The Active Construction of Passive Investors

Socio-Economic Review, mwz046,

How does algorithmic finance operate in society as it crosses the threshold into the hands of lay investors? This article builds on original ethnographic research into a new class of algorithmic trading programs known as ‘roboadvisors’—inexpensive, automated, digital financial platforms that enable ordinary people to invest very small minimum amounts and that rely to a large extent on passive, index strategies that follow the prescripts of Modern Portfolio Theory. The main argument of the article is that roboadvisors, representing an ethos of ‘low-finance’, are actively constructing passive investors by disciplining them through technologies that embody canonical models of financial economics. Roboadvisors and their algorithms reconfigure their users and objectify them…

The social meaning of financial wealth: Relational accounting in the context of 401(k) retirement accounts

Finance and Society, 5(1): 61-83.


This article draws on and extends Viviana Zelizer’s social meaning of money framework in conjunction with new work in ‘relational accounting’ to suggest a sociological counterpoint, focusing in particular on the social and symbolic meaning attached to individual 401(k) retirement accounts. Following a market downturn, neoclassical and behavioral economics predict various types of behavioral responses, in particular loss aversion – where investors seek to increase risk-taking rather than locking in a sure loss (a loss is more painful to bear than an equivalent gain). A sociological theory that understands the shared meaning of retirement saving would predict something different, a behavior I call durable conservatism. In this article, I show how this concept better explains observed risk behavior in Americans’ 401(k) accounts following the 2002 and 2008 bear markets …

The Socio-Technological Lives of Bitcoin

Theory, Culture, and Society, 36(4), 49–72.


In this essay, I argue that cryptocurrencies and blockchains are important objects of general social science research and thought, but not for their ‘moneyness’ per se. Through a historical sociology of the antecedents and discourse leading up to Bitcoin, I show that it was never meant to be ‘money’ in the economic sense, but rather a solution to a technical puzzle for preventing opportunistic actors from double-spending digital ‘coins,’ as well as a fervent ideology surrounding online privacy and infringement of individual rights in the digital age. Drawing from themes in science and technology studies, I suggest that Bitcoin and other ‘cryptoassets’ are properly socio-technological assemblages that constitute new and important objects of social inquiry that must be understood beyond the myopic context of crypto-money. I conclude by proposing three alternative ontologies for blockchains relevant to economic, political, and social life: as systems of accounting, as organizational forms, and as institutions…