Crypto is the new exotic

DateJuly 25, 2021
Reading Time5 min
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Camilla Carabini
Economic Anthropologist
People have a romanticized idea of what anthropologists do. As if they were explorers, some kind of Indiana Jones discovering faraway places. But, they can help you understand money. What can Anthropology tell us about money, and therefore, crypto?
Author - Camilla Carabini - stylized
Making the implicit explicit

Making the implicit explicit

Indigenous people in the Amazon forest, nomadic pastors in arid mountains, fishermen on remote islands are all suitable settings to situate our imaginary anthropologist. As it often happens, this is not completely false, but it is only a part of the entire (and more complex) story. This romantic version comes from history, as the discipline is (sadly) a creature of colonialism: it was born as the study of "primitive cultures", to find the best way to govern and control the conquered population. Through the methodology called "participant observation" (1), which implies the complete immersion of the researcher in the field, anthropologists get to know the implicit structures of a culture that are often invisible to those who are born and raised within it.

Bronisław Malinowski, for example, spent many years in some islands of Melanesia learning the local language and living together with the indigenous people. By following them in their everyday activities, like gardening, building canoes, preparing food, organizing ceremonies, he discovered a very complex exchange system through which local chiefs built alliances and maintained peace among different islands. This network, called kula ring, consisted in very sumptuous ceremonies during which locals praised each other through the offering of a gift - red shells disc-beads necklaces or a withe shell bracelets. Social norms, power structure, and kinship relations of those societies were built around the kula system: gift exchange was at the heart of those cultures.

In the modern era, however, the anthropologist can also wear a suit and study groups of people within “modern” enterprises or institutions. Since the '80s, finance has become a topic of greatest interest among human scientists. Anthropologists have studied traders who work within financial institutions, as they represent a group of people, close to the outsiders, with their power structures, kinship relations, rituals, and ideologies. Anthropologists have followed them in their daily habits, shadowed their behavior, empathized with their routine, and deconstructed many beliefs that surround the investment practices. For example, buying and selling choices resulted to be deeply embedded in human relations, and depending much more on what traders call their "market instinct", their personal experience, and the impressions they got from their colleagues than on the application of mathematical models that should maximize the return on investments (2). Because all cultures are “primitive”, and that of high-finance is no exception.

The cryptosphere can also be analyzed by using the anthropological lens: DeFi Degens and Bitcoin Maximalists can be considered an indigenous group, with their power structures, kinship relations, memes, and ideologies. As Gillian Tett recently reported in the Financial Times “the crypto world does not lack social structure. The network is defined by distinctive rituals, symbols and creation myths, shaped by dominant players such as Elon Musk (3). Crypto is the new “exotic” in the field of anthropology.

Anthropology and Money

Anthropology and Money

When anthropologists encountered indigenous societies, they discovered monies that were very different from those minted by a sovereign or a state. They noticed that the main purpose of those "coins" - like shells, iron bars, cattle.. - was not so much to buy and sell things but to create social relationships. In the Trobriand Islands, for example, the acceptance of a gift of a shell necklace or a bracelet would engage the receiver in a (virtually endless) spiral of exchanges: who received the gift had to give back another one and so the relation among the two was established and would be maintained by periodic kula ceremonies. Those shells, therefore, were much more than simply money. In Africa, among the Lele of Cameroon, the cloth was used not much as a means of payment but rather as an instrument for establishing social relationships, affirming prestige, and creating political alliances. The TIVs of Nigeria divided their economic life into "spheres of exchange": some goods could only be exchanged with others of the same category. Ordinary consumption goods - such as food -, prestige goods - such as cattle or cloth - and rights over women were considered incommensurable between them.

David Graeber, one of the greatest contemporary economic anthropologists (4) demonstrates that, in most societies, exchanges for daily goods were mainly characterized by debit-credit systems. This means that people bought and sold things by "paying" through credit notes (like shells or tally-sticks) that people considered valid within their community. Therefore "money" was a series of interpersonal debts that bind to reciprocity. Gold and silver coins only emerged in complex societies for international trade or the sustenance of state armies. The purpose of a physical token with intrinsic value is to allow exchanges between people who could not trust one another and who would not be able to establish long-term credit-debit relationships. For example, a village baker could not have trusted a merchant coming from India or a soldier who was passing by to reach the battlefield to be able to repay its debt. Yuval Noah Harari, the historian best known for his books “sapiens” and “homo Deus”, argues that this “money as a medium for trust” is one of the greatest tools our species has developed to enable collaboration at a large scale and one of the biggest contributor to our “success” as a species. Indeed, to scale from communities of 150 individuals - which most social scientists argue is the largest a community can be where everyone knows everyone - to millions, one needs to have a medium for trust.

From the anthropological study of "primitive money," we learn that money not only serves to buy and sell things but it also has the function of establishing, strengthening, or either destroying relationships. Even if the crypto-architecture is completely digital and what is being swapped are not shells but bits, exchanges are indeed a means to establish social relations. In the case of Bitcoin, the purpose of dismantling and replacing the current monetary system brings together many who hodl Sakamoto's currency. On the one hand, Bitcoin aims at destroying the powerful financial relationships in the "fiat" world, on the other, it is a way of giving trust to a project (and the people behind it) that the currency represents: this is even more evident when investing in altcoins or when buying NFTs. On Twitter, Bitcoiners change their profile picture adding laser eyes on it to be recognizable by others: it is a strong message for the crypto-network, a declaration of sharing the same values and the basis for reciprocal respect. Using crypto-money becomes therefore a tool for asserting ideas, values, and ideologies. Money is "a social medium" embedded in a very complex range of relations and this is why crypto-anthropology can shed a light on understanding the social life of cryptos and their potential impact on society.

Written by Camilla Carabini.

Economic anthropologist interested in money, finance, and cooperatives. She works as an independent researcher and she is a board member of Fondazione Finanza Etica in Italy. She is an expert on international cooperative development: before choosing the freelance career she was director of an Ngo engaged in the promotion of social and cooperative enterprises in Africa and Latin America. She has lived, studied, and worked in Argentina, Cape Verde, Colombia, Ghana, Mozambique, Spain, Togo, and the UK. She is @camunz on Twitter.

Camilla Carabini


(1) Firstly theorized by the economic anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski in the early '20, "participant observation" soon became the distinctive methodology used by anthropologists.

(2) For reading about ethnography in financial institutions, I recommend Ho, Karen (2009). Liquidated: An ethnography of Wall Street. Duke University Press and Zaloom, Caitleen (2006). Out of the pits: Traders and technology from Chicago to London. University of Chicago Press.

(3) Gillian Tett is an anthropologist and journalist of the Financial Times.

(4)  His book "Debt. The first 5000 years" (Melville House, 2011) is a heterodox history of money and debt.

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Camilla Carabini
Economic Anthropologist

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