Is Creativity Research Elitist?

I’m beginning to think that creativity research is elitist.

Exhibit A: The most prominent historical studies of creativity focus on high-status individuals: top art schools, Nobel-prize winning scientists; corporate CEOs. Howard Gardner’s book on creativity studied Freud, Einstein, Picasso, Stravinsky, Eliot, Graham, and Ghandi.

Exhibit B: Simon Kyaga’s highly publicized studies (2011, 2012) about creativity and mental illness defined creative people from an elitist perspective: anyone from one of these occupations: university teachers, visual artists, photographers, designers, display artists, performing artists, composers and musicians, and authors.

We’ve failed to study some of the most creative people, and I think it’s because they don’t have high social status. Four times, I’m going to name a creative profession that’s associated with the elite and that’s also studied by creativity researchers. Then, I’ll compare it to an even more creative profession that creativity researchers have never studied. I think we haven’t studied them because they’re not elite professions.

  • Stage actors: compared with children’s party clowns. I’d be the first to agree that actors are highly skilled. But they’re basically reading from a script, and following director’s instructions. Compare that to a person who hires herself out every weekend as a clown, for children’s birthday parties. That person has to create their own facial makeup and costume; their own name and persona. They have to decide on a set of interactive and fun activities that correspond to the ages of the children at that particular event; they have to interact and respond, in the moment, to unexpected developments and children’s personalities. Lots of creativity researchers have studied Broadway stage actors. But has anyone studied party clowns? No.
  • Ballet dancers: compared with football cheerleaders. As with actors, elite ballet dancers are highly skilled. But they’re basically following choreography that was created hundreds of years ago. Compare that to a team of cheerleaders performing at a high school or college football game. The team’s routines are often designed collaboratively by the cheerleaders themselves. They have to decide when, in each game, is the best time to execute a specific routine. Lots of creativity researchers have included ballet dancers in their studies. But has anyone ever studied cheerleaders? No.
  • Musicians: compared to vintage motorcycle mechanics. I myself am a highly trained classical pianist, so I’m talking about myself here: performing sheet music does not require creativity. Contrast this to vintage motorcycle repair: I own a 1982 BMW motorcycle, and I recently took it into a legendary mechanic here in North Carolina. Watching him take apart and analyze my motorcycle, I saw a very high level of creativity. Every one of these old motorcycles is slightly different, and every one has its own set of unique problems. (I highly recommend the book Shop Class as Soul Craft, it’s a brilliant discussion of this work.) Lots of creativity researchers have studied violinists and pianists. But has anyone studied the creativity of engine mechanics? No.
  • Writers of novels and short stories: Compared to ministers who write Sunday sermons. In contrast to the first three occupations, being a fiction writer requires creativity. But imagine the church minister who has to compose an original sermon (and most likely prayers as well) every Sunday. Each sermon involves great creativity. Lots of creativity researchers have studied novelists. But has anyone ever studied the creativity of ministers? No.

This pattern disturbs me, because I’ve seen it lead to bad science and faulty findings. Look back to Exhibit B: the Kyaga studies that defined creativity by occupation and their list of “creative occupations”: They’re all upper-class, high status professions. Kyaga found that these “creative” occupations were correlated with a higher rate of mental illness. But as every undergraduate learns in statistics, “correlation is not causation.” Maybe Kyaga just discovered that educated, upper-class people are more likely to be diagnosed with a mental illness. Andreasen argued that writers are more likely to be mentally ill than non-writers. Here’s a thought experiment: How many of you believe that church ministers are more likely to have a mental illness than an accountant?

I don’t know where we should go from here. I just wanted to start the discussion. Have you noticed this pattern in creativity research? Is it because elitism is embedded in our cultural conceptions of what counts as creative? Do you think it’s a problem?

22 thoughts on “Is Creativity Research Elitist?

  1. For the Kyaga studies, those professions TYPICALLY are thought of as elitist but there are lots of examples of most where those involved are not elitist… Who were interviewed / considered in the study? Were the non-elitist ones not creative? Maybe the study is at best incomplete???

    Historical studies are easier for well-known individuals; maybe the studies are at best incomplete, again, because of skimming the easy material only.

    Or maybe the those involved with the studies felt they were justified in their limiting efforts… Your examples justify my agreeing with your belief that creativity is not limited to the elitists! My Exhibit C: I believe in many ways I’m creative and I’m far from elitist!!!

  2. You are absolutely correct about the bias toward the elite professions. I wish someone would study the creativity of migrant farm workers or the impoverished lifestyle of the working lower classes. My father was a Mexican migrant farm worker and I always marveled at his creativity. He provided for our family of ten with the most incredible combinations of things. He was an expert with the philosophy of Zig Zag thinking. I must admit that what he built was oftentimes not very pretty, but he was able to achieve the results he desired. We learned to think in a similar manner. Imagine my astonishment when I learned that this is called creativity. Where are the creativity researchers studying Mexican migrants?

  3. I have noticed this pattern. I think the fundamental issue dates back to Guilford’s trait-based theories, but was furthered a fair amount by early work by Gruber (who is mentioned at the end of another Gardner book, incidentally) in which one of the principals behind using case studies was that they focus on people widely considered creative. Cf.

    If one looks at later theories in which eminence becomes necessary for big-C Creativity, i.e., domain-changing individuals who influence gatekeepers, then there is a dual problem: 1, eminence means status is recognized, i.e., the person is (in some sense) elite; and 2, moving a domain often involves engaging with sign systems in a manner that causes deeper codification (e.g., introducing terminology such as Domain, Field, Meme) whereby the resulting work is arcane to the point that it becomes “elitist” (in particular, the codification limits access).

    Two quick thoughts, but only the first of import: 1, I would like to see creativity studied among teachers (not just at the university level); 2, I did not intend to comment on the misspelling of Gandhi (“Ghandi”) at the start of this post, but actually it is misspelled at the Amazon link! (Though correctly spelled on the cover of the book.)

  4. Fascinating. You’ve just reminded me that when I was much younger and more religious, I briefly flirted with the idea of constructing church services as an art form. But your examples suggest to me that “creative” itself is often defined in an elitist way. The definition in the Shorter Oxford includes “inventive, imaginative, showing imagination as well as routine skill, intended to stimulate the imagination.”. That doesn’t seem particularly elitist, but also isn’t confined to classical musicians or ballet dancers or whatever. Your last example might also have compared fiction writers to technical writers, with (I think) the same result.
    I totally agree with connieharryman, BTW.

  5. keith,

    you really kicked my ass on this post. thank you.

    your work in articulating a sociocultural basis for understanding creativity suggests that the market validates our notions of what is creative and what is more or not creative.

    improvisation, as you know, (my doctoral work is in improv) is an intriguing construction of both market interest in product innovation and academic disinterest in practitioners.

    even our elevation of jazz as an improv ideal reveals a class bias. improv as it relates to non-artistic, non-western, and non-market validated activities is more revealing of us, perhaps, that we think. thanks again.


  6. I’m curious about the line: “I myself am a highly trained classical pianist, so I’m talking about myself here: performing sheet music does not require creativity.” Don’t you think there is a difference between “highly trained” and educated in creative process of artistic interpretation where innovation, nuance, and creativity are critical? There are many “trained” pianists who are not creative. They stick straight to the page their training in music history, performance practice, and classical technique. But, there are also those pianists – and other musicians – who exceeds those bounds.

    1. (At risk of making this all about me:) Yes I know what you are referring to, and I do all of that when I play. Or else I’d be really bored. In the past week I’ve been revisiting Mozart’s Sonatas, and experimenting with playing the melody lines in different phrasings, and trying out subtle differences in the rhythmic patterns. One night, I imagined specific words to a line that an opera singer might sing to one of Mozart’s melody phrases. I’ve gone back to the accordion recently and I’ve been playing polkas and waltzes on that, and that has changed the way I play Mozart sonatas. Of course, I could never be as good as a world-class pianist. And of course, there’s some creativity in interpretation. But so is there creativity in the way I ride my mountain bike around the rocks and roots in a technical trail; the trails around here, I invent a new line through the rocks each time. Frankly, there’s probably more creativity in a skilled mountain bike ride than in a world-class Mozart interpretation. But okay, let’s say that interpreting a Mozart sonata is just as creative as mountain biking on a technical trail. Does that comparison make anyone nervous? If such comparisons seem odd, that reinforces my point about the elitism of the concept of creativity.

  7. I think this is right on the money. Time someone said it. I’d go even farther. What is creativity, after all, but doing something different from the way others do it? Here’s the place to install, as a guidepost, Bruno Latour’s dictum that the fate of any production (in his case, it was scientific ideas and findings, but the idea can be applied much more generally) lies in the hands of those who receive it. So we can imagine that “creative” thus becomes the positive response someone makes to a new way of doing or something or saying something. Otherwise, it’s just another way of saying “I like it.”

    So: if we want to find creative things we can look anywhere (your examples are imaginative and make the point, but machinists, some of them, some of the time, are just as creative, which is to say they come up with just as many new ways of doing things as ballet dancers or physicists. This isn’t a strategy of criticizing elitism, just an obvious way of avoiding the ordinary way of approaching this topic which ends up disguising a personal preference as a scientific observation. That remark is true no matter how many people share the preference.

  8. That’s a great point, that creativity is a personal preference for a new way of doing something. So then, it is defined socially and interactionally. But at least in the U.S., the term “creativity” gets reserved for certain positive responses to certain things, and not used for other things. My hypothesis is that we call “creative” things that tend to be associated with the upper middle classes and the urban centers, and we don’t call “creative” things that are associated with the working class or with provincial regions. That’s our culture and we can’t blame creativity researchers for that; but, if we are scientists we should reject that and study all forms of novelty.

  9. I wonder if some of this might just be a case of what, or who, the researchers and their potential readers find interesting. There might be a default to elitist persons and their endeavors because the high-achievers command a certain fascination just by dint of their success. There plenty of us “non-elite” musicians to be studied, if you like. But perhaps the researchers feel their audience’s attention will be held better by an elitist subject. I just finished revamping a marching band arrangement that pleased me immensely with it’s transitions into three different keys, serving the simultaneous purposes of creating a more interesting harmonic form, AND keeping the music in a range easier for young musicians to handle. I don’t know if a researcher would gain more insight from studying songwriter Ed Sheeran or marching band arranger Ed Carr, but Ed Sheeran will fill the Scottrade Center on any given Saturday night, whereas Ed Carr won’t.

    Surely there is some research to show that the processes of both a choreographer at the Bolshoi Ballet and the choreographer of cumbia for the Barranquilla, Colombia street parade for Carnaval are the same? That the design team at Apple, Inc. share the same creative traits as the art teachers at the local high high school?

  10. I agree. It’s partly a matter of what is popular at one time in history, and also partly a matter of what lasts over time. The compositions of Mozart have lasted centuries, but we don’t have any recordings of him playing so we have no way of studying the creativity of the live performance. Howie Becker, who commented on this post earlier, has a brilliant chapter called “What Lasts?” in his book _Art Worlds_ that discusses the social and historical processes whereby certain works are selected to last over time.

  11. I wouldn’t call it elitist, Keith. I’d call it lazy. It’s much easier to check off a prescribed occupation as the definitive “sign” of creativity than to actually evaluate specific people and their job performance. This is how you amass a jaw-dropping N of 300,000, as Kyaga did – not only by using this dubious definition of creativity, but by mashing together decades of dusty records in which the diagnoses of supposed mental disorder were made by various people of unknown credentials using several different versions of the ICD (European manual), none of whom were required to perform a standardized interview or any other such measurement to obtain it.

    Defining creativity by occupation may be convenient, but as you point out it also leaves out groups which are being more creative with much less fanfare. Moreover, it presumes that every person self-defined as an artist is actually good at it, and that there are no truly gifted weekend musicians, writers, painters etc. who need to maintain “non-creative” jobs in order to support themselves.

  12. I have been looking at creativity from outside the “flow” of optimal conditions. There are plants and animals that survive and even thrive in the harshest conditions and I compare that to the creative individual or group that persists without recognition or reward to be consistently creative. I like that you have pointed out some of the stereotypes, because if creativity was researched in the unexpected individuals and groups we might find better ways to define and apply creative thinking. Sometimes the group or culture inhibits the creative individual, but I feel expectations of creativity might be a greater barrier. If we only expect creativity with the right conditions, occupation, or “what’s interesting” at the time, we miss a lot of what is right in front of us.

    1. I like your point: “flow” can sometimes seem like a luxury of the leisure classes, creativity for enlightenment rather than for survival. How might we study the creativity of everyday life, of survival, of bricolage (in Levi-Strauss’s sense). Creativity researchers have long divided the field into studies of the “four p’s”: person, product, process, and press (the environmental forces). The everyday creativity we are discussing required a process approach, and creativity research has largely been weak with methodologies to study that.

  13. Reblogged this on peakmemory and commented:
    This is an interesting piece. Some years ago I did some reading on IQ, occupation, and creativity. It seems clear that we are more likely to notice creativity in high status occupations. We can all name creative attorneys, but how many creative bus drivers can you name? Yet, I don’t doubt that bus drivers may make creative contributions. It is just that they would have lower visibility.

  14. For what it is worth, I “believe that church ministers are more likely to have a mental illness than an accountant”. Absolutely. There are lots of church ministers with really crazy ideas, some of which are only nominally related to their church’s doctrines, while there are very few such accountants (or dentists for that matter).

    1. I was pretty sure someone would say they believed that one. But: when you say “crazy” does that mean mentally ill, as in diagnosable schizophrenia or bipolar disorder (which the research has focused on), or does it instead mean you don’t agree with the ideas? For what it’s worth, I think the people who vote for the other political party (I won’t say which) have lots of crazy ideas. And even though I think they’re wrong, irrational, ungrounded in fact, not aligned with the historical essence of their political party’s philosophy, they’re not all mentally ill.

    1. If you knew the history of creativity research you wouldn’t think so! It sounds like you don’t think non-elite people can be creative, and specifically, the examples I’ve given.

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