Thursday, July 17, 2008

Book Review: Explaining Creativity: The Science of Human Innovation. Prepared by: Mark Hylton, CRS 625, Current Issues Class, Summer 2008

Sawyer, R. K. (2006). Explaining Creativity: The Science of Human Innovation. New York: Oxford University Press.

Background and context
R. Keith Sawyer is Associate Professor of Education at Washington University. He is the author of many books on creativity, including Pretend Play as Improvisation (1997) & Creating Conversations (2001). His latest book, Group Genius: The creative power of collaboration (2007) extends some on the ideas of collaboration that are first explored in this book. His topics of research include business innovation, organizational dynamics in work teams, children's play and preschool, artistic and scientific creativity and language and conversation research.
It is fair to say that Sawyer’s perspectives on creativity builds on the sociocultural work of Amabile and Csikszentmihaly. This view requires not only understanding individual inspiration but also social factors like collaboration, networks of support, education and cultural background.

Organisation of the book
Sawyer breaks down the book into five main sections. He begins by exploring conceptions of creativity, including a whole set of culturally based creativity myths.

Part II examines individualist approaches to creativity starting with Guilford’s APA address in 1950 and moving on to the second wave of cognitive psychology. The contributions of biology, neuroscience and then computational approaches to the study of creativity are also explored.

Part III takes a contextualist approach which beings to introduce the sociocultural model of creativity. Essentially it is moving up from the individual to look at social factors and collaboration. This approach includes culture and history.

Part IV explores types of artistic creativity, ranging from painting to music and theatre performance, while Part V explores everyday forms of creativity, including science and business. Sawyer considers not only the psychological processes that lead individuals to be creative but also the social and cultural properties of groups that lead the group to be collectively creative.

Each chapter takes an interdisciplinary approach using both individualist and contextual evidence with the aim of moving beyond psychology to incorporate sociology, anthropology and history. The final chapter attempts to bring all this discussion together into advice on how to be more creative.

Distinctive features of the book
Sawyer is quite clear that he considers performance creativity to be one of the most important examples of human innovation. Unlike products, such as books, devices, paintings etc, that can be reproduced and sold, performance creativity is ephemeral; there is no product that remains. The audience participates during the creation and watches the creative process in action; when the performance is over, it’s gone, remaining only in the memory of the participants. Another feature of this book is that Sawyer claims it is based on solid scientific research.

What’s most interesting about this book?
I think there’s a very important viewpoint expressed in this book which is about viewing creativity as it happens, in real time. This is an important distinction to previous research on creativity, which was mostly post-hoc rationalisation about the process. Sawyer focuses more on experience in real time as a basis to understand creativity without relying solely on raw anecdotal evidence from famous creators. Sawyer builds on Csikszentmihalyi’s flow theory by examining how emergence occurs by studying improvisation. Since there is not a final creative product to focus on in improv (e.g. theatre, jazz), the process is the product, he studied what was happening as it happened. He concluded that all creative process is emergent from complex social interactions.

Sociocultural View of Creativity

In addition to psychological studies of creativity the book includes research by anthropologists on creativity in non-Western cultures, and research by sociologists about the situation, contexts, and networks of creative activity.

It brings these approaches together within the sociocultural approach to creativity pioneered by Howard Becker, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, and Howard Gardner. The sociocultural approach moves beyond the individual to consider the social and cultural contexts of creativity, emphasizing the role of collaboration and context in the creative process.

How is this book relevant to you? Sociocultural advice for creativity
A good book needs to make a connection with you as the reader. I found a lot of connections; my favourite is the view that creativity requires improvisation, collaboration and communication. The advice of the book supports this view and provides a way of increasing your own everyday creativity. This advice does go against the more common creativity myths but does have some similarities with Torrance’s (2006) manifesto for a creative career (e.g. do what you love and can do well).

Choose a domain that’s right for you
Turn your gaze outward instead of inward
Market yourself
Don’t try to become creative in general; focus on one domain
Be intrinsically motivated
Don’t get comfortable
Balance out your personality
Look for the most pressing problems facing the domain
Don’t worry about who gets the credit
Use creative work habits
Be confident and take risks

You might notice then that this advice concentrates is aimed at the individual – how to make yourself as the individual more creative, which surely was not the aim of the book? There’s much less advice on how to access group genius, or how to encourage improvisation, communication and collaboration. Although Sawyer does go into more detail in this subsequent book on Group Genius.

Further readings and connections
This book is part of a recent growth in sociocultural approaches to creativity and the belief in the creative power of groups or teams. If this area interests you then I would recommend looking at the following books:

Sawyer, R. K. (2007). Group Genius: The Creative Power of Collaboration. Cambridge, MA: Basic Books.

Duggan, W. (2007). Strategic Intuition: the creative spark in human achievement. New York: Columbia Business School Press.

Surowieki, J. (2004). The Wisdom of Crowds: Why the Many Are Smarter Than the Few. New York: Doubleday.

Johansson, F. (2006). The Medici effect: breakthrough insights at the intersection of ideas, concepts, and cultures. Boston, Mass: Harvard Business School Press.

Rheingold, H. (2002) Smart Mobs: The next social revolution. Cambridge, MA: Basic Books

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