Decoding Social Dynamics: An Anthropological Study on Cryptocurrency

This blog post is an invited guest post by Anna Vennonen. This article draws on the ethnographic study she conducted for her Master’s Thesis at the University of Helsinki in 2023, titled: ‘More than Money: An Ethnography of Dreams, Value and Community in the Cryptoscene’. The research was supported by a scholarship from Blockchain Research Lab. If you have any questions or comments, please feel free to contact Anna Vennonen directly.

Nakamoto’s successful mining of the initial Bitcoin in 2009 has proven to be a significant milestone in the history of money and value. Along with its ancestors – including David Chaum’s digicash, Adam Beck’s hashcash, Nick Szabo’s Bit-Gold and Wei Dai’s B-money – Bitcoin and subsequent cryptocurrencies brought to life a vision of peer-to-peer digital currency that went far beyond earlier alternative currency movements, attracting global recognition and adoption. Existing beyond the control of governments and banks, cryptocurrency holds the potential to disrupt traditional economic systems and change the way we think about money. To understand cryptocurrencies’ impact on society, we must approach the topic from sociocultural perspectives in addition to economic and technical ones. Seeing cryptocurrency as an opportunity to explore the social construction of value in contemporary society, I set out to study crypto users in their ‘natural habitats’, from an anthropological perspective.

Why anthropology?

As the study of culture and societies, anthropology is well-placed to explore the social and cultural dimensions of emerging technologies and value forms. The discipline has a long history of examining and documenting the way value moves through societies, in its sub-field of economic anthropology. Anthropologists mainly use qualitative methods, placing a high emphasis on cultural context. When looking at economic actions, they tend not to treat them as isolated from other parts of people’s lives, instead recognising them to have complex relationships with concepts of value from other areas of life, such as politics, kinship and religion (see Gregory 2018). Scholars have also described how money takes on personal and social meanings which alters how its value is perceived (Zelizer 1989; High 2013).

As Mick Morucci highlights in his article explaining why anthropologists are interested in Bitcoin, anthropologists are accustomed to dealing with varied belief systems and exploring diverse cultural phenomena, through the ‘emic’ or people’s own perspectives, as well as ‘etic’ researcher perspectives. It is the consideration of both ‘insider’ and ‘outsider’ logics and worldviews in participatory observation, which helps the discipline produce its insights.

“Anthropology’s superpower is its openness to alternative belief systems and ability to craft a more nuanced and holistic view of the world as a result” Morucci 2021

Applying an anthropological perspective to cryptocurrency can help answer central questions about the phenomenon – including the question of why cryptocurrency is even valuable in the first place. While economists may answer in terms of supply and demand, this only partially answers the question of value, which exists in the face of money and value in general. A number of scholars in the social sciences have understood money and value to be socially constructed in human societies (Ingham 1996, 2004; Dodd 2015, Graeber 2001, 2011). Through this perspective, value need not appear as a singular, unified ‘truth’ about the world, rather it can be seen to vary with historical and cultural contexts. Even forms of economic and financial value do not necessarily produce perfect ‘truths’ about the world, given that they are made in relation to certain perspectives and values (Ortiz 2013, Graeber 2013; Chiapello 2015). As opposed to actually ‘existing’, value has been described as “a way in which people make sense of their relations in a specific setting” (Ortiz 2013: 66). By applying a broader theory of value to cryptocurrency, we can capture a more comprehensive set of answers to questions about what gives cryptocurrency its meaning in contemporary society.

This study took an in-depth ethnographic approach, which meant spending extended periods of time in the social ‘scenes’ that have emerged around cryptocurrencies and speaking to people that made it part of their lives, to uncover cultural meanings and practices. Using the anthropological method of participant observation, the study engaged with three different communities: (1) a local Bitcoin group in Helsinki (2) an online group of crypto enthusiasts who met weekly on Zoom, and (3) the largest crypto community on Reddit: r/Cryptocurrency. Through seven months of fieldwork among these groups, and a set of 33 interviews with fifteen cryptocurrency users, I explored what cryptocurrency brought to people’s lives.

Why people use crypto and the value they see in it

It would be easy to assume that people’s motivations to get into cryptocurrency were all about getting rich, though social scientists have emphasized other significant factors in cryptocurrency use. These include cryptocurrencies’ ideological appeals (Maurer, Nelms and Swartz 2013), the cultural climates that contribute to their adoption (Lee 2020), and the gratification people receive from being a part of this new global development in value (Calvão 2018). My research found motivations for using cryptocurrencies to be considerably diverse. Three prominent themes emerged from my fieldwork: a distrust in traditional societal models, a need for cryptographic and practical affordances, and a speculative opportunity. These themes corresponded to users’ understandings of cryptocurrency’s value; in terms of a ‘hard’ money, a new system, and a dream for a better life.

Motivations and understandings of value went beyond individual rational economization, a foundational assumption in theories of motivations in economics. Rather, they often drew on ideological beliefs, values and pursuits of ‘the good life’, including but extending far beyond individual material fulfilment. These findings also reflect the way the value, economic and otherwise, is constructed in relation to the values of any given society (Graeber 2001). This is also true of its surrounding practices, as is, for instance, evident in the case of Islamic banking (see Maurer 2005). The creation of money is a social, cultural and political act, not just an economic one.

While cryptocurrencies represent an economic opportunity, they also evoke visions of world-building and self-realization, drawing on social relations at personal and collective scales. This is significant, for it challenges the common perception that people are overwhelmingly interested in cryptocurrencies for their potential to generate profits. Without denying this is a common motivation, the findings also reflected a desire among cryptocurrency users, for blockchain technologies to deliver benefits beyond economic value alone.

Values, ideals and subjectivities constructed among users

Alongside “value”, as we often talk about it in the economic sense, one finds values in the social sense. In other words, things we aspire to and judgements we make about the world. There are many different values being expressed in the cryptocurrency movement. Two significant themes that arose in the analysis of users’ practices and discourses, were ideals of (1) self-responsibility and (2) rationality and discipline.

The first of these was expressed through the scene’s emphasis on ‘DYOR’ or ‘do your own research’ and practices of ‘hard ownership’, which support visions of cryptocurrency as ‘hard money’. Interlocuters often spoke of self-responsibility in terms of personal empowerment, though some also described the negative effects of this individualism, which led mass events to be blamed on the individuals who lost as a result of them. Rationality and discipline were cultivated through practices like technical analysis, as well as more subtly produced norms and standards in the communities surrounding cryptocurrencies, such as advice to avoid emotive environments. The scene’s emphasis on individualism was associated with the rise of new ethics and labours, which position risk as a personal responsibility as opposed to a collective one, coinciding with broader trends in contemporary financialised society.

These findings build on previous literature that emphasises the importance of ideology in the cryptocurrency movement (Maurer, Nelms and Swartz 2013), Dodd 2018, Baldwin 2018), and provide new detail on how these are realized at the community level and in people’s practices. The work encourages further research into how users come to adopt not only cryptocurrencies as financial assets, but also the ideals, practices, and identities popular in the scene. The analysis also highlights potential drawbacks of common ideals in crypto cultures, such as individualism, which can foster a culture of blaming individuals rather than discussing strategies to address systemic power imbalances, reported to be prevalent in the scene (Sai, Buckley and Le Gear 2021). This finding underscores the need for peer-to-peer innovations to help safeguard average users operating in these under-regulated spaces; an endeavour relevant to those concerned with cryptocurrencies’ democratizing potential.

Recognition of ideological and political values implicit in the design of technologies including cryptocurrencies also highlights the need to analyse their biases and explore the ways the technologies operate in practice among diverse groups of people. Therefore, the work encourages future research to explore development and adoption among women and people in the Global South, to examine the ‘on the ground’ implications of their design and use.

The role of social relations in constructing value and establishing trust

The study found communities surrounding cryptocurrencies to play an important role in mediating trust and value. Trust remained an essential part of cryptocurrency use, despite enthusiasts’ claims of cryptocurrency being ‘trustless money’. Rather than cryptocurrencies’ having abolished the need for trust, trust is dispersed among multiple agents, intermediaries, and personal practices, as well as in the collective acceptance of its value among adoptees. Users were found to use not only rationalized tools to evaluate cryptocurrency projects but also social knowledge and ethical judgements. Given the abundance of information/opinions online, the study suggests users (willing to admit it or not) trust other users to varying extents.

Building on previous literature discussing trust (Maurer, Nelms and Swartz 2013; Dodd 2018; Faria 2021), the study provides greater detail on the function of social scenes around cryptocurrencies. Actions taken in crypto communities were understood to influence the value of cryptocurrency in both economic and imagined terms. As an interlocutor’s experience of creating an active community around a certain NFT artist showed, the prices and perceived value of works went up considerably following social actions, alluding to the relationship between sociality and value. Moreover, users themselves recognised the power of social actions in these spaces and developed strategies to harness them; encouraging mass buying and holding through collective rituals (e.g., sharing memes), inspiring hope during a market downturn, and in some cases, creating echo chambers that dismiss negative information in attempts to maintain value and trust.

Despite the scene’s individualism and cryptocurrencies’ pseudonymous design that limits the ability to know another user, a plethora of communities have arisen, supporting (at times rich) social connections to form, along with unique forms of social capital. Cryptocurrencies at times even act as a luxury good or marker of Taste, that signals membership to imagined communities. Among my own and other anthropologists’ interlocutors, this was described as consisting of ‘open-minded’ people (see Tremcinsky 2022). Different cryptocurrencies attract different followings, not only for their economic potential but for the distinct social meanings they provide and the ideological projects they engage with. Further, communities in the cryptocurrency scene not only produce forms of value but also work to reinforce the values and ideals which shape users as financial actors. Together these social processes support the social construction of cryptocurrencies’ value in a range of ways: from transfers of fiat dollars into crypto economies to establishing trust and communicating their sociocultural meanings.


In exploring cryptocurrency from an anthropological perspective, the study produced new perspectives on how value is being imagined and realised in a time when technology is playing an increasing role in our lives. Through ethnography among users, the study identified three prominent motivations for cryptocurrency use: a distrust in traditional societal models, a desire for their practical and cryptographic affordances, and as a speculative opportunity. Analysing users’ understandings of value, the research explored themes of ‘hard money’, a new system, and a better life. Moving beyond notions of individual economization, the study discussed the significance of ideological beliefs, values, and pursuits of the good life, which often drew on real and imagined social relations. The study identified new labours and ethics formed around ideals of self-responsibility and rationality and discipline. These included practices of ‘doing your own research’ and maintaining ‘hard ownership’, as well as attempts to become rational and disciplined financial subjects. The study found trust to be a vital aspect of cryptocurrency use, despite enthusiasts´ claims of ´trustlessness´. Communities were found to play a key role in establishing trust and constructing value, through actions and discourses that present cryptocurrency as valuable. By contributing to the limited anthropological research on cryptocurrency, this study seeks to forefront the significance of social relations in the construction of value in contemporary society.

You can download Anna’s thesis HERE.