A Home for Creativity Researchers

Creativity researchers don’t really have a place we can call home.

It’s because the study of creativity is interdisciplinary. That’s the key take-home message of my 2012 book Explaining Creativity: The Science of Human Innovation. And that’s a problem, if you want a home, because universities are organized into disciplines–such as psychology, anthropology, economics, computer science. And where do creativity researchers fit, into this organizational structure? Most of us don’t fit comfortably anywhere. So where are we?

Many of us are psychologists, and we have homes in psychology departments. (My PhD is in psychology.) And psychologists have made the majority of the scientific contributions to our understanding of creativity. But being in a psychology department has big limitations: you can’t study cultural influences on creativity, you can’t study group and organizational issues–you really are expected to focus on the solitary individual.

I’ve made my home in a department of education, and education holds probably the second biggest collection of creativity researchers. That’s because educators are concerned with art education; but increasingly, it’s also because our national leaders realize that our schools need to graduate people who are prepared to be creative across the board, including in science and engineering.

There’s other important research being done by sociologists, anthropologists, and economists. It’s all great work. But this disciplinary structure causes a problem, because a complete understanding of creativity requires all of these perspectives to come together, essentially at the same time. Creativity is a multi-levelled phenomenon–to understand it, we need to understand individual minds, group dynamics, and organizational and cultural differences.

This brings me to the title of today’s post: I have found a new home for creativity researchers, at the annual meeting of the Academy of Management (AOM), in Boston last week. This is the big annual meeting of business school researchers; there were over 10,000 scholars in attendance. It was my first time attending AOM, and I was delighted to see so many sessions on creativity and innovation. And the great thing about it is that business scholars are deeply interdisciplinary–the scholarly research being presented often touched on individual, group, and organizational factors, all at once.

Here are the take-home messages from just a few papers I listened to:

  • Frustration leads to enhanced creativity, but only if you’re led by a transformational leader.
  • Cognitive diversity among team members leads to greater team creativity.
  • Panels of dance judges give their evaluations using very similar language to entrepreneur idea judges.
  • Social network centrality contributes to innovation.
  • Minority dissent contributes to innovation.
  • People who have lived overseas are, on average, more creative.
  • When companies create a new organizational unit for their new breakthrough technology, what usually happens is that the new unit gets crushed by the existing power structure. It tends to work better if the new technology stays embedded in the existing structure. (Mary Tripsas)
  • The degree of challenge of a task relates to creativity, but the degree of enjoyment does not.

Great stuff, right?
At the annual American Psychological Association (APA) meeting, Division 10 includes scholars who study the Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts. I invite those creativity researchers to consider attending the AOM meeting next year! Let me know if you’re going to be there!

12 thoughts on “A Home for Creativity Researchers

  1. Keith,

    Thanks for a great post. Sometimes identity is gained through distinct interdisciplinary curriculum. Creativity could be housed in various disciplines as it is now or might it be a program and course area where students take Creative Studies 100 along with English and Psychology? What do you think? Are there good places trying to do this? Creative Studies like Performance Studies and Environmental Studies could be a postdiscipline but it may need for survival an actual standalone undergraduate course that could be built into service course, a certificate, diploma, program etc.


  2. I love this article, am a researcher on creativity and innovation and I will like to share my research work with you, hope to hear from you soon

  3. Congratulations! It’s just the beginning. Now go out & visit the new business schools & discovery what’s going on. The things you’ve been predicting… they are already happening in some many places. You will be enthused. I was hoping to share this with you a few years ago when I sent you a linkedin request to connect having listened in on your Helsinki talk as a on-line participant. You remember “the unseen colour I am” perhaps :-D…

    The knee bones connected to the…

  4. I was also at AoM last week, and had a similar experience: it was amazing to not only hear cutting edge research on creativity and innovation, but also to see the breadth of the scholarly community exploring the topics. I came away feeling like I had a “home” as well. Thanks for a great post. -Doug (crtvty.us)

  5. Reblogged this on Censemaking and commented:
    Keith Sawyer adds another important reflection on the issue of creativity-focused scholarship and the challenge of interdisciplinarity in the academy. When we create meta-disciplines of sorts, we challenge the status quo and that can make for a hard slog. Academics are used to thinking in disciplinary terms, using the structures that those organizing frames provide. They change constantly, but slowly and some things take off (e.g., microbiology forms from biology), but certain things do not. In the social sciences, this is particularly true as we’ve seen creativity or fields like evaluation find many homes and no homes at the same time (as Sawyer speaks to on the matter of creativity). Understanding this issue and working around it is a big challenge and opportunity for those of us interested in advancing the reach and respectability of inquiry into creativity.

  6. How serendipitous. I’d just read through chunks of your Oxford publication online today. As you pointed out, creativity has varied in its definitions and applications, over time, and between peoples and places. What I find exciting today is that the importance of creativity is being recognised across occupations and sectors, and it’s being integrated into various disciplines. I see ‘creativity’ as being intersectoral and metadisciplinary – it needs to be studied in every field, but I won’t hold my breath for the Academy to recognise that. What I find most exciting is how the developments of software and digital platforms are enabling so many people to manifest their creativity, and in such diverse ways. The rise of the Peer2Peer movements, collaborative consumption diversity, and the artistic creations of dr@m@teurs (digitally revved up amateurs) are all challenging the notion that only special people have a creative impulse. Like innovation, creativity can come from everyone and everywhere.

    1. I’m glad you like my book Explaining Creativity! In that book, I argue for an interdisciplinary approach to creativity research. And in the final chapter “The future of creativity,” I discuss many of the Internet-enabled developments you mention, which are breaking down the lines between producer and consumer, creator and audience.

  7. We have (and I work at) a nifty linstitution here in Canada called The Banff Centre (www.banffcentre.ca) which has an explicit focus on creativity (our mission is ‘Inspiring Creativity’) and interdisciplinarity (we host and develop physicists, artists, technologists, leaders, mathematicians, new media experts, film makers, naturalists, athletes, and conference guests from around the world). I think we are able to do this because our educational mandate is to support exploration across boundaries and to improving ‘practice’, which often requires mash-ups of disparate disciplines and approaches. It helps that we have been around for almost 80 years as well. Over the years, disciplines sort of bled into each other, leaving us where we are.

  8. Great post and I must say, I loved your book. I’ve been relying on it heavily as I am writing my own popular press book on creativity. I’m excited to see the AOM embrace creativity and innovation research.

    I also wanted to point out that, in the online space, creativity researchers may have a new home. A group of professors from Columbia and NYU have recently started the Creativity Post (www.creativitypost.com), which publishes articles from a variety of disciplines on creativity and innovation.

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