Monday, November 14, 2016

Book Review: Creativity – A New Vocabulary

by MaryBeth Zacharias

What are the relationships and actions that take place between Rhodes’ 4 Ps of creativity?  What needs to happen in order for a creative product to take hold or for it to be recognized as an innovation?  What is stopping solutions to society’s wicked problems—that are developed at the individual and community levels—from being adopted at the city, state, and even national level?  What roles do our visible and invisible institutions, our societal norms, ethos, and mores, play in creative change?

As the context in which I explore creativity expands—from the individual and teams to organizations, communities, cities and beyond—questions like these have surfaced.  During my first year of studies I gained a solid understanding of the individual, cognitive-side of creativity and how the creative process works within teams and organizations.  However, the social and inter/active-side—what in my mind is the “sociology of creativity”—was pulling at me. And after an earnest research, I ran across a book of scholarly essays that began to shed some light on the questions running through my mind.

Creativity – A New Vocabulary, edited by Vlad Glăveanu, Lene Tanggaard, and Charlotte Wegener, professors from Aalborg University in Denmark, is a compilation of 21 reflective scholarly essays written by the editors and ten of their colleagues. The authors of these essays, all with different focus areas within psychology, selected a concept from their own area of study, that was not traditionally associated with creativity, and explored the concept “to develop a new way of understanding creativity as a dynamic, relational, developmental phenomenon” (p. 6). (See Appendix for a full list of the concepts, authors, and their fields of study).

Why did Glăveanu and his colleagues decide to re-examine the vocabulary associated with creativity? From their viewpoint, the study of creativity has been dominated by the same framework for the past half-century, and this framework is focused on the person and his/her cognitive abilities. They believe creativity goes beyond an individual act and unfolds because of the interactions and relationships among people and their surroundings. Throughout the 21 chapters presented in Creativity – A New Vocabulary, the authors show us how creativity can be viewed as a continuous process and journey, with relationships that extend beyond person-to-person to include person-to-objects, -materiality, and -time.

What the authors in this book do so well is take familiar concepts, or concepts we may intuitively associate with the individual, and reframe them so that this focus is secondary, and the action, the movement, the relationship of these concepts are brought to the forefront and become the primary association to creativity.  Some examples include:

  • Charlotte Wegener, in the Upcycling chapter, makes the distinction between recycling (making something old new again) and upcycling, noting that “upcycling makes the relation between the past the future, not novelty itself, the main object of interest” in creativity (p. 183).
  • When reading the chapter on Craft, the reader gets a sense that the “a-ha!” moment or the final creative product is an afterthought, and it’s the “perspiration,” the time, energy, rewrites, experiments, failures, and hours of mastery that are the true mark of creativity.
  • A number of chapters focus on aspects of communication, in particular Language, Translation, and Perspectives.  This entry from the Perspective chapter provides a summary that includes underlying themes for each language concept: “...creativity is much more than generating new or divergent ideas as a purely cognitive exercise…it involves at all times the dialogue and movement between different socially and materially defined positions” (p. 109).
  • The emotion of Fear becomes a conduit for creativity as Luca Tateo explains how its relationship with signs, not knowing, and reification create frameworks for collective behavior and to build cultures.
  • And in one of the most profound entries for me, Reflexivity, the circular relationship between cause and effect, Saint-Laurent and Glăveanu propose that “we need to open our eyes to the social conditions of others and how we might be responsible for them” (p. 126) challenging me to incorporate reflexivity when facilitating divergent thinking during Creative Problem Solving (CPS) facilitations.

Though it was both enlightening and entertaining to read the authors reframed and expanded views on the various concepts—and then to play with the new knowledge myself—I was reminded that action and relationships are already accounted for in various theories, models, tools and techniques of creativity.  The authors brought forth a number of concepts that they deemed “missing” from creativity research that are represented in creativity as I have studied it.  One example is Affordance, which is a term used to describe all actions that are physically possible for an object. Glăveanu discusses how we see objects based on their purpose within our cultural context and to see beyond that purpose, as well as see the object as a deconstruction of its parts, has a place in creativity.  When reading this chapter, I thought of the similarities between Affordance and the CPS technique of Forced Connections as well as the Torrance Incubation Model (TIM) principles of Look at It Another Way and Visualize the Inside. Some of the dynamic concepts brought forth by Glăveanu et al hold a place in the current creativity paradigms, though they are not always as visible or pronounced, researched or studied as the psychological aspects.

I agree with the authors that creativity may be unevenly focused on the individual.  Reading the book reinforced with me how important relationships and action are to creativity. Yet, so are the various aspects of the individual.  Instead of replacing or prioritizing one over the other, I see them as complementary and believe there are opportunities and extraordinary benefits to surfacing elements of the social side of creativity within the current frameworks and models I use as a practitioner.

There were 21 different concepts presented in this book and each brought a unique dynamic, relational, and developmental perspective to creativity.  By simply reframing the concepts I started to think differently about creativity.  Many times the reframing was very nuanced, but just on the other side of the nuance was a profound insight that turned cognitive, emotional, and individual aspects of creativity into material, process, social, and cultural aspects of creativity. I am afraid this book review barely skims the surface on the richness and depth that was presented, and the potential implications for this perspective in the research and application of creativity.  This book is recommended for anyone who wants to dig deeper into the action and interaction associated with creativity and explore creativity from a non-traditional perspective.


MaryBeth Zacharias is completing the final year of her Master of Science degree in Creativity and Change Leadership at the International Center for Studies in Creativity.  She has particular interest in creativity and Creative Problem-Solving from a change and development perspective.

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