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This is a manuscript version of:

Cropley, A. J. (2004). Creativity as a social phenomenon. In M. Fryer (Ed.), Creativity and cultural diversity
(pp. 13-24). Leeds: Creativity Centre Educational Trust.

Creativity as a social phenomenon

Arthur Cropley
Recent discussions look at creativity from a social rather than aesthetic point
of view. They emphasise its importance in innovation, growth, personal
welfare and the like, and judge it according to criteria such as usefulness,
ethicality and social acclaim. Thus, the focus is on functional rather than
aesthetic creativity. Society is ambivalent about creativity and experiences
two opposing forces: conserving forces that slow down or resist change and
innovating forces that favour it. Not all conservation is reactionary or
undesirable, and not all innovation is beneficial. Furthermore, creativity can
be achieved through evolutionary as well as revolutionary change. Thus, what
is needed in society is a balance between the two forces.

The dawning of the age of creativity

According to the Nomura Institute, the development of human society has involved
four ages. We have passed through the age of agriculture, the age of industry and
the age of information, and are now said to be entering the age of creativity. Indeed,
although scholarly interest in creativity stretches back to antiquity - to take a single
example, Platos Ion - there has been a surge of interest in recent years, perhaps
even the dawning of an age of creativity. Although earlier discussions focused
mainly on art, literature, music, dance and similar areas, what I call aesthetic or
artistic creativity, the situation changed drastically about 50 years ago. The turning
point was the successful launching in 1957 by the then Soviet Union of the first
artificial earth satellite, Sputnik 1. In the USA and most North American-Western
European societies this event led to a wave of self-criticism that centred mainly on
the argument that the Western worlds engineers had failed because they were not
creative enough. In the USA, the subsequent National Defense Education Act
adopted a concept of creativity going beyond the aesthetic and accepted it as an
important practical factor in the prosperity, even survival of society, thus launching
the age of social creativity.
Adopting a human capital approach, writers in the intervening years (eg. Walberg
and Stariha, 1992) have given considerable attention to creativity in applied and
theoretical sciences (scientific/intellectual creativity), as well as in management
and manufacturing on the one hand, and administration and even the military, on
the other (survival/prosperity creativity).
The general argument is easy to summarise. In the face of rapid societal change
that is, among other things, political (eg. terrorism, achieving fairness in
international relations), economic (demands for the elimination of inequalities
between rich and poor nations), industrial (eg. offshore manufacturing,

globalisation), social (eg. adaptation of immigrants, integration of minorities),

demographic (eg. breakdown of the family, ageing of the population), environmental
(eg. global warming, gene modified crops), and biotechnological (eg.
communications, health), societies will stagnate, even perish, unless their leaders in
all fields become more creative. Thus, creativity is no longer seen as purely the
domain of aesthetes and intellectuals dealing with questions of truth and beauty,
often in an intensely private way (as important as these issues may be), but as a
pathway to the societys prosperity and as a means for making the nation strong
and safe.

Creativity and the social context

The essence of any kind of creativity is production of novelty. This was defined by
the psychologist Bruner (1962) as the process of achieving surprise in the beholder
by deviating from how things have been done until now. It is the contrast effect that
yields the surprise. In other words, creativity does not occur in a vacuum, but in a
social context. Indeed, what is regarded as creative in one era or society can be
uncreative in another. Brahms was unable to obtain the important musical post he
sought in his native Hamburg, because his music was initially judged to be too
conservative. He had to go to Vienna to find acceptance. Einsteins PhD dissertation
was rejected by the technischer Hochschule in Zurich. The French mathematician
Galois, founder of the theory of groups, was killed in a duel in 1832 at the age of 20.
He worked frantically on his notes almost until the moment of his death, which he
correctly anticipated because he knew that the duel was grossly unfair. Because of
his desperate obsession, it was thought by his contemporaries that he must have
been working on something of great importance, and his writings were examined
closely. However, the ideas he left were judged to be of no particular value. It was
not until several years had passed that the societys fund of mathematical
knowledge advanced sufficiently for the creativity of his work to be recognised.
In a sense, then, it is not the product or the process itself that determines whether
something is creative, but (a) the particular setting (the impact of the novelty on the
existing state of the art) and (b) the reaction of the people in that setting (their
willingness and ability to recognise creativity). This view was supported by
Csikszentmihalyi (1996), who argued that creativity is no more than a positive
category of judgment in the minds of observers, a term they use to praise products
that they find exceptionally good. When a number of observers - especially experts agree that a product is creative, then it is. This is one of the paradoxes of creativity
(Cropley, 1997): Social recognition or acclaim is necessary. Thus, creativity not only
serves social ends such as economic development (see above), but is also defined in
terms of social criteria.
Surprise can be produced through mere unregulated self-expression (eg. daubing
paint on paper, writing text in any way that pleases the writer, or picking out notes
at random on the piano) or by means of simple production of variability (doing
things differently from the usual regardless of accuracy, meaning, sense,
significance or interestingness). However, as Heinelt (1974) argued, such unfettered
production of simple variability may well cause surprise, but is not genuine
creativity. He added quasicreativity to Cattell and Butchers (1968) concept of
pseudocreativity. The latter produces novelty only via lack of discipline, rejection of
what already exists and simply letting oneself go - blind nonconformity.

Quasicreativity, on the other hand, certainly has many of the elements of genuine
creativity - such as a high level of fantasy - but the connection with reality is
tenuous. An example would be the creativity of daydreams. Pseudocreativity and
quasicreativity differ from genuine creativity because the latter requires a further
element over and above mere novelty. A product or response must be relevant to
some issue that the society regards as worth looking at and must offer some kind of
effective response to the issue, even if the relevance and effectiveness only become
apparent after the fact. Victor Kayam rejected the opportunity to acquire the rights
to Velcro because he could see no use for it. Until somebody else did, in terms of the
present social definition of creativity, Velcro remained uncreative.
A further crucial property of creativity as a social phenomenon arises from the fact
that the concept has highly positive connotations. It is difficult, for instance, to think
of novel forms of terrorism as creative, even though they might, in a purely formal
sense, satisfy the criterion of introducing useful (to the goals of the terrorists)
novelty. Furthermore, in a second paradox of creativity, revolutionary new ideas and
products that are well-intentioned, and may even achieve significant social good,
often open the way for serious negative consequences for society, regardless of the
intent of the people producing them. The highly acclaimed discoveries of people like
Jenner and Pasteur, to take one example, laid the foundations for germ warfare!
Thus, creativity has a dark side (McLaren, 1993). Nowadays we are experiencing a
climate of general intoxication with creativity (ibid.), so that this problem has
become particularly acute and the need for social responsibility is increasingly being
stressed (see, for instance, discussions of cloning human beings). As King (1992)
argued, the term innovation should only be applied to change introduced with the
deliberate intention of benefiting the system into which it is introduced. Thus, the
ethical element takes on particular importance (Grudin, 1990).

Societys rejection of some novelty

Not all deviations from the commonplace are equally acceptable to a society.
Pseudo- and quasicreativity are usually treated as harmless dreaming, letting off
steam, etc., even if they are regarded as having no social value. However, some
behaviour that deviates from the social norms goes beyond what the society will
tolerate and awakens anger, resentment or rejection. Those who introduce such
intolerable novelty are sometimes regarded as deranged or crazy. Indeed, one of the
oldest ideas about creativity is that it is linked to madness (eg. Lombroso,1891). In
the former Soviet Union, for instance, regime critics who attempted to introduce
novel (for the Soviet Union) ideas about government and economics were regularly
declared to be psychiatrically ill. Cropley (2001) summarised evidence showing that
there really are similarities between the thinking of creative and psychotic
individuals, and that both differ in a similar way from people who introduce no
novelty. However, there are also important differences between the insane and the
creative. In the present paper these differences will not be looked at in a
psychological way as in Cropley (2001), but from the viewpoint of usefulness,
ethicality and the like (i.e. from a social point of view - see Table 1).
In some cases, deviation from the usual is treated not as crazy but as criminal. Of
course many of the behaviours that lie outside a societys norms and are labelled
criminal, really are unacceptable in anyones terms. Obvious examples would be
murder or beating up and robbing elderly people. However, other proscribed

behaviours are really guilty only of deviating too much from what the society will
tolerate at the present time. Perhaps the best known classical example is the
sentencing of Galileo in 1633 for supporting the now commonplace Copernican
position that the earth orbits the sun. The degree of novelty was too much for the
society to tolerate. The societys reaction to levels of novelty that exceed the limits,
i.e., that introduce intolerable levels of surprise, are closely connected with the age,
occupation or social role of the person involved. An artist is allowed to be more
outrageous than an engineer or a brain surgeon, for instance.

Creative products
According to economic theory, returns on investments in rich countries should have
been lower during the second half of the 20 th century than during the first, because
the stock of capital was rising faster than the workforce. However, the fact is that
they were considerably higher. The decisive factor that defeated the law of
diminishing returns is now seen to be the addition to the system of new knowledge
and technology, i.e. innovation. Innovation involves the practical insertion of novelty
into a functioning system, i.e. what might be called applied creativity. It currently
accounts for more than half of economic growth in more technologically developed
societies (Economist Technology Quarterly, 2002, p.13). As Higgins (1994) put it, the
task of this applied kind of creativity is to generate new and valuable ideas, products
and processes, devices or systems that perform tasks or solve problems
(Horenstein, 2002, p.2). Burghardt (1995) referred to this not as applied but as
functional creativity, contrasting it with aesthetic creativity that, in his view, has no
functional purpose, only aesthetic purpose. It is this functional creativity on which
the present paper focuses.
An essential element of functional creativity is the devices or systems that
perform tasks or solve problems, in other words, the products. Although earlier
discussions of creativity gave considerable emphasis to tangible products (eg.
Gordon, 1961; Roe, 1952; Rossman, 1931), this aspect has not received as much
attention as might be expected in recent years, perhaps because modern research
has been dominated by psychologists and educators. I have argued, as have other
writers such as Albert (1990), that it is too difficult to define creative products in a
practical, objective way, because the concept is so subjective; and have
recommended focusing on creative processes and characteristics of the creative
person, thus treating creativity as a sociological or psychological phenomenon.
Although I do not want to reify creativity, repeating the mistake made by treating
intelligence as though it were a real and tangible entity rather than simply an
explanatory construct used to make sense of observable behaviour, the creativity of
products is not as diffuse a concept as it might at first appear.
Cropley and Cropley (in press) defined four key properties of creative products.
Somewhat modified for present purposes, these are:

novelty (the product introduces something that is new in a particular setting)

usefulness (it does what it is supposed to do in that context)
beauty (the product is understandable, complete, well finished and internally

seminality (it opens up possibilities in contexts other than the one into which it is
being introduced).

Extending Taylors (1975) idea of levels of creativity, Cropley and Cropley argued
that the criteria just listed form a hierarchy. Although in theoretical discussions
novelty is the main characteristic of creativity, in practical settings the first criterion
in the hierarchy is usefulness. For instance, if a bridge falls down instead of carrying
traffic across a river, no amount of novelty or beauty can justify its cost. However,
although usefulness is a necessary criterion for functional creativity, it is not
sufficient on its own. A product that is simply useful is not creative but routine. Of
course, routine products can be extremely helpful, but because they lack novelty
they are not creative.
The second necessary criterion is novelty. In the case of aesthetic creativity,
novelty may be sufficient on its own (i.e. aesthetic creativity may not demand
usefulness), but in the case of functional creativity it is insufficient without
usefulness. When a products usefulness is supplemented by novelty it achieves the
lowest level of functional creativity and can be labelled original (useful and novel).
The further addition of beauty yields an elegant functional product (useful, novel
and beautiful), and usefulness, novelty and beauty supplemented by seminality
yield innovative creativity. Original, elegant and innovative products can all lay
claim to functional creativity, although at successively higher levels.
Functionally creative products that solve concrete and practical problems in
economics, business, manufacturing, science, engineering and the like can be
contrasted with the merely aesthetic products of some forms of art, music,
literature, etc, in which the primary focus is on novelty and/or beauty rather than on
practical usefulness, with the result that usefulness in a specific, concrete, physical
situation is missing. Of course, it can be argued that such products display their own
form of usefulness, since they solve aesthetic problems such as how to
communicate an artists sense of wonder. However, this form is different from the
usefulness that is seen in functional creativity. Without decrying aesthetic creativity,
the present paper defines usefulness in a functional way.

Kinds of novelty
A framework has now been established for distinguishing among the four forms of
introduction of novelty into a social setting (functional creativity, aesthetic
creativity, madness and criminality). This is based on the six criteria discussed
above: novelty, usefulness, beauty, seminality, ethicality and social acclaim. Table 1
shows how this can be done. Here, a plus sign means that a criterion is satisfied, a
minus sign that it is not, and a question mark either that the role of the particular
criterion for this form of novelty production is unclear or the property in question is
possible but not necessary. Thus, for instance, criminal novelty is obviously novel
and useful (to the criminal), and therefore receives plus signs in these areas.
However, it is clearly unethical and does not receive social acclaim, since it is illegal
(at least officially), and therefore receives minus signs on these two dimensions. It is
unclear whether novel criminal behaviour can be beautiful, since it is imaginable
that some people could regard it in this way, and it is possible but not necessary
that it be seminal (i.e. that it open up new perspectives for novel kinds of criminal

behaviour in other settings). For these reasons criminal novelty receives a question
mark for both beauty and seminality.
Table 1: Forms of novelty production




lly creative


Societys ambivalence about introducing novelty

Despite its value to society, the introduction of novelty is not always greeted with
unreserved approval. To take the example of education, in a recent survey in
Australia (Government of Australia, 1999) employers complained that three-quarters
of new university graduates show skill deficiencies in creativity, problem-solving
and independent and critical thinking, and are therefore unemployable. Despite the
apparent desire for creativity, Cooper, Altman and Garner (2002) concluded that the
system discourages it. Cropley and Cropley (2000) summarised a number of earlier
studies that concluded that universities in the USA do not favour the emergence of
creativity in engineers, and Fasko (2000-2001) reported that more recent evidence
supports this view. At the school level the situation may well be
much the same. Despite the fact that Feldhusen and Treffinger (1975) showed more
than 25 years ago that most teachers have a positive attitude to creativity, in their
classrooms properties and behaviours actually associated with it are frequently
frowned upon. The evidence is that teachers discourage traits such as boldness,
desire for novelty or originality, or even actively dislike such characteristics (for a
summary, see Cropley, 2001). Thus, although there are calls for creativity there may
be limited effort to foster its emergence, or even dislike of people who display it.
Thus, societies simultaneously admire creativity and dislike it. There seem to be
two apparently competing forces at work, a force favouring introduction of novelty
and a force opposing it. These contrasting forces are depicted in Table 2.
Table 2: Opposing forces of change in a society





Despite change:


is relatively
builds on what
already exists
may appear to
be blocked.


the world remains orderly

and understandable
existing knowledge and
skills remain useful
peoples feeling of security
is not threatened
experts self-image of
competence is preserved
power structures and the
like remain intact.

SLOGAN: If it aint broke, dont fix it!



sweeps away

As a result of change:

novelty is obvious
progress is often rapid
problems are often solved
people are encouraged to
introduce novelty
existing structures are

SLOGAN: Altius, citius, fortius!

in Canada! As Fromm (1980) put it, societies have filters, and these inhibit
divergent behaviour or even thinking. Societies conduct surveillance (Amabile,
Goldfarb and Brackfield, 1990) to detect and deter people who deviate.
Social discouragement of divergent behaviour need not involve direct attitudes to
creativity or active suppression of it. For instance, social norms involving correct
ways of behaving or the social image of what a normal person is like can inhibit
creativity, even when they seem to have nothing to do with it, and the negative
influence may not be readily observable. For instance, Lindauer (1993) showed that
although famous male and female artists both experience their peak years between
30 and 50, it is common for men to continue to be productive in their 60s or even
later, whereas this is unusual in women. This suggests a social effect - in this case
possibly sex role expectations - on creative activity. Dudek and Hall (1991) showed
that architects who resist social pressure to retire and hand over to the young are
creatively productive for many years more than those who retire early.
Some people may have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo. For
instance, scientists who have invested a lifetimes work in a particular paradigm are
likely to resist dramatic novelty, among other things by withholding
acknowledgement from those who deviate. As a result, introducing novelty can
require a special form of courage (Motamedi, 1982). To return to Galileo, giving
influential support to the heliocentric view of the solar system posed a great threat
to existing cosmological theory, as well as imperilling the souls of a large number of
people. It is not surprising that it was labelled criminal. When Ignaz Semmelweiss
dramatically reduced the incidence of death from puerperal fever in Vienna in the
1840s by getting staff in the lying-in hospital to wash their hands before touching
pregnant women, far from showing gratitude, his colleagues labelled him a crackpot.

The need for both forces

Some writers interpret societys resistance to the introduction of novelty in dramatic
terms. According to Sternberg and Lubart (1995), societies are gripped by a climate
of conformity or, as Burkhardt (1985) put it even more forcefully, by
Gleichheitswahn (a psychosis of sameness). To such writers, being creative means
living your life your own way (Moustakis, 1977) or displaying contrarianism
(Sternberg and Lubart, 1995), i.e. fighting against the psychosis of sameness and
defying the climate of conformity. To some of these writers the conserving force in
society is opposed to the innovating one and is therefore pernicious, even evil.
Certainly, as King (1992) emphasised, creativity often or even usually involves an
intention to bring about change and thus a deliberate challenge to the status quo.
As a result, it brings change in a way that differs from the effects of natural
evolution with the passage of time - it is revolutionary rather than simply
However, in my view not every act of contrarianism (undisciplined, disruptive or
ignorant behaviour, or defiance, aggression or nonconformity) should be acclaimed
in the name of creativity, and not every demand for knowledge, accuracy, speed,
practised skill and the like should be condemned as arising from a conformity
psychosis. The former are not always unequivocally good, nor the latter always bad.
The society makes a substantial effort to train its members in its ways because this
brings them the benefit of being able to function effectively in a socially structured
environment. Indeed, acquisition of the social rules has an important survival value.
To take a simple example, if city children do not know how to cross the road safely in
high traffic areas, many of them will die. Most people would probably prefer the
brain surgeon operating on them or the jet captain landing their jumbo to deviate
only a little (if at all) from the tried and trusted. The society too has a strong interest
in maintaining the achievements of the past and preserving the best of the national
culture (i.e. changing by evolution rather than revolution). This is painfully obvious
in, for instance, the Baltic States, whose national traditions, languages, even identity
as separate peoples have been gravely threatened by excessively rapid and
widespread change in the course of attempted Sovietisation. First nations in North
America, New Zealand and Australia may well applaud the benefits of, say, modern
medicine, but regret the changes that have almost destroyed their individual
Equating introduction of novelty exclusively with revolutionary change implies that
the forces of conservation block all innovation. However, conservation is not the
same as total absence of change. Sternberg (1999) argued that novelty can be
introduced in one of seven ways:
1. conceptual replication (novelty is produced by transferring what already exists
more or less unchanged to a new field);
2. redefinition (the known is seen in a new way);
3. forward incrementation (novelty is produced by taking the known further in an
existing direction);
4. advance forward incrementation (the novelty not only extends the known in an
existing direction but goes beyond what is currently tolerable);
5. redirection (it extends the known in a new direction);

6. reconstruction and redirection (it breathes new life into an approach previously
7. Re-initiation (it begins at a radically different point from the current one and
takes off in a new direction).
The first six of these involve building on what already exists rather than introducing
something entirely new. At least the first three seem to me to involve evolutionary
rather than revolutionary change (see Table 2). Miller (2000) too emphasised that
the commonest form of production of novelty involves building on the already
Blind, wholesale novelty may fail to satisfy social criteria such as usefulness, even
if it introduces novelty. There are also other factors that can hinder a societys
acceptance of change. Even if the novelty is useful, possibly beautiful and seminal,
revolutionary change may introduce it at a pace that is beyond what a society can
tolerate. The area of change may be too central to the psyche of the society in
question or too sensitive to permit an overnight paradigm shift. Powerful vested
interests may wish to maintain the status quo. Thus, there may well be situations
where an evolutionary process leads to successful introduction of socially
acceptable, relevant and effective novelty, where revolutionary novelty would not.
Thus, from the point of view of creativity and culture, introduction of novelty
requires both conserving and innovating - revolution to be sure, but also evolution.

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