I am an anthropologist and economist who went down the Bitcoin rabbit hole. I wrote this paper to clarify my thoughts about why these two disciplines respond so differently to Bitcoin.
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.
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. 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).
Why Are Anthropologists Interested In Bitcoin (And Many Economists Aren’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…