcoin community’s value systems and rituals that make Bitcoin mature and help establish it as money. As the Bitcoin community has also made clear, Bitcoin is not only backed by technology and numbers, but by memes.
As the Bitcoin community has also made clear, Bitcoin is not only backed by technology and numbers, but by memes.
4. Bitcoin is not just speculation
Anthropologists reject the notion that Bitcoin is just about ‘speculation’. Bitcoin is an asset for owners to hold on to for the long term (in fact, ‘hold on for dear life’ is among one of the derivations of Hodl). Bitcoin is sustained not only by greed, but by community, beliefs, and a sense of belonging (Morucci).
5. Bitcoin is a mirror
What keeps the Bitcoin community together is the fact that the meaning of Bitcoin is “loose enough to mean many things to the members of the community, but specific enough to bind that community together.” The fact that this community is a new type of organism (Quittem), and that Bitcoin’s valuation is difficult to establish, means that each person can project any meanings and desires on them. Bitcoin tells us all what we want to believe — to both lovers and critics (Kavanagh, et al).
6. Bitcoin is highly political
So, Bitcoin has the ability to create political bodies. It has the ability of projecting our human primitive passions, even in ways that are destructive to the current political, economic and social system (Caldararo).
For example, To the Bitcoin communities in cyberspace and offline, hodling is a way of countering state-controlled debasement of the value of money (Morucci). And a study of a Bitcoin coffee shop in Slovakia shows how the staff supports the initiation of ‘newbies’ to Bitcoin. To the coffeeshop, Bitcoin provided a great degree of power and freedom from state’s ‘Big brother techniques’ of control (Tremcinsky).
Interestingly, others have come to the view that Bitcoin can help us overcome corporate power entrenchment from the centralisation of new technologies, currently in the hands of a few tech corporations (Caldararo)
7. Bitcoin is not just dependent on the math and is not entirely ‘trustless’ — its social layer is essential to maintaining it and giving it value
Anthropologists criticise the Bitcoin communities’ belief that Bitcoin is totally trustless and entirely “run by numbers”. As anthropology describes, this would be simply impossible because we are social creatures, which means that the socio-cultural layer of Bitcoin plays an important role in determining whether it has value, and what that value is. The formation of democratic communities in the digital economy remains embedded in social relations. So the idea that Bitcoin is not mediated by any institution is seen as an “illusion” (Tylor & Bill Maurer).
A similar stance has been echoed by Giacomo Zucco, which proclaims the importance of maintaining a puritan Bitcoin-only stance — whereby all cryptocurrencies besides Bitcoin are declared ‘shitcoins’ and not worthy of holding.
“You need dogma, you need taboo, you need social protocols to force people to be better” (WBD Podcast).
This further highlights that in the bitcoin protocol, the ‘social layer’ of the Bitcoin protocol is just as important as the technical one.
8. The nature of money is changing, and Bitcoin will play a critical role in the future
Anthropology noticed that, thanks to Bitcoin, serious questions are being raised about the nature of money, which has important implications on society and humanity at large. Even if it fails, Bitcoin is a fascinating “‘breaching experiment’ that helps to reveal how money is implicated in the social order and how particular values and practices come to emerge” (Kavanagh, et al).
Dodd tells us in his book The Social Life of Money that what is considered money has changed through time, and we’re on track to see it change again. Money is becoming increasingly fragmented and Bitcoin is likely to play a role in the future of money.
“The era in which money was defined by the state is coming to an end. Money can and likely will be organised differently.” (Dodd, The Social Life of Money).
Anthropology’s limitations in understanding Bitcoin
Anthropology is far from perfect, and here are some of the challenges it holds as a framework for understanding Bitcoin:
- Anthropology lacks the quantitative toolkits needed to be able to understand and research on-chain transactions, from which there are many behavioural insights one can gain. We need to push anthropology to be able to understand the technological backbones of our digital worlds in order to remain relevant and be engaged in a broader discussion with other disciplines.
- Anthropology has always been a highly diverse discipline, welcoming perspectives, theories, and approaches from very different viewpoints and from other disciplines. But in the last few decades, it’s been undergoing increasing homogenisation towards hyper-reflexive, highly-theoretical, and overly-philosophical schools of thought, which often lose touch with people’s everyday lives.
- Anthropology lacks the systems view of Macro Economics, and doesn’t do enough to understand the basics of the current monetary paradigm we are in. This leads many anthropologists today to still view the market as simply dysfunctional, and the system as simplistically ‘capitalistic’ or ‘neo-liberal’, with little awareness of the extensive role that central banks play in economies.
- Like the rest of academia, anthropology has no (or little) skin in the game, so not only can it afford to be wrong but it can continue being wrong and pretending it is right. Anthropology doesn’t need to be scared to become more applied in praxis, and by doing so it can grow its methods and frameworks. This is what the hybrid discipline of Design Anthropology is doing today.
The key takeaway is that, when it comes to Bitcoin, Anthropology has a lot of interesting things to say. On the other hand, Economists’ commentaries are often very stale and uninformed.
Most importantly, Anthropology recognises the important role that Bitcoin is playing in leading us to rethink what money is — which in turn has many consequences for social life. At the same time, anthropology also recognises that the social dynamics and community surrounding Bitcoin (and its memes) are what make it a mature technology that is ready for widespread adoption.
Anthropology may not be the best discipline to understand Bitcoin as a whole, but the same can be said about every other discipline on its own. Bitcoin is complex, and to fully understand it would require an understanding of engineering, cryptography, incentives, culture, social psychology, network systems, and much more — in other words, it is not a one-discipline job.
But the cultural and social aspects of the Bitcoin phenomenon cannot be understated and overlooked, as therein lie answers to many questions (such as the why). Why do people care about Bitcoin? Why should we care about Bitcoin? And here, Anthropology can help.
- I am aware that the disciplines of Anthropology and Economics are highly varied and complex, more than I am picturing them here. This article is guilty of making generalisations, yes. Naturally, I don’t purport to speak for all economists or anthropologists out there.
- That said, this article does not aim to be a criticism of ‘Economics’ as a whole, but of its current state: it’s become a discipline that has lost touch with reality because of it’s ‘command and control’ approach, top-down methods, models and assumptions, and a lack of a systems perspective.