Rita Denny applies an anthropological framework to consumer behavior across the globe, calling on linguistic, semiotic and symbolic traditions for interpreting attitudes, perceptions and practices. Rita’s work has supported strategic development of products, services and brands as well as communications strategies for Fortune Global 500 companies, government agencies and public institutions. Most recently, she is the executive director of EPIC. Rita holds a Ph.D. in Anthropology from University of Chicago. With Patricia Sunderland she is the author of Doing Anthropology in Consumer Research and editor of Handbook of Anthropology in Business. She is a dedicated Lake Michigan swimmer.
Rita on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/rita-denny-a9393a5/
Fri, 5/15 12:50PM • 38:49
Jay Hasbrouck 00:00
Hello, and welcome to EthnoPod with Jay Hasbrouck. Today I have the pleasure of speaking with Rita Denny. She’s the Executive Director of the Ethnographic Praxis in Industry Conference, and we’re going to chat a little bit about that and what she’s up to. Hello, Rita.
Rita Denny 00:15
Hello, Jay. It’s great to be here.
How are you today?
Good, good. For those who don’t know you really well, let’s begin with some background about you and what led you to where you are today?
Sure. So I would describe myself as an anthropologist by training and a consumer researcher by profession. The route going from anthropologist to consumer researcher was not an expected one, but it happened, and I have been in consumer research forever, always on the consultancy side – what’s known in the industry as the supplier side – as a partner in Practica Group, which is a boutique consultancy that applies an anthropological lens to products and services, both existing and in the future, and largely for for-profit companies, but sometimes as well for nonprofit. And I guess the only other thing that I would say is that I very much see myself as an anthropologist in business, that both those roles apply. So with Patti Sunderland taking on writing projects, doing anthropology and consumer research, or the Handbook of Anthropology in Business. As well as that, I have a teaching gig at Northwestern in spring quarters in the integrated marketing communication program. That class is very much grounded in fieldwork and cultural analysis for people who will be professionals in marketing and communications or in design. Both those roles of being an anthropologist but firmly planted in business is this space that I have enjoyed inhabiting.
Yeah, I’m curious. I know that a lot of our listeners to EthnoPod also are either in the transition from academic settings to industry settings or thinking about it. What was that transition like for you?
I don’t think that I thought about it; it was not a planned decision. It was more a serendipitous one, where when I finished my degree in anthropology, the academic job market was pretty bad – as it currently is, as well. Some things don’t change. It was just a very serendipitous connection that a friend made to someone, a fellow anthropologist who is working in industry, and that was history. That was many moons ago. I guess that in that transition, though, I think what’s important is to think about – or what was important for me, anyway – was to think about industry and business, which I had never thought about before, as a sort of place of meaning making, and that inhabiting that space can be extremely thoughtful, reflective, as well as practical and innovative.
And so you jump right into a consulting–
Yes, I did, and was sent to West Texas within the first week of my employment. Yeah, it was quite something – and the whole wardrobe change that had to happen as well.
You had to drop your beads and your long earrings.
Exactly. I had heels on and stuff. It didn’t last very long – the heels didn’t last very long. But yeah, there was a whole wardrobe shift.
So I’m curious how you arrived at your current role as Executive Director. In addition to, obviously, your own business consultancy, you’re also serving now as the Executive Director of EPIC and I’m curious how that came about.
The Executive Director position is a new one for EPIC. I think it reflects the fact that EPIC has grown quite a lot in the last few years. The people who are part of the EPIC community hail from a variety of different backgrounds and different positions in industry – they could be technology companies, new or old tech; they could be products and services companies; design firms; consultancies; large and small universities; government or nonprofit. So the EPIC community itself has expanded in terms of where people hail from, as well as the numbers of people that have become part of the community. So that’s sort of one hand reason for having a position of Executive Director. But another reason also is that ethnographic work and doing ethnography and having an ethnographic approach or doing ethnography in industry itself has changed, right? And it’s gone from, I think, an age of discovery, which was I would say in the 1980s, early on applications, to one I would say is commodification in the 2000s and in the aughts, and now I think is maturing into a more professionalization and professional phase of things. So there was need, I think, for the Executive Director position or it made sense to expand the staff – from one to two, I should say, at EPIC – to include the role of Executive Director.
Basically, the goal there is how can EPIC be a resource and engine for creating change in organizations? Right? I mean, that’s where EPIC has been, that’s where EPIC is, it will be in the future. How can it create value? How can it steer change in how organizations think about their own endeavors? And my particular interest anyway for EPIC in the near term is to become more robustly global. Members hail from around the world, but there is a predominance right now in North America.
One of the things that I’ve noticed at EPIC, having attended since way back when, is that there’s a lot of talk among people in between the sessions, and there’s a great deal of sharing experiences and sharing war stories, that kind of thing. And one of the things that comes up a lot of times in those conversations are the challenges that people face. I’m wondering, are there are the certain kinds of patterns that you see about challenges for people in the industry? If you’d like to expand on that?
Sure. Yes. Things change really slowly – though perhaps present circumstances excepted – but prevailing business practices I think are very difficult to change. So things that have existed for a while – you know, 20 years ago – are still challenges today. So for example, seeing people as sort of understanding human action through a psychological prism, for example, right? The psychological self. And you can see that in the words that people use: we want to understand those deep needs, we want to understand motivations and desires. That kind of framework for understanding human action is extremely prevalent, at least in the United States. It was 20 or 30 years ago. It’s still a challenge to grapple with that frame of reference and to understand and introduce ideas of individuals as social beings embedded in larger systems.
I think another persistent challenge is the grail of unbiased truth. Yet another sort of business practice where if we – it’s a discourse, it’s a way of constructing. Sometimes our research practices – not ours, but research practices in industry – we just want to choose methods, and we want them to be unbiased and we don’t have a very sophisticated theoretical set of resources to draw on that looks at behavior not simply as a transparently obvious of what’s going on to a more analytic interpretation of what’s going on. So that still can be can be difficult.
And I guess the last one that I would cite is the notion of the sovereign consumer. And that’s where people – oftentimes there’s an assumption that an individual is making a decision, right? So surveys are premised on that. We direct our questions to a person, we ask people for their opinions, everything is this notion that there is this unit called a consumer that is sovereign and making distinctions. Again, lack of visualization of a consumer that’s embedded in relationships to other objects and people and relationships. So those kinds of things, I think, we’re still battling them. So in the halls of a conference or in EPIC talks or in the blogs and Perspectives, we’re still trying to find ways to introduce alternate ways to work with and negotiate and navigate prevailing discourses. I think we always will.
Yeah. I think a lot of the practices that you talked about within business are also themselves embedded within business culture. So it’s a little hard to separate them. These aren’t simply habits to break – or maybe they are habits in some ways, but they’re embedded with lots of other decision making processes that are privileged within a company.
Right? There’s that part too, right? Whole organizations are organized around those kinds of practices and understandings. Yes.
Yeah. I think you and I have talked about in the past this idea. I love the first one you talked about, this privileging of psychology as one of the lenses through which business often tries to approach understanding people or their customers. And I and I think part of that, at least from my perspective, comes from the 50s and the 60s. In many ways, psychology finally made its way into the living room, right? And there were many people who were sort of – there are lots of ways in which like Psychology Today became popular reading and things like that. And when you think back to you, okay, what is the parallel in anthropology, our last person that well known and that made their way into the popular imagination is Margaret Mead. And since then we really don’t have a person who’s dedicated themselves, I would say, to making that headway. It’s left a gap.
Right, it’s kind of a public intellectual.
We don’t have a good tradition of that, I think, within the United States, at least coming from social sciences – and from anthropology for sure not.
Yeah. I think we’re working at a disadvantage in some ways because of that.
Right. Agreed. We go back to tropes of anthropology as archaeology and digging and exotic lands and all the rest of it, that rather than–
Right. In fact, many of us have to go through that screen before we even get to what it is that cultural anthropology brings.
I’m curious, what do you think EPIC members are saying that they get most out of participating in the organization? We talked about these obstacles. What are the other things that you hear most frequently from your members?
I think that for people who participate in the conference or participate at epicpeople.org through a talk or a course or a tutorial of some kind, I think that what they’re getting is definitely a sense of home, a sense of community, and an ability to expand their own sense of community and connection and a resource for sharing expertise. If we look at the EPIC community, there are two pieces that I think are critical for a thriving community. One is that we establish some set of common understandings about what it is that we’re up to, and what it is that we can bring to the various work practices that we engage in. The other is to be constantly infused by other frames of reference and points of view. And that second piece is really important, because the community is diverse, and we want it to be that way. Right? So we want it to be inclusive, but also to be able to incorporate other points of view. So it’s a bit of a moving target in that case, but we have to deliver on both of those things.
So for people who come to the conference, I think that the conference really does do both of those things. So it could be from professional development tutorials, where there’s practical skills, there’s exposure to different kinds of approaches and practical implementation, all the way to conceptual leadership, whether that’s in the form of the keynote or papers or salons that take on a particular kind of topic and discussion, or even some tutorials that tend to be driven more conceptually. So I think that at the conference, you can see both ends of that spectrum, establishing common understanding as well as infusion of new ideas – and in that process, creating meaningful work. There’s a sense of participating in creating meaningful engagement. I think that’s what people talk about and that’s what can be very energizing. And it happens on epicpeople.org as well. That’s the goal, right? To be able to have that sense of energy and sharing and shared expertise.
Do you get a sense of how many EPIC members are flying solo, basically – the only social scientist or the only person with that background in their organization?
I think quite a lot, actually. You know, we hear about different companies that are hiring all these social scientists or ethnographers and so on. But my guess is that they are often part of larger, multidisciplinary teams – which is great – but it can also be a lonely existence, because you’re both in and of. You’re in a team but the expertise that you are providing and bringing to the party is your ability to take a step outside and to understand the endeavor of the team – what it’s trying to do – in a different kind of scope. So when you come to EPIC or when you’re participating in webinar, there is a sense of I want to say a little bit of relief and a lot of delight to say, ‘Oh, yeah, I don’t have to explain my existence. I don’t have to explain all these assumptions. You get what I’m talking about.’ So there’s definitely that.
I think it’s interesting because some of our background can work to our advantage in those situations as well, as you mentioned, taking that ethnographic lens and aiming it inward at a team and really trying to lean on our skills like facilitation and that sort of professional stranger, the insider-outsider status. It’s a lot of pressure, but it also comes in handy as well if you’re flying solo like that.
Yeah. I think that Erin Taylor recently wrote a blog post on epicpeople.org, and she talked about sort of the outsider status of being an ethnographer in an organization and her take was we need to embrace it, just professionalize it. Right? That’s what we’re bringing. Don’t apologize. Bring it to the forefront. That’s what we’re about. That’s what we can contribute.
Yeah, it’s definitely a lot of what I argue in Ethnographic Thinking as well. There’s no reason to not use those skills in other settings – in addition to informing strategy of an organization as well. There’s no reason that our skills – things like curiosity or facilitation, and all those things that we bring – couldn’t be used more broadly. Let’s talk a little bit about the conference itself, because we’ve got one coming up and we’re at a particular moment in history. I’m curious how you guys are responding to the COVID-19 situation.
Yes. We’re responding in a few ways. In terms of the conference, we decided just a few days ago that we would be virtual and that the challenge then for us is to be very EPIC in our virtual rendition of the conference. So how can we be meaningful together? How can we expand and engage with community? How can we feel as though we’re at home while we’re sitting in front of a computer? The wonderful possibility that it opens up is that people who wouldn’t have been able to go to Australia and to Melbourne can still attend. And so we really probably for the first time will be global. Typically, a number of countries – last year, I think 21 countries – are represented at the conference, but mostly North American attendees. So this time we are really trying to see it as an opportunity that we can bring that value system and really be very global in how we unfold that and how the conference unfolds. Exactly what that means is yet to be determined. Stay tuned, it will be there.
But I think that your larger question is what does EPIC do in this age of pandemic, when the world has been upended and will remain so for some period of time? A few weeks ago, we wrote a post on epicpeople.org. I described ethnographers as tenacious, curious, improvisational, thoughtful, reflective as a group. Right? We are. You are the first person who I think would agree. You’ve talked about those kinds of qualities in Ethnographic Thinking. But as a community, then, I think what that means is that we can sort of decode what’s happening. We can absorb what’s happening a bit to individuals, we can absorb that as a community, and we can help navigate some of the ramifications for the impact on work and remote work, or colleagues and friends, and communities and neighborhoods.
That’s how I think the values and the mission of EPIC will materialize in this age as a community, in this age of the pandemic. A recent EPIC talk that we constructed for just entirely that reason was ‘Life and work in the pandemic’. And 150 people signed up literally over the weekend. What was really interesting in that talk/webinar is that it was pretty grim. First of all, we had people from Australia to the Ukraine who are participating. So for some people, it was super early in the morning, and for some people is was quite late at night. And it went from individuals coming on feeling this is a pretty grim situation, to feeling a bit hopeful by the end. Not that we won’t be upended and not that things won’t be very difficult, but in the collective conscious conversation recognizing that this also was an opportunity. One of the observations that that people made was that the boundaries between us and our roles are pretty porous. Oftentimes our work is conducted in a silo. So whether the silo is the team or the silo is the research project. We have research participants – we have these kinds of buckets for thinking about our own actions and the research process. I think what people have come to realize in all of this is that those silos are kind of arbitrarily constructed. They’re kind of convenient, right? Because we can put boundaries on things and we can be efficient in keeping boundaries on things, but in fact there’s interweaving all the way through it. And that as citizens, consumers, employees, employers, our stakeholders or whomever, that we’re all in this together.
So one example that came up was someone who is doing research project with small business. Small business has been obviously hugely impacted by a pandemic. People are laying people off and so on, closing their doors. What is research then? What does it mean to do research in those situations? And one of the thoughts was that you’re actually community making as much as you are doing research, so that people are connecting with each other, there is a sense that you’re creating something. Perhaps those are lessons we need to retain when life is a little calmer, right? Yeah. So it allows us to ask questions about the nature of the research process, what it is that we are producing when we do research, and what should we be producing when we do research? So that’s one form of opportunity. The other is that we can observe social change. It’s a time where we can observe social change as it unfolds. So what’s the nature of remote work? What are the reference systems that people are using to interpret what’s happening and what work is or work and home? So it allows a reflective piece as well.
I’ve been thinking a lot about storytelling lately. I’m focusing there and thinking about how stories themselves are ways of expressing values and sharing values. And they’re certainly one form that humans use as learning; one of the one of the primary forms of learning is through story. And paying close attention to that now is an interesting thing, to think about how are we using stories to interpret the pandemic? How are we using stories to cope with it and to think about that as a research subject? But then also, as you mentioned, what are the stories we’re bringing back? How is it that we as practitioners are thinking about the stories we share and the kind of positioning that that has as well.
There was a point that was made by one person in the talk that we all know but deserves sort of restating sometimes, and this time, the situation right now, provokes us to revisit it. And that is that research shouldn’t be extractive. It’s not something you go in and do and take out, especially as ethnographers. We are absolutely aware that the work that we do is reciprocal. It’s one of reciprocity. That’s the nature of ethnographic practice. It seems particularly apparent to not only us as ethnographers, but now to some of the stakeholders who are involved in the work process in our organizations. And that’s actually really great.
That is a great point. Totally. And you’re definitely seeing people understand a bit more about the reflective nature of what we do and how it impacts everything we do right now, for sure.
There’s so many people who are in this struggle moment in terms of understanding people.
Right, exactly. And we have an opportunity to bring in different models and structures for understanding people. I think that the disruptive moment allows for that. I guess I would just say one other thing, Jay, and that is in terms of EPIC in the age of the pandemic. So yes, our conference will go virtual. We’re introducing different kinds of talks and opportunities on epicpeople.org. And that will continue and some of those will be ad hoc, just depending on what bubbles up, what surfaces among members. Some of them will be really practical, some of them will be very reflective, but it’s a time for that community making moment, and feeling like you can gain insight by the collective observation of the of the group, I think, is a very powerful one. So that’s what will unfold over the next few months.
Yeah. It’ll be interesting to see how you guys structure the gathering so I’ll stay tuned as well.
Yeah, for sure.
Is it like EPIC around the clock now? We can go 24 hours.
Remember, we have a staff of very few! Things will be in the video library permanently and we are trying to do – usually we have an EPIC talk once a month, and there will definitely be more than that.
So I wanted to shift gears as we think about this too, and thinking about what are you seeing as early signals on the horizon for how ethnography is in industrial settings or how we’re changing, how our approach might be changing? Are there any things that you’re hearing about or seeing that are indicators there?
One of the ways I think that the EPIC community and EPIC has changed is witnessed in the last few years by the themes of the conferences: evidence, agency, and now scale. And what those particular things illustrate is the desire to engage with conversations outside of our own ethnographic interests, perhaps. So it’s not so inner focused. How are we heard? What value do we create? What’s best practice? Those are really important things, and those are questions that we do pose in other ways. But questions of scale or agency or evidence speak very much to how do we engage with people outside of our spheres, the people that we work with: engineers, data scientists, product innovators? So EPIC has changed in that way, and I see more of that in the horizon. And that comes with a certain professionalization.
Yeah, I was just going to say the same thing. I think that’s an indicator that we’re growing up.
Exactly. So I think it’s really great. And the marketplace has changed too; so it’s not just internal change to EPIC, but the marketplace has shifted. For example, I guess I sort of see EPIC as just kind of an historic convergence in certain ways of three different industries. One is design, one is technology and one is consumer research. They came from three very different kinds of backgrounds and activities in the 1980s. EPIC – initially, anyway – was born from people in technology companies, Microsoft and Intel, to get together and to create a sense of a shared body of knowledge. Design came through and then consumer research – the consumer products companies of the world, financial services, automotive – all that also became part of it and convergent. So design companies are now creating brand experiences. Technology and automation and so on is now completely infused in consumer products companies. So that kind of convergence, I think, also brings in different kinds of models, different kinds of understandings, different ways of doing that will also play out into the future.
Yeah. I mean, we can’t help but absorb some of those things I think as ethnographers.
Exactly. I guess I would just say one other thing is that one of the changes that I think is here to stay as well is to think more systemically. If nothing else, the conference co-chairs this year in choosing the theme of scale were completely prescient in that regard. Just how our actions are so intertwined on a global level. But we need to be thinking more systemically and I think that the world is ready to think that way as well – more ready to think that way than perhaps in the past. So we might get out of that psychological profile.
Exactly. We’re realizing we’re all connected finally.
Finally. Yes, exactly.
Yeah. And I think the Mead and Bateson school of systemic thinking is really starting to become more relevant than ever, too. They were talking about these things long, long, long ago.
Long ago. I know. Back to your point of we need some public intellectuals from anthropology.
This may be the moment. I wanted to thank you and also wrap up, if you’re open to it, with a few rapid-fire questions, some quick responses.
The first one is: if there’s one thing in the research industry that you wish you were able to change, what would it be?
Okay. I think I have two, sorry. The first is our reliance still on the sovereign consumer. I just wish we could just get rid of it. And a little bit of a corollary. For those of us who are doing ethnographic work, the over-reliance on the motif that we’re uncovering the real consumer. The reliance on the ‘real’, I wish we could just disband with right now forever.
As if we are the sort of representation of reality, you mean, that we’re bringing that representation into it?
Exactly. Yeah, it just leads us down to – see, now we’re not being rapid fire anymore, Jay. But it leads us down a road that I think is absolutely not productive in the end, because then we’re arguing over different methods and modes of what counts as ‘real’ rather than looking at people as social actors, cultural systems, and illuminating and theorizing relationships.
The second one is what advice would you give to someone who is beginning to explore a career in ethnographic research?
Join EPIC. That was an easy one. Engage with like-minded others. Find some community so that you can bring yourself up to speed about the discourses and possibilities and approaches and challenges. Like-minded people, like-minded others, I think, is a very important thing to get started.
Yeah, I’ll second that one. And then finally, what have you read recently that you’d recommend to our listeners?
I read this great book a month or so ago called Sea People by Christina Thompson. It really tackles the mysteries of Polynesian navigation. I know this is not very ethnographic, but in some sense it is in the end, because she looks at the different narratives. You talked about storytelling. She looked at the different stories that people have told over time – from early explorers to the present day – about Polynesians, navigation systems, and theories of how did Polynesians navigate thousands of miles and what was their system, and what the stories were that we constructed around that? What it made me realize once again – first of all, it’s eloquent and it’s a page turner, even though it’s nonfiction. But what it made me realize once again is how limited we are by our own reference systems. We have a way of constructing something and we don’t always examine it. And so it reminded me once again about the power of reference systems and that ethnographers as a group are really good at examining reference systems.
Yeah, I’ll have to add that to my 50,000 book long list.
Yes, exactly. Good luck with that.
Well, thank you very much, Rita, for having our discussion and being on EthnoPod today. It’s been a pleasure as always.
Jay, thank you. I appreciate in turbulent times to carve out the space, and it’s always fun to talk to you.
You as well. And if people want to connect with you in any way, do you have a way that you prefer? Twitter, LinkedIn?
LinkedIn is great. I would say LinkedIn.
Great. All right. Hopefully we’ll see each other in the future sometime soon. And thank you again, Rita.
Thank you, Jay. Take care.