What is Creativity – The Socjourn

Monika Reuter, Ph.D. (Sociology) – The Art Institute of Fort Lauderdale

Listening to a report on WLRN, the local national public radio station in August of 2009 about gentrification of Biscayne Boulevard and the “Daily Creative Food Company” in Miami hooked me to something that has not let go of me again. “Creative food?” I thought. I had never considered this before. Then I walked into the restaurant of our college, and in the middle of the room were all the bread creations by the culinary students, and it hit me: food and creativity – why, of course!

I began to pay attention to how the term was used: the Food Network loves the word; Buddy Valastro in his TLC shows Cake Boss and Kitchen Boss mentions the concept at least once per show; during a recent Chopped show, “creativity” was uttered four times in the first 20 minutes alone.

We find the concept in politics (President Obama’s 2010 State of the Union address), in advertising, in education, and in philosophy. So – what does it mean? Creativity is snugly at home in Psychology. In a speech for the American Psychological Association annual meeting in 1950, Guilford challenged academics to think about creativity, and sixty years of work began. Many books, and hundreds of articles later (my bibliography so far is 38 pages long, single-spaced), the question has not been answered.

As I kept getting deeper into psychological explanations, I encountered ideas that creativity is the Janus face of madness, a personal trait, a by-product of intelligence or (not) teachable. Chaos theory has been proposed, and so has economics (see Howkins’ 2001 suggestion that the value of global creative turnover is $ 2.2 trillion annually). I also found the how-to consulting industry with oddball ideas such as different colored thinking hats to serious findings on the power of creativity in business (Tanner, 1997). Thousands of books, workshops, seminars, associations, groups and individuals with a wide variety of approaches try teaching people/institutions/corporations/kids on how to be creative.

Outside of person-centered approaches in Psychology, there is a suggestion that creativity might have different meanings in different cultural contexts (Kaufman and Sternberg, 2006). Well … ah duh … said my sociological brain! Much to my astonishment, however, I did not find theories or empirical research on creativity in Sociology except for Florida’s (2002) popular book which has some serious flaws and ignites the ire of many a labor activist, and Collins (1998) who wrote an amazing book on the sociology of philosophies and idea networks mirroring Sawyer’s (2007) proposition that creativity happens in groups. I have found Csikszentmihalyi (1996) and now get “flow.” Ruth Richards’ “everyday creativity” (2007) is interesting, and so is Glaveanu’s “social creativity” (2010). But while Ritzer says “I’d like to see a society in which people are free to be creative, rather than having their creativity constrained or eliminated” by the process of McDonaldization (www.georgeritzer.com), he does not define the term. There are so many explanations for creativity that it is no wonder why no consensus can be found on its meaning.

I was now convinced that we needed a theory of creativity in Sociology, and while I could fall back on Mills, or Berger and Luckman, it would be so much more challenging and fun to come up with something new. What better way than to ask the people who are, supposedly, “creative”? I work for a college that promises creative careers, I have hundreds of students who cannot escape when I ask them to fill out a survey, and I have ways to contact employers in creative industries. If I want to know what creativity is, I should ask students and employers/industry professionals!

Today, I am 1,725 student surveys and 183 employer/industry professional interviews further along, but no wiser. Heeding Babbie’s (2010) advice of “triangulation” as the best methodology to study abstract concepts, I devised both a quantitative survey with students in my “Research Methods in Action” classes, and qualitative interviews for employers/industry professionals. I quickly learned that interviewing may be the queen of all research methods, but she is also the most expensive in terms of time. So I began to e-mail the interviews to employers. These “e-interviews” have reached a few people far away (India, Hawaii, Australia) but most of them were filled out by time-pressed, harried and good-hearted souls locally who answered to my pleading, took out 20 minutes to fill in the open-ended questions, and sent it back.

I have learned a lot. I have learned that students and employers are about as far apart in their conceptions of creativity as the North and the South poles. I have learned that, were I to argue in a Marxian tradition, employers still today, in the 21st Century, really want nothing more than good little working ants. I have learned that students are incapable of thinking inside the box – the box where they will have to go in order to get a paycheck. They are, according to employers, and by their own preferences on the survey, not very good working, or willing to engage, as team members.

I have learned that we, as a vocational college, seem not to do a good job for employers because, to the discontent of many of them, our students are not fully “baked,” i.e., they still have to learn things, and employers have to invest time and money to teach them, and would prefer that we deliver the students ready to hit the ground, running. Some employers also fault the college for the many behavioral shortcomings they see: we educators are not only supposed to teach them the English and math and critical thinking (not too much of that, though, please!) that they need to become good employees. We are also supposed to teach them, in four years, and barring all else they may not/have learned hitherto, to be content with low starting salaries, to be on time, to be well dressed, to not talk back, to not have aspirations of becoming an Indian chief (“there’s no room for two”), and to smile and whistle while they work. On top of everything else, students are incapable of taking professional criticism, and that is the fault of the college, too.

I have also learned that students have absolutely no idea of “the real world.” They cannot comprehend that constant texting on their phones will be as unwelcome by an employer as it is by me during class. They cannot comprehend that there are deadlines, and if they are not met, there will be no paycheck. They cannot comprehend that while they may be night owls, businesses tend to run during the day, and do not appreciate someone who “just can’t get it together before noon” (our Career Services Department can tell many such stories). The college requires a class in professionalism, and students still do not think that a couple of grammar problems on their resume should elicit employers’ sarcasm.

As I said, I have learned a lot. What I have not learned in the past 3 years is what creativity is, or why the public is fascinated with the idea of creativity as an outcome of a few brilliant geniuses who sit around and let it pour out of them. I am stumped when I hear creativity being mistaken for innovation, or the assumption that only that can be creative which sells. Yet, there is much belief that if only we could crank up the creativity, our economy would be on the upswing again (Kao, 2008) – and we could save the world (Meyer, 2000).

What I’m still fascinated by is the idea of a sociological theory of creativity – minus the obvious discussion on art which I avoid. I am asking for your suggestions: Have you seen a creativity theory? Do you know of a model I could follow? Where do you see creativity? Is there a culture I should look into (either in the U.S., or abroad)? Is this a mad pursuit and should I grow earlids (Tucholsky, 1931) to ignore the nagging questions of creativity? How important is this question to Sociology – or is it? Comment please, or send me an e-mail: [email protected].


Babbie, Earl. 2010. The Practice of Social Research. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.

Collins, Randall. 1998. The Sociology of Philosophies: A Global Theory of Intellectual Change. Cambridge, Mass.: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

Czikszentmihalyi, Mihalyi. 1996. Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention. NY: Harper Collins Publishers

Florida, Richard. 2002. The Rise of the Creative Class; and how it’s transforming work, leisure, community, and everyday life. NY: Basic Books.

Glaveanu, Vlad-Petre. 2010. “Principles for a Cultural Psychology of Creativity,” in Culture & Psychology, 16: 147-163.

Guilford, J.P. 1950. “Creativity”. The American Psychologist, 5: 444-454.

Howkins, John. 2001. The Creative Economy. NY: Penguin Books.

Kao, John. 2008. Innovation: Wie sich die USA & Europa neu erfinden koennen. Hamburg: Murmann Verlag.

Kaufman, James C. and Robert J. Sternberg (eds.) 2006. The International Handbook of Creativity. NY: Cambridge University Press.

Meyer, Pamela. 2000. Quantum Creativity. Lincolnwood (Chicago): Contemporary Books.

Richards, Ruth (ed.). 2007. Everyday Creativity and New Views of Human Nature. Psychological, Social and Spiritual Perspectives. Washington, D.C.: American. Psychological Association. Greenwich, CT: Ablex Publishing Corporation.

Sawyer, R. Keith. 2007. Group Genius. The Creative Power of Collaboration. NY: Basic Books.

Tanner, David. 1997. Total Creativity in Business and Industry. New York: Advanced Practical Thinking Training, Inc. (APT T).

Tucholsky, Kurt. 1931. Schloss Gripsholm. Berlin: Ernst Rowohlt.

By: Dr. S.

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