My individual research project will explore the Bitcoin phenomenon in China. Introduced in 2009, Bitcoin is a peer-to-peer electronic payment system that harnesses decentralised networking technologies to enable payments without the need for a central authorising agency (Bitcoin Group 2015, p.26). Bitcoin is often referred to as a form of cryptocurrency or virtual currency because it exists purely in an electronic form (Bitcoin Group 2015, p.26). Bitcoin is “mined” by supercomputers which solve difficult mathematical formulas to generate the currency (Murray 2016). As of 30 November 2015, 14.9 million Bitcoins had been mined (Bitcoin Group 2015, p.26).
In recent years, China has become a market for Bitcoin unlike anything in the West, fueling huge investments in mining farms as well as enormous speculative trading on Chinese Bitcoin exchanges (Popper 2016). Mines run by Chinese companies account for approximately 70 per cent of the world’s bitcoin processing power and Chinese exchanges account for approximately 70 percent of the world’s bitcoin trade (Denyer 2016).
For my individual research project, I will simulate the process of buying a bitcoin from a Chinese Bitcoin provider. This will entail setting up an account, creating a Bitcoin “wallet” and understanding the steps involved in transferring funds from my existing bank account to my Bitcoin account in order to convert Australian dollars into bitcoins.
I have selected the Chinese Bitcoin provider BTCC to undertake this process. Established in 2011, BTCC (formerly BTC China) was China’s first bitcoin exchange and is now the leading Bitcoin financial platform worldwide (BTCC 2016). Due to its strong global reputation as a professionally-run Bitcoin provider, BTCC is the ideal platform to help guide me through my first experience with Bitcoin.
To carry out this project, I will adopt autoethnography as a research method. Autoethnographies “are highly personalised accounts that draw upon the experience of the author/researcher for the purposes of extending sociological understanding (Sparkes 2000, p.21). Autoethnography “lets you use yourself to get to culture” (Pelias 2003, p.372).
Through the autoethnographic method, I will report, record and reflect on the process of buying a bitcoin on BTCC from the perspective of an average Western consumer who completes all transactions through conventional cash and secure online payment systems provided by banks and trusted third parties such as PayPal. As such, I will reflect on potential security, trust and privacy concerns that may be raised throughout the process.
In keeping with the essence of autoethnography, I will then connect my experience with wider cultural meanings and social circumstances. This ranges from the increasing mistrust in the existing global financial system to the general public apprehension towards the largely unregulated landscape of the emerging Bitcoin ecosystem. It is in the combined effect of self-reflection and cultural reflexivity that I hope to gain an understanding of the role and potential future use of Bitcoin in the global financial system.
Autoethnographic writings all begin with the researcher’s use of the subjective self (Wall 2006, p.8). The self is the source of the data in the form of the concrete, detailed minutiae of life – the traces and records that give clues to experience and meaning (Taylor 2008, p.178). To collect data for my individual project, I live-tweeted my thoughts, perceptions, interpretations and reactions to Motherboard’s documentary Life Inside a Secret Chinese Bitcoin Mine (2015). This Storify story provides an insight into my initial encounter with the documentary.
In my next blog post, I will retrospectively and selectively analyse my assumptions and epiphanies emerging from this encounter in order to detect cultural undertones. The results of this initial autoethnographic encounter will then be used in my individual project whereby I will reflect on whether the actual experience of buying a bitcoin from BTCC either supports or challenges my preconceived ideas and underlying cultural assumptions. For example, I will reflect on whether or not the experience of buying a bitcoin confirms the initial skepticism I felt towards Bitcoin after viewing the documentary. In this way, my research project will involve a cyclical process of data collection and analysis – the data becoming the data analysis becoming the data. This reflects the iterative nature of the autoethnographic method, with Ellis (2004, cited in Wall 2006, p.5) acknowledging that “autoethnography does not proceed linearly”, is complex, is not conducted according to a special formula and can be likened to being sent “into the woods without a compass”.
Autoethnographers pay varying levels of attention to the narration/description and analysis/interpretation of autobiographical data (Ngunjiri et al. 2010, p.3). According to Ellis and Bochner (2000, p.740, emphasis in original), “autoethnographers vary in their emphasis on the research process (graphy), on culture (ethno), and on self (auto)” such that “different exemplars of autoethnography fall at different places along the continuum of each of these three axes”. Some scholars categorise these differences as evocative versus analytic autoethnography (Ngunjiri et al. 2010, p.3, emphasis in original).
The evocative or emotional autoethnographic method championed by Ellis and Bochner (2000, cited in Méndez 2013, p.281) aims toward researchers’ introspection on a particular topic to evoke emotional resonance with the reader. However, Anderson (2006, p.385) has expressed fear that “autoethnography loses its sociological promise when it devolves into self-absorption.” To redress this situation, Anderson (2006, p.373) has proposed an alternative research method that avoids delving too much, too expressively, or exclusively in the autoethnographer’s experience and, instead, is committed to an analytic agenda, which he labels “analytic autoethnography”. According to Anderson (2006, p.385), the self-narrative of analytic autoethnography is used to develop and refine generalised theoretical understandings of broader social phenomena. This is claimed to enhance the objectivity of the enquiry (Anderson 2006, p.387).
However, Vryan (2006, p.407) cautions against framing an understanding of analytic autoethnography in terms of it not being evocative or emotional autoethnography. This implies that analytical work does not include evocation and that creative or emotionally rich text is somehow incompatible with analysis (Vryan 2006, p.409). Rather, autoethnographic research can be both rigorous, theoretical and analytical and emotional, therapeutic and inclusive of personal and social phenomena (Ellis et al. 2011, p.7, emphasis in original).
For my project, I will use the digital storytelling platform Shorthand Social to present my detailed findings as an engaging and immersive media-rich, long-form narrative that harnesses both the evocative and analytic style of autoethnography. Using Shorthand Social, I will embed video screen captures of each step in the process of buying a bitcoin on BTCC with voice-over narration uncovering my initial thoughts, perceptions, interpretations and reactions. This will leverage the power of the personal story as a way of eliciting emotion and resonance from the audience. In turn, I aim to inspire readers to reflect critically on their own experiences with traditional payment systems in order to challenge their cultural assumptions towards virtual currencies and their place in the wider financial system.
In the more text-driven parts of my narrative, I will draw on scholarly literature surrounding the issue of public trust in the financial system in hope of providing a “certain transparency” that enables readers to “get a sense of the meaning structures of the experience being described” (Jamal & Hollinshead 2001, cited in Coghlan 2012, p.119). In this way, Shorthand Social will facilitate the compelling weaving of both story and theory that is central to the writing of autoethnographic texts.
Anderson, L 2006, ‘Analytic autoethnography’, Journal of Contemporary Ethnography, vol.35, no.4, pp.373-395.
Bitcoin Group 2015, Second Replacement Prospectus, Bitcoin Group, Southbank, Victoria.
BTCC 2016, BTCC – Your Bitcoin Company, BTCC, viewed 15 September 2016, <https://www.btcc.com/>.
Coghlan, A 2012, ‘An autoethnographic account of a cycling charity challenge event: Exploring manifest and latent aspects of the experience’, Journal of Sport & Tourism, vol.17, no.2, pp.105-124.
Denyer, S 2016, ‘The bizarre world of bitcoin ‘mining’ finds a new home in Tibet’, Washington Post, 12 September, viewed 15 September 2016, <https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/asia_pacific/in-chinas-tibetan-highlands-the-bizarre-world-of-bitcoin-mining-finds-a-new-home/2016/09/12/7729cbea-657e-11e6-b4d8-33e931b5a26d_story.html>.
Ellis, C, Adams, TE & Bochner, AP 2011, ‘Autoethnography: An Overview’, Forum: Qualitative Sozialforschung/Forum: Qualitative Social Research, vol.12, no.1, pp.1-12.
Ellis, C & Bochner, AP 2000, ‘Autoethnography, personal narrative, and personal reflexivity’, in NK Denzin & YS Lincoln (eds), Handbook of Qualitative Research, 2nd edn, Sage, Thousand Oaks, California, pp.733-768.
Méndez, MG 2013, ‘Autoethnography as a research method: Advantages, limitations and criticisms’, Colombian Applied Linguistics Journal, vol.15, no.2, pp.279-287.
Murray, L 2016, ‘China’s secret Bitcoin mine’, Australian Financial Review Weekend, 7 July, viewed 15 September 2016, <http://www.afr.com/technology/lisa-kangding-story-20160706-gpzx7e>.
Ngunjiri, FW, Hernandez, KAC, Chang, H 2010, ‘Living Autoethnography: Connecting Life and Research’, Journal of Research Practice, vol.6, no.1, p.1-17.
Pelias, RJ 2003, ‘The academic tourist: An autoethnography’, Qualitative Inquiry, vol.9, no.3, pp.369-373.
Popper, N 2016, ‘How China Took Center Stage in Bitcoin’s Civil War’, New York Times, 29 June, viewed 15 September 2016, <http://www.nytimes.com/2016/07/03/business/dealbook/bitcoin-china.html>.
Sparkes, AC 2000, ‘Autoethnography and narratives of self: Reflections on criteria in action’, Sociology of Sport Journal, vol.17, pp.21-43.
Taylor, J 2008, ‘An Autoethnographic Exploration of an Occupation: Doing a PhD’, British Journal of Occupational Therapy, vol.71, no.5, pp.176-184.
Vyran, KD 2006, ‘Expanding Analytic Autoethnography and Enhancing Its Potential’, Journal of Contemporary Ethnography, vol.35, no.4, pp.405-409.
Wall, S 2006, ‘An autoethnography on learning about autoethnography’, International Journal of Qualitative Methods, vol.5, no.2, pp.1-12.