Rita Denny

This is part of our ‘Meet Our Delegates’ series where we introduce you to social scientists and technologists who are attending the conference.

Meet Rita Denny

Rita, on a personal note I’m delighted you’re coming. Your registration came through when I had one of your books open on my desk! For the people who don’t know you, please can you tell us a bit about yourself and the work that you do as an anthropologist in business?

As an anthropologist I contextualize ideas and practices in sociocultural terms. As an anthropologist in industry I’m engaged with solving business problems – how to increase visits to an art museum? How to frame guidelines for a foundation’s grants on caregiving? How to rethink an automotive manufacturer’s offerings? Position a brand? Anthropologists offer a distinct vantage point for understanding consumers and consumption practices and, importantly, a way to make culture visible. Doing Anthropology in Consumer Research and the Handbook of Anthropology in Business speak to that mission. It is about making culture visible, reframing problems and, ideally, understanding of our collective actions.

(Sidenote: Check out this profile of Rita.)

You’re the Executive Director of EPIC. The 2019 conference theme, Agency, is relevant to people coming to this conference. The question being posed is, “What does it mean to have agency in an increasingly automated world? Businesses are investing in “intelligent” technologies that promise to take humans “out of the loop.” But human agency is not disappearing—it’s evolving, and humanistic perspectives are more essential than ever.” Can you talk to us about your perspective on this?

Conference Chairs Julia Haines and Lisa DiCarlo were brilliant in their choice of theme. Clearly there is an appetite for contemplating and framing understandings of agency and to have a forum for pushing through to implications for innovation, policy, ethnographic practice. All too often we privilege the individual at the expense of systemic understanding. In putting the focus on agency we have the opportunity to envision technologies as sites of cultural production, researchers as systemic thinkers, corporations as social actors.

You’re coming from Chicago for this conference. Why are you excited to attend the conference and what do you hope to get from attending?

I’ve spent a lot of time contemplating how products, services, categories and visions of futures are framed by theories of human action (whether these understandings are called out as theories or not). It is important that we query assumptions, always, and forge collective, robust understandings of what we think we are up to. Clifford Geertz described the object of ethnographic inquiry as reducing intersubjective puzzlement – not for the purpose of exoticizing but in service of expanding a collective. This is what I’m hoping for from A+T!

In your opinion, why do you think technologists should attend the conference and meet people like you?

Because we are a fun crowd who tell good stories! Curious about perspectives people bring to their work! We want to reduce the puzzlement.

Some of our delegates are marketing folk. I can’t help thinking that Gigi Taylor’s talk at SWSX and her subsequent article, How Anthropology Captured the Imagination of Marketing Tech, is indicative of a renewed interest in the value that anthropologists can bring to marketers and advertisers in the tech space, especially big data versus ‘thick data’ and the issue of privacy. What’s your take?

As Gigi reported, the SXSW panel, An Anthropological Approach to Reaching Customers, was standing room only, 2K people, twice over – which I interpret as a sign of desperate times! Communicators find themselves in meaning deserts; brand stewards find themselves managing downside risks of algorithmic online brand stalking. Anthropology has a clear opportunity to subvert industry practice and I hope it does!

Thanks so much Rita, we can’t wait to meet you in October!