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Image: Clive Varley [CC BY 2.0], via Flickr

A modern subject gets a traditional treatment

Alex Preda was already well established as an authority on the sociology of financial markets when he decided to break new ground—both for him and the field—with a project investigating cryptoasset firms. But the professor of accounting, accountability and financial management at King’s Business School was going to do it in a traditional way.

This would be the first time Preda had attempted such a major ethnography—an account of a particular culture or society—of a group working in a digital industry, and he knew he would have to work hard to convince reviewers he was the right person to lead it. He succeeded, and work on his £654,444 Economic and Social Research Council Research Grant began in July 2020.

Spark of an idea

The project began with Preda’s belief that, while they may appear to be so internationally diffuse and technology driven as to almost prevent standard sociological analysis, cryptoasset firms could not exist without permanent and durable collaborations between software engineers and finance professionals. So one of the goals of his research was to explore how these links work. 

“Collaborations are very problematic in science—it’s not easy to collaborate with someone from outside your domain—this has been studied time and again, so I’m not reinventing the wheel with this project,” he says.

Indeed, some of the best ethnographies in the field of finance date back to decades ago, he adds, but since then many practices have changed: programming languages have multiplied, data has moved onto vast “cloud” servers and software has expanded into so many domains of life.

Preda’s interest in software and technology came via his original research focus on financial markets, so he was not an expert on blockchain or cryptocurrencies when he first conceived of the project. To overcome this, he immersed himself in the topic, reading books on computer science and attending online conferences. He spoke with friends who are engineers and took an introductory computer science course as he began writing the proposal. All of this helped him understand the logic of working on other side of the computer—not as an end user, but as someone who produces tools for computer users.

Preparing the ground

But Preda knew that just gaining knowledge in these fields would not be enough to secure success for such a major bid; he would need to do some preliminary fieldwork. For that, he needed to secure access to blockchain firms in the UK, Switzerland, Hong Kong, Japan and mainland China and persuade managers of the project’s importance. 

Surprisingly, perhaps, Preda says it was not too difficult convincing firms to come on board but the process needed time; he visited the handful of firms roughly three times each before they committed to providing him access. 

The preliminary fieldwork also helped Preda answer questions in the proposal over how the team would handle sensitive data: “Without [preliminary work] you have little idea of how data sensitivity will work in practice, what kind of data is sensitive.”

Being able to visit companies of interest while formulating the project also helped him structure the conceptual argument in his proposal, he says. His bid became “livelier, better oriented—not just a rehash of literature, which is very important—and [the novel research] was given full force”.

Out in the field

A team of investigators will undertake much of the ethnographic fieldwork for the study itself. The fact that they are all familiar with the cultures where the firms are based is important, Preda says: “I could learn Spanish in London but that doesn’t make me competent in cultural practices to work in Buenos Aires. Drawing on work and research experience across various cultures gives the project a real advantage.”

As such, Preda is committed to relying on the expertise of his co-investigators and does not want to take a ‘top down’ approach. “We are very egalitarian team. Even if I’m principal investigator, I do as much fieldwork as my co-investigators. I never felt like I should sit in the armchair and command, so we all go and do it,” he says, alluding to the fact that he will undertake some of the fieldwork himself. 

Yet the traditional, place-based nature of the project has led to challenges as a result of the Covid-19 crisis, even if Preda was able to postpone the project’s original start date in April by three months.

To date, Preda and his co-investigators have only been able to conduct interviews online. He says that while such work is helpful, it’s no replacement for physical participation and he knows his collaborators feel the same. “We see ‘Zoom fatigue’ setting in. This limits us seriously in some cases.”

This reflects his feelings towards online ethnography more generally, it seems. “Online ethnography has been a real help during the pandemic,” he says, but can only go so far. “Is it helpful? Very. But limited? Yes.” 

This is an extract from an article in Research Professional’s Funding Insight service and also appeared in Research Fortnight. To subscribe contact sales@researchresearch.com