Mini-Post: Sociology and the Blockchain

Mini-Post: Sociology and the Blockchain

In an effort to examine blockchain research in fields beyond the traditional fields associated with cryptocurrency and blockchain technologies, i.e. computer science, information studies, law, and economics, the Smart Contract Research Forum (SCRF) interviews experienced practitioners and academics from other disciplines to begin a conversation, and collect and collate blockchain-related resources in their discipline.

This is a living document. If you know of any other research in the field, please don’t hesitate to mention it in the comments below. Please include a link and a few lines of description.

An Informal Survey of Knowledge

Anthropologists and sociologists are beginning to study blockchain technologies and the communities around them in earnest. Some are thinking about it as decentralized political organizations and network structures, others are more interested in the social research side, coming out of a tradition of thinking about social relations of finance and payment, or looking at communities of developers and startups or government projects.

However, crypto is a surprisingly tough field to navigate for many sociologists and anthropologists to navigate. One of the biggest problems is weighing the claims made by cryptocurrency communities they’re trying to study.

Research remains scattered across different subdisciplines, and there’s yet to be a major conference devoted to the subject, but the preeminent anthropological association (the AAA) has held breakout sessions and lectures, and a few journals such as the Journal of Cultural Economy and Economy and Society are beginning to emerge as leading areas of blockchain and society research. New Media and Society is also emerging as an important journal.

William Maurer, Dean of the School of Social Sciences at UC Irvine, directs the Institute for Money, Technology and Financial Inclusion (IMTFI). His work explores technological infrastructures and social relations of exchange and payment; more recently looking at how professional communities (such as payments industry professionals, programmers, and legal consultants) conceptualize and build financial technology, and how consumers use and experience it.

Maurer authored a chapter devoted to “blockchain” in Routledge’s Digital Anthropology, Second Edition and in 2013 co-authored, ‘“When perhaps the real problem is money itself!”: the practical materiality of Bitcoin’, Social Semiotics, doi: 10.1080/10350330.2013.777594, 2.

He was kind enough to describe some of the blockchain-related research going on in his field.

Kelsie Nabben and Mick Morucci provided additional material.

Jaya Klara Brekke writes, does research, and speaks on the political economy of blockchain and consensus protocols, focusing on questions of politics and power in distributed systems, politics/geography blockchain.

Finn Brunton is a media historian, a professor of Science and Technology Studies at UC Davis. He is the author of Digital Cash: The Unknown History of the Anarchists, Utopians, and Technologists Who Created Cryptocurrency. (2019) Among other cryptocurrency-related articles, he’s recently published a short story for CoinDesk’s Internet 2030 special edition called “A Day in the Life of SplinterNet.”

Koray Caliskan is an associate professor of strategic design and management at The New School: Parsons. He has a major blockchain project called mamame.com.tr, a social innovation project bringing together the organizational form of cooperative and limited liability in economizing under-represented women’s labor. His most recent book is called Data money: The socio-technical infrastructure of cryptocurrency blockchains (a recent article) and is forthcoming from Columbia University Press. He recently presented an ethnography of the Electra cryptocurrency.

Primavera De Filippi is a legal scholar, whose work focuses on the legal challenges and opportunities of blockchain technology and artificial intelligence, with a specific focus on governance and trust. She is currently working on a project called Blockchain Gov, which is an interdisciplinary research project that includes an ethnographic component, studying the impact of blockchain technology on governance, and its consequences for legitimacy and trust.

Lilith Dieterich is a research associate at the Institute for Sociology at the Goethe University, focusing on intentional communities and how they use cryptocurrency.

Quinn Dupont is currently an assistant professor of the School of Business at the University College of Dublin, where he is an expert in information ethics, cybersecurity policy, digital innovation and governance, and blockchains and cryptocurrencies. He is the founder and editor-in-chief of the Blockchain Research Network, which collates blockchain research, and the author of (2019) Cryptocurrencies and Blockchains. He has many publications devoted to blockchain technologies and FinTech, including an Ethnography of The DAO, which was summarized by SCRF. He also runs a panel devoted to Uncommon Economies at UCD, which includes presentations from many of the professors listed below.

Paul Ennis is an assistant professor in the College of Business, University College Dublin and a frequent contributor to CoinDesk. His research interests are related to the cryptocurrencies Bitcoin and Ethereum. He argues that cryptocurrencies are best understood by examining the community structure and cultural values they exhibit. He focused on the creativity of cryptocultures.

Seth Fry is a professor in Communication at the University of California Davis and an affiliate of the Ostrom Workshop at Indiana University. He is a cognitive scientist and computational social scientist who studies human decision behavior in complex social environments. His expertise is in computational approaches to self-governance and the cognitive science of strategic behavior.

Adam Hayes is an economic sociologist at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, interested in digital currency and blockchain research and advocacy. He is also an for the University of Nicosia’s MSc program in Digital Currencies. He is the author of “The Socio-Technological Lives of Bitcoin.” Theory, Culture & Society 36, no. 4 (2019), 49. doi:10.1177/0263276419826218.

Luke Heemsbergen is also a lecturer in Communication at Deakin University. His work explores the intersection of digital communication and political life where novel media make new relations and power structures visible and knowable. He along with Alexia Maddox co-authored, “Blockchained to What (end)? A Socio-Material Provocation to Check Distributed Futures.” In Blockchain and Web 3.0, 1st Ed. (Routledge, 2020).

Henrik Karlstrøm is a postdoctoral researcher at the Department of Interdisciplinary Studies of Culture, NTNU. His research focuses on the construction and maintenance of markets, mostly related to energy technologies. He is the author of “Do libertarians dream of electric coins? The material embeddedness of Bitcoin”. Distinktion: Journal of Social Theory 15, no. 1 (2014), 3, doi:10.1080/1600910x.2013.870083.

Alexia Maddox is a lecturer in Communication at Deakin University. She is interested in the experience of digital community and thinking about how to visualize social form. Her recent book “Research Methods and Global Online Communities: A case study” explored the notion of community experience as it occurs in a spatially distributed, global context and how this experience is shaped by the mediation of technology and the internet. She is the author of “An ethnography of Bitcoin: Toward a future research agenda,” ‘An ethnography of Bitcoin: Towards a future research agenda’, AJTDE, 4 no. 1 (2016), 65, doi: 10.18080/ajtde.v4n1.49.

Kelsie Nabben is a researcher in the RMIT Blockchain Innovation Hub and a Ph.D. candidate in the Centre for Automated Decision-Making & Society and Digital Ethnography Research Centre at RMIT University. Her research focuses on resilience in decentralized technologies, from an ethnographic standpoint. Kelsie formerly worked on a number of high-profile blockchain projects and is a member of the Board of Blockchain Australia.

Rachel O’Dwyer is a lecturer in Digital Cultures in the School of Visual Culture in the National College of Art & Design, (NCAD) Dublin. She worked with Maurer as a Fulbright Scholar at the Institute for Money, Technology, and Financial Inclusion. Her work explores “how value is extracted through networks and platforms, with a particular focus on digital money, mobile networks, and payments.” She also explores modes of resistance that emerge to surveillance capitalism, with an emphasis on artistic and activist practices. Most of her work concentrates on the money/payments space. Cache society: transactional records, electronic money, and cultural resistance published by the Journal of Cultural Economics is a typical example of her work.

Alexandru Preda is a Professor at King’s College London and a visiting professor at the University of Chicago. He’s a behavior finance expert. Currently studying how technology—including blockchain technologies—changes financial markets, knowledge, and expertise. Currently working on a semester-long blockchain seminar and was hoping to lecture at UCI about Central Bank Digital Currencies. Engaged with three major projects: investigating expert collaborations between finance professionals and computer engineers in blockchain and crypto-asset firms on a global scale; investigating the impact of social media on financial decision making; and a third investigating crypto-asset trading platforms and the behavior of traders in crypto assets.

Ludovico Rella is a Ph.D. student working at the University of Durham (UK). He began an ethnography of Ripple, and has recently (2020) published an article in the Journal of Cultural Economics called Steps towards an ecology of money infrastructures: materiality and cultures of Ripple. Rellas has just published a chapter in Navigating the Field: Postgraduate Experiences in Social Research devoted to conducting ethnographic research in the digital realm.

Ellie Rennie is a Principal Research Fellow in the Digital Ethnography Research Centre at RMIT and a member of the RMIT Blockchain Innovation Hub. In 2020 she commenced an Australian Research Council-funded Future Fellowship. The five-year project, ‘Cooperation through Code’, aims to show the social consequences of using distributed ledger technology for compliance, registries, and regulatory processes.

Nathan Schnieder is a professor of media studies at the University of Colorado Boulder, where he directs the Media Enterprise Design Lab, which is a think tank for community ownership and governance in media organizations. He has written books on cooperative enterprise, the Occupy movement, and God, and co-edited one about the Internet.

Lana Swartz is an assistant professor of media studies at the University of Virginia. Her most recent book, New Money: How Payment Became Social Media (2020) describes money (whether it’s Bitcoin, Venmo, or the USD) as a communication technology that creates and sustains invisible and often exclusive communities. In 2017, she co-edited “Paid: Tales of Dongles, Checks, and other money stuff” with Maurer. She’s been writing about Bitcoin since 2013, and has recently published an essay about cryptocurrency as part of her work as a fellow for the Berggruen Institute: Bitcoin as a Meme and a Future, and has a forthcoming article devoted to “Theorizing the 2017 ICO Bubble as a Network Scam.”

Institutes

Centre for Automated Decision Making & Society aims to create the knowledge and strategies necessary for responsible, ethical, and inclusive automated decision-making. The Centre combines leading researchers from the humanities, social and technological sciences in an international industry, research, and civil society network.

DATA + SOCIETY INSTITUTE: a New York-based think tank looking at new media and society has done a bunch of work on political disinformation, bot-driven ads, and other crypto-related issues. Fellows (such as Chris Dixon) have been discussing Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies since 2015.

The Digital Ethnography Research Centre at RMIT applies cutting-edge ethnographic approaches to better understand how digital tech impacts our present lives and potential futures. Their researchers work alongside students, communities, governmental or nonprofit agencies, and corporate partners to explore the creative possibilities of digital technologies as well as the social, economic, and political impacts.

The Institute for Money, Technology and Financial Inclusion: is a leading research center on the consumer side of financial technology–everything from mobile money to AI-driven alternative credit scoring. We focus on the everyday use and implications of these new technologies: how people engage, refuse, modify, hack, and share them, and how they in turn influence people’s understandings of money, value, justice, even faith.

The Practitioner

Mick Morucci, the author of Why Anthropologists Are More Interested in Bitcoin than Economists, began his career doing rural research appraisal in Nepal, working among local populations in one of the poorest and most rural regions after a devastating earthquake hit.

Anthropology, as Morucci put it, is a field concerned with “ethnography,” which is research that gleans insight through participatory observation. “There’s a methodological element,” he says, “it’s about being willing to watch and listen and immersing yourself in a different world view and considering alternatives.”

He was interviewing the local population about their latrine usage, compiling statistics for grant writing but he noticed something peculiar and fantastic going on. Nearly everyone he met was in constant contact with a network of friends and relatives working all over the world. It was all happening over smartphones. Technology could be an incredible emancipatory force, he realized, particularly in the developing world. He took a job in a FinTech innovation lab after that and began building FinTech products for banks and exploring cryptocurrencies.

Today, Morucci works at RARA.social, using a combination of product development and anthropological investigation to investigate the NFT community, which is currently bifurcated between Discord, a lively, exciting chat space, and static auction pages like OpenSea. He’s hoping the product RARA is working on will connect the two, and create a new layer of engagement between them.

He also continues to do his own research for the Bitcoin community, including a comparison of Bitcoin HODLer attitudes and Balinesian cockfighters.

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Malcolm .A. Campbell-Verduyn, PhD
Assistant Professor of International Political Economy
He is the editor of “Bitcoin and Beyond: Cryptocurrencies, Blockchains, and Global Governance”. His research combines a general focus on ideas and materiality with a specific interest in the roles of non-state actors, technologies and technical artefacts in contemporary global governance.

This volume brings scholars of anthropology, economics, Science and Technology Studies, and sociology together with GPE scholars in assessing the actual implications posed by Bitcoin and blockchains for contemporary global governance. Its interdisciplinary contributions provide academics, policymakers, industry practitioners and the general public with more nuanced understandings of technological change in the changing character of governance within and across the borders of nation-states.

Open Access Link: Bitcoin and Beyond | Taylor & Francis Group

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Great summary of the different people in sociology and anthropology working in the cryptocurrency space. Thank you for bringing us all together, and enable cross-pollination of ideas.

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@metamick14 it’s really nice to have you here! Thanks again for letting me interview you. You’re most welcome to reach out if you have some research you’d like to publish, and of course please feel free to add suggestions to this list!

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Thank you so much, Faith! I’ll add that one in, I also need to add another suggestion: Joelle Hawa at the University of Adelaide, and, of course, @jasonanastas

This is really cool. Maybe this could even become one in a series of mini-posts? Along with sociology, some other multidisciplinary fields that I think could be interesting to study:

  1. Universally studied
    → Finance and the Blockchain
    → Computer Science and the Blockchain
    → Law and the Blockchain
  2. Widely studied
    → Real Estate and the Blockchain
    → Public Transportation and the Blockchain
    → Supply Chain and the Blockchain
    → Medicine and the Blockchain
    → Art and the Blockchain (recently with NFT’s)
  3. Rarely studied
    → Psychology and the Blockchain
    → Linguistics and the Blockchain
    → Education and the Blockchain
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