Categorical Anarchy in the U.K.? The British Media's Classification of Bitcoin and the Limits of Categorization
Research in the Sociology of Organizations (2017), 51: 187-222
36 Pages Posted: 30 Jun 2016 Last revised: 31 Dec 2018
Date Written: June 24, 2016
Bitcoin, introduced in 2009, is a complex entity whose evolving design and purpose are constantly redefined in a decentralized fashion. This makes bitcoin difficult to categorize, and indeed since 2009 bitcoin has been associated with 112 different labels in the British media alone (e.g., “private money”, “asset”, “commodity”) — most of which fail to adequately describe bitcoin. Contrary to expectations, the introduction of new labels meant to encapsulate bitcoin’s unique attributes is rare. By analyzing labels in 674 articles published in the U.K. between 2009 and 2015, we shed new light on the relationship between labeling and categorization, and explain the ongoing confusion faced by the media and their audiences when it comes to bitcoin. In particular, we identify classification inconsistencies at three levels (within clusters of labels, between labels and categories, and between label attributes), which hamper categorization based on attribute similarity, audience goals, and causal models (respectively). We contend that four contextual elements nurture this categorical anarchy: radical innovation, decentralization, nonintersection of knowledge domains, and absence of a superordinate category. We discuss implications for theory on categorization and innovation, and we conclude this paper with a call for more research on the socioeconomic revolution heralded by bitcoin and the blockchain.
Keywords: bitcoin, categorization, innovation, media, expertise
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