Creativity is a popular topic today. Its popularity is based on the assumption – often validated by research – that creativity contributes significantly to the well-being and wealth of individuals and society. To create means to generate ideas, objects or practices that are both novel and meaningful. Creative work thus enriches our personal and social experience of the world and contributes, in different degrees, to our shared culture. While there are clear benefits associated with creativity, we still have a long way to go when it comes to understanding it as a process and, more specifically, as a simultaneously individual and sociocultural phenomenon.
My work over the past decade has been dedicated to developing a sociocultural approach to creativity. This approach doesn’t deny the role of individual psychological processes but, rather, integrates them within a wider conception of what it means to create as a member of a society and culture (oftentimes, multiple groups and cultures). Considering creativity strictly as an individual ability has its benefits. For example, it becomes much easier to measure creative expression when focusing on concrete products generated by a certain person. Given the highly developed set of tests and psychological measures available today, one can also study what traits or skills are particularly associated with creativity. These research aims are worthy in their own right.
And yet, reducing creativity to what individuals think and do restricts our understanding of creative processes. By zooming in on personal attributes and the characteristics of creative products, we lose sight of the bigger picture when it comes to creativity. And this bigger picture necessarily includes the multiple forms of interaction and collaboration that make creative works possible. Within this, more systemic, understanding, creativity is no longer a quality of isolated people or things but a quality of the relationships between them, an emergent property of collaborative work. If it is true – and I believe it is – that all creativity is, in fact, co-creation, then the ways in which we discover, measure, and foster creativity need to be revised. How exactly?
Two stories of creativity
Before addressing the ‘how’ question, it is important to ask what prevents us from adopting a social and cultural perspective on creativity. To answer this, we need to consider for a moment historical discourses of creativity: in other words, the ways in which we are used to thinking about creative people and creative processes in a variety of societal settings, including in the family, in education, and at work, as well as within mass-media.
One distinguishing feature of these popular conceptions, I argue, is the focus on the individual and, ‘within’ the individual, the emphasis on thinking processes. Indeed, creativity is often associated – at least in psychology – with different types of thinking: combinatorial, divergent, lateral, etc. The common image of the lit light bulb as a metaphor for creativity reinforces this view. To create means to get that one (special) idea, to reach the Aha! or Eureka! moment. What happens before or after this moment is less relevant or, at least, it no longer concerns creativity. The reduction of the creative process to the moment of insight disconnects creativity from practice, from exercise, and from other people (big insights are presumably fostered by solitude).
The individualistic discourse regarding creativity is perhaps most obvious in the study of geniuses and, today, of giftedness. While there is no denying that some people possess traits or skills that are highly favourable for creativity, creative achievement itself can never be reduced to individuals alone. And yet, the study of genius often pointed towards the person: to his or her brain, genes, personality structure, intelligence, thinking abilities, imagination, motivation, etc. This way of conceiving creativity is at once essentialist and exclusivist. It is essentialist inasmuch as it searches for an ‘essence’, within the individual, that can explain creativity. It is exclusivist given the fact that it tends to focus on revolutionary creations at the exclusion of everyday creativity. In doing so, it ultimately separates creator from society and disconnects what is created from culture, or what existed before.
Is there another ‘story’ about creativity available? Is it even possible to think of creativity in non-individualistic terms? Indeed it is, and these conceptions have become more and more prominent in the last decades: Creativity as collaboration. The creative product as co-created. The creative person as a social actor and cultural agent.
It is not only the case that we live in increasingly inter-dependent worlds, but our minds are, and have always been, interconnected with those of others. Our ideas, whether creative or not, are both personal and shared. They are shared because they are usually expressed in a language that is not of our own making and come out of having learned, through interactions, different ways of thinking about the world. Creative action is best considered as interaction or as a form of communication. Indeed, we create both with and for others, and this is true of children’s stories and games as much as it is of the latest discoveries in science and technology. There would also be no creativity possible outside of society given the fact that, ultimately, society (or, rather, parts of society) decide what is creative or not, what ends up contributing to the overall culture and what gets ignored, dismissed, or resisted.
Understanding creativity as a simultaneously psychological, social, material and cultural process requires us to operate with new definitions of this phenomenon. Instead of looking for the ‘center’ of creativity, we need to look for networks. Instead of static traits or products, we should focus on relationships; instead of on a highly centralised process, on an open, systemic, distributed one.
Creativity and culture
This second story about creativity (a counter-story?) creates a solid bridge between creativity and culture. More than this, it makes each one indispensable to the other. Creativity uses cultural elements in order to contribute to culture. Culture incorporates creative outcomes and provides the materials necessary for new acts of creativity to occur.
What I mean by culture here is not the ‘high’ or institutionalized culture of museums, galleries, and science labs. This is only one aspect of it. In fact, there is culture virtually everywhere. Immersed within it, like fish in water, we become oblivious to the fact that the language we speak, the symbols we use, the images we are accustomed to, the tools we employ, and the institutions we work in are all part of a cultural system. There are macro-cultures formed at the level of entire societies or nations, and a lot of attention is paid, for instance, to supra-national culture (e.g., many comparisons between the Western and Eastern ways of doing things, including creating). But there is culture also at the micro-level, within each family, each classroom, each working place. And where there is culture, there is also creativity.
Culture makes creativity possible because it allows us to use symbols and signs in the way we interact with the world. Unlike most other animals, humans are not at the mercy of their sensorial stimulations; they are not trapped within their physical, perceptual environment. In other words, there are things that ‘intervene’ between these stimulations and our responses. And these things are what culture is made up of: symbols, representations, ideas, language. Existing as cultural beings means that we can take some distance from the here-and-now of our experience and reflect on it, plan ahead, imagine. This is what young children do when they start to engage in pretend play. They play with an object ‘as if’ it was something else. The early use of language and the scaffolding offered by social interactions make this possible. And it is in these episodes of play that creativity becomes manifest for the first time.
Later on, we use our increasingly complex cultural experience to create more complex ideas, things, and relationships. It is because we participate in culture from different positions (for instance, different social roles) that we acquire multiple perspectives on the world: that of a student and that of a parent, that of an employee and an employer, of a friend as well as a partner, etc. We not only adopt different positions and roles but, with the means of culture, we are able to ‘move’ between them. We are able, within the same situation, to understand our viewpoint as well as that of others. And it is in this difference – between us and others – that we find the ‘atom’ of creativity. Differences are essential for creating even if the mere presence of difference is a necessary but not sufficient condition for creativity. It is because we become aware of difference, reflect on it, and use it, that we have a chance at producing creative outcomes.
Through creativity, we participate in our culture. Through the multiplicity and complexity of culture, we emerge, from early on, as creative beings.
How do we cultivate creativity?
If we accept creativity as an intrinsically social and cultural phenomenon, we need to rethink not only how we discover and measure it but also how we might foster creative expression. For a long time in school, and not only there, creative potential was studied and encouraged at an individual level. It was – and to a large extent continues to be – a focus on individual abilities that prevailed. However, if creativity is enabled by cultural participation, then the question of educating (for) creativity requires a different answer.
Creativity is enhanced by cultivating relationships rather than individual traits (which, in fact, emerge and are practiced within relationships). It requires us to help people participate fully in their cultures, to acquire its multiple tools, symbols, and perspectives, and exchange them with others. Developing cultures of creativity rather than isolated creative minds is the way forward but, as always, this is easier said than done.
What does a culture of creativity depend on? At least three things. First, the existence of differences. Each culture presents us with a multitude of resources to live, grow, and create. Multicultural contexts are important precisely for making us aware of these resources and adding to them. But, as I mentioned before, difference is necessary but not sufficient. What we need, in addition, is the possibility to experience various facets of culture, from different objects and places, to different people and institutional arrangements. This experience is enabled by interacting with other people and trying to understand their position and perspective on the world. It is by taking the perspective of multiple others that we can become flexible regarding our own point of view and see it as one among many. This realisation is both exhilarating and disquieting. Encountering difference, either within our own culture or that of others, destabilises our conception of the world, even if temporarily. And it is in these moments of disequilibrium, of doubt, of wondering, that new ideas emerge and new ways of doing things become possible. The third step, thus, is embracing differences and considering them as a resource rather than a threat. Creativity thrives in environments that respect otherness and value different points of view: in other words, in micro- and macro-cultures that are open to diversity and change.
And it is here that we come full circle. Creativity is popular today because we live in cultures that cherish it. The paradox is that they don’t offer enough opportunities to engage in creative action. This is partially due to the individualistic conceptions we tend to hold about creativity. These, in turn, make us focus on persons rather than networks and relationships. If the experience of difference is fundamental for cultures of creativity, how can we achieve it when focusing exclusively on the self? The story of both creativity and culture depends on self and others. They both flourish within relationships.
Vlad Glăveanu is Associate Professor and Head of the Department of Psychology and Professional Counseling at Webster University Geneva. He obtained his PhD in Social Psychology from the London School of Economics and has published over 100 articles and chapters on creativity, imagination, culture, and collaboration. He is also the editor-in-chief of Europe’s Journal of Psychology, an open access peer reviewed journal published by PsychOpen (Germany).