What’s the difference between description and analysis? The myth of the unfakeable banknote

What’s the difference between description and analysis? The myth of the unfakeable banknote

I often say to students ‘describe, then analyse’. Well, how do you know which one you are doing and what the difference between them is? And while we’re about it, what’s the difference between method and methodology, hmmm? There is really no fundamental difference. Description always involves a choice of terms in which to describe, and these are analytical choices. Analysis is just being aware of those choices, understanding that some choices have been made for you before you even start, then deciding what elements to focus on, and drawing connections between cases in order to make inferences. Analysis is therefore that ability to connect the description to a category or process that tells you about it, and being aware of the context in which it is produced.

For example, I research banknote counterfeiting. One aspect of that is looking at how banks and tellers detect counterfeits. A start to that is by describing the equipment used (e.g. ultraviolet lamps) and then the process (the different kinds of examination notes undergo). Analysis is looking at what informs the design of those technologies and processes. One ground level assumption everyone works with is that there is an objective way to tell the difference once and for all. Analysis looks at what effect these assumptions have in the world. For example, if tellers are held responsible for accepting counterfeits then that shifts the responsibility from the designer to the lowest level human in the process. That tells us about who has power over money. We can then say a lot more about how cash notes fit into the economy as part of a whole process based on distributing trust and responsibility. We might also look at the changing design of notes as partly symbolic, incorporating banal nationalism at some stages, and also about shifting understandings of the role of cash and money in the economy.

The design of the Euro notes gives new meaning to both. The semiotics are significant. They are intentionally banal. Each country is only represented in the serial numbers of the notes, and the images uses are intended not to refer to anything real that might get people hot under the collar. You can compare those notes to others that intend to communicate stability and reliability, or seek to say something about the nation they represent. Finland’s markka notes designed by Eliel Saarinen are a lovely example of aspirational nationalist modernism at a time when Finnish national consciousness was starting to cohere around national independence. Scammers faked the Finnish markka and in one genius instance made a 20 markka note into a non existent 2000 mark note by the simple means of adding two zeros to the face number. While that wouldn’t have fooled a lot of Finns it might have worked when exchanging the notes abroad.

The security features also are semiotic: the signal trust, but also have to perform practically. They need to be readable to the human eye and sensitive to touch, to make them quickly recognisable. We can then ask what this tells us about the notes as circulating media or as stores of value, the intended rapidity of their circulation and how the designers understand where they will be exchanged.

Analysis then leads us to further questions. Do central banks plan there to be a perfectly unfakeable note? How do fake notes affect people’s faith in money? Do times of hyperinflation or deflation change this relationship? How does computer fraud change the faith people put in digital versus physical currency? How does the creation of automatic transaction terminals such as supermarket customer checkout systems shift the equation? Increasingly we look at currency and payment as a closed system, which alters what we understand cash to be. Cash can operate as something valued independently of its ‘face value’. For example, in Russia during 1992 there was a shortage of small value 15-kopek pieces used for payphones, so they began changing hands for much more (Lemon, 1998). Likewise, drug dealers in parts of the USA refused to accept one dollar bills, so local shops made a lively trade selling 10 dollar bills to drug users for 11 one dollar bills.

Analysis also helps us tell the difference between banally obvious statements that still need to be made (e.g. that every banknote is an act of faith) and propositions that can be tested (e.g. people automatically have more trust in higher value notes). Just in case anyone things I am ragging on cash, cryptocurrency is worse (Bratspies, 2018).

We often think of description as mundane and concrete and analysis as showy and abstract. The reverse is true. Every act of description is an act of creation, and every act of analysis brings that creation back to earth.

Bratspies, Rebecca M. 2018. Cryptocurrency and the Myth of the Trustless Transaction. SSRN Scholarly Paper. ID 3141605. Rochester, NY: Social Science Research Network.
Lemon, Alaina. ‘“Your Eyes Are Green like Dollars”: Counterfeit Cash, National Substance, and Currency Apartheid in 1990s Russia’. Cultural Anthropology 13, no. 1 (1998): 22–55. https://doi.org/10.1525/can.1998.13.1.22.
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