Friday, March 25, 2011

A short note on sociocultural theory and observing creative process. Some theoretical ideas that inform my research

This was produced in under an hour so please excuse the slightly casual referencing. This provides a summary of some key principles that relate sociocultural concerns in creative research. It doesn’t focus on my own research much or share my methodology. So hopefully it raises lots of questions. 
(Please note I've removed page numbers for quotes however I can provide upon request).

Key words: social psychology – creative process - collaboration - music composition

My research looks at the factors that shape creative process, and creative results produced when students from different disciplines (music technology, dance and theatre) making new work collaboratively. The research focus and methodology is framed by a sociocultural ontology of human activity that stems back to the Russian psychologist Vygotsky and his work on the development of human knowledge. The key principles carried forward from his research into socioculturally framed studies of learning and more recently creativity are:

  • That knowledge is a social construct.
  • That human activity is shaped by physical and psychological tools, which are in turn developed in human activity
  • That there is a temporal genesis which means that what happens is framed by what happened before, and it is understood in a context [1] by what happens next.

This is a crude summary and I strongly urge anyone interested in Vygotsky’s theories on Human Activity to read:

Lev Vygotsky’s (1978) Mind in Society: Interaction Between Learning and Development. London: Harvard University Press


Harry Daniels’ (1996) An Introduction to Vygotsky Routledge

Socioculturally framed research is concerned essentially with the development of knowledge; as Eva Vass explains: ‘Socio-cultural approaches seek to understand how cultural tools are created and used, and how they transform human life, including processes of knowledge building and creating new contexts for teaching and learning.’ (Vass, 2004).

Keith Sawyer explains however that the idea that knowledge emerges from social situations (rather than out of the individual) is reflected by contemporary theories around creativity as something that comes out of social activity (See Teresa Amabile’s work from the 1990s as the earliest example of this). Before this we saw creativity being studied as an individual attribute, but then as something shaped by cultures. There was an important shift in where to look for creativity as Howard Gardner explains:

“If one wants to understand phenomena of creativity, one cannot simply focus on the individual-his brain, her personality, their motivations. Instead, one must broaden one’s focus to include a study of the area in which that creative individual works and the procedures by which judgments of originality and quality are rendered.” (Howard Gardner, 1994)

Societies evaluated where creativity was to be found and so the process of creative work was mediated by the societies in which it was happening. Socioculturalists take this a little further by looking at how creativity emerges out of interaction social situations. Keith Sawyer’s book Group Genius looks at creativity emerging from social situations through a sociocultural lens. His work observes the emergence of creativity out of Jazz improvisation and live theatre improvisation, and quite a bit of work has now been done, looking at how the emergence of creativity is characterized in socially situated/collaborative practices.

Sociocultural researchers look at the inter-relationships that mediate what happens in co-creating, as Karen Littleton, Sylvia Rojas-Drummond and Dorothy Miell explain: ‘…if researchers are to understand and characterize collaborative creativity they need to examine the nature and significance of the interactions, relationships and cultures which constitute and sustain such activity, as well as the mediational role of cultural artifacts, including tools, sign systems and technologies.’ (Littleton, Rojas-Drummond and Miell, 2008).

The immediate social context of collaborative working provides challenges as individuals with different histories and ‘funds-of-knowledge’ (Moll, Amanti, Neff & Gonzalez, 2001) come together. Masutov really explains the situation collaborative effort very well:

‘…joint activity has multiple agendas, goals, contexts, tasks, and actors with different intentions. It involves dynamics of agreement, disagreement, and coordination of participants’ contributions.’ 
(Eugine Masutov, 1996).

So in joint activity people have to negotiate shared understandings about what they are doing together and how and all of this is contextually framed in the ways described. With this in mind I am looking at joint activity as characterized by situations where there is a commitment to developing a common ground in the way that Crook describes: ‘To be a collaborator is to enter into an interpersonal exchange in which it is understood that there should be sustained investment in constructing shared meaning.’ (Crook, 2000). Sociocultural studies consider language to be a particularly important (psychological) tool for establishing shared meaning about what is happening, informing and shaping what happens in joint effort. Language facilitates our understandings within society, also influencing our relationships with other people (Lantolf, 2000) as Neil Mercer explains: ‘From a sociocultural perspective… humans are seen as creatures who have unique capacity for communication and whose lives are normally led within groups, communities and societies based on shared ‘ways with words’, ways of thinking, social practices and tools for getting things done.’ (Mercer, 2004, p139). Indeed language is a tool that is mediated and developed in dialogue. A dancer and a composer may form ways of communicating that are unique to their collaboration. Sociocultural research looks to understand how tools, like language, or physical tools such as objects that come to hand mediate and are mediated through activity.

In collaborative creating situations contributions for creative content and direction come from different people. 'Group creativity involves distributed cognition – when each member of the team contributes an essential piece of the solution, and these individual components are all integrated together to form the collective product.' (Sawyer, 2006). Sawyer (along with DeZutter 2009) describes how group creating can be unpredictable, and constantly evolving in the sense that each contribution emerges out of what has come before, and is reframed by what comes afterwards. 'A wide range of actions is possible at each moment; the actors do not know what is going to follow an action, and they do not know how their actions will be interpreted and elaborated.' (Sawyer & DeZutter, 2009, p83). In sociocultural terms, joint making is framed by tools and physical contexts but also by history. Actually it is sometimes known as ‘socio-historical’ or ‘cultural-historical’ (Mercer 2004). You see as Andrew Pettigrew explains:

‘…history is not just an event in the past but it is alive in the present and may shape the future.’ (Pettigrew, 1990).

My research looks at the moment-by-moment interactions to observe the mediating inter-relationships that occur over time (several months) when two studio based composers (who have a close creative relationship with their computer based tools) collaborate with each other and with theatre students (who specialize in dance and video production). The work focuses on looing at how the tools, contexts and language mediate and constitutes joint achievements over time.

Footnote 1: A note on context in sociocultural terms
In sociocultural terms human activity happens in a nest of contexts as Per Linell described (1998). These include local and non-local contexts. Examples of local contexts are the physical environment but also the ‘co-text’ (Linell, 1998) meaning the sequence of interaction formed incrementally in interaction. Non-local contexts include beliefs and knowledge, future projects, knowledge and assumptions about collaborators involved, the frame of a type of activity (such as an improvisation session), an organizational context, the socio-historical context (cultural history for example, general background knowledge (cultural collective memory). He explains that ‘By invoking such sociocultural knowledge and routines, actors make sense in their communicative projects.’ (Linell, 1998).


Amabile, T. M., (1982) The social psychology of creativity: A consensual assessment technique Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 43, 997 – 1013

Crook, C. (2000) Motivation and the Ecology of Collaborative Learning in Joiner, Littleton, Faulkner and Miell (ed) Rethinking Collaborative Learning 161-178 London: Free Association Books

Gardner, H., (1994) The Creator’s Patterns in M. Boden Dimensions of Creativity MIT Press

Lantolf, J.P., (2000) Introducing Sociocultural Theory In J.P. Lantolf (ed.) Sociocultural Theory and Second Language Learning 1-26. Oxford: OUP

Linell, P., (1998) Approaching Dialogue: Talk Interaction and Contexts in Dialogical Perspectives John Benjamins Publishing Co.

Masutov, E., (1996) Intersubjectivity Without Agreement Mind, Culture and Activity 3(1) 25-45

Miell, Littleton & Rojas-Drummond (2008) Editorial Introduction International Journal of Educational Research 47(1)

Moll, L., Amanti, C., Neff, D., González, N., (1992) Funds of Knowledge for Teaching: Using a Qualitative Approach to Connect Homes and Classrooms Theory Into Practice, XXXI (2) Spring 1992

Pettigrew, A. M., (1990) Longitudinal Field Research on Change: Theory and Practice Organizational Science 1(3)

Sawyer, K. R., (2006) Group Creativity: Musical Performance and Collaboration Psychology of Music 34(2) 148-165

Sawyer, K. R., (2008) Group Genius: The Creative Power of Collaboration Basic Books

Sawyer, K. R., & DeZutter, S., (2009) Distributed Creativity: How Collective Creations Emerge From Collaboration Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity and the Arts 3(2) p81-92

Vass, E., (2004) Understanding Collaborative Creativity: Young Children’s Classroom-based Shared Creative Writing in D. Miell & K. Littleton (ed) Collaborative Creativity: Contemporary Perspectives. London: Free Association Books

Vygotsky, L. S., (1978) Mind in Society: Interaction Between Learning and Development. London: Harvard University Press

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Being in a community - #Phdchat

For some time I've worked in a fairly isolating way - I'm a part-time PhD student with the Open Uni who lives too far away from Milton Keynes to attend a lot of the seminars and workshops that are presented there.
Having made more of an effort to find others with similar research domains and interests locally however I see huge benefit in being involved in communities.
One particularly interesting development came out of some chance meetings with a fellow part-time PhD student who works at the same University as me. I'm excited to have the opportunity to meet again and talk about our respective work however she pointed me towards twitter...


Do a search for this on twitter.
There is a group that meet on Wednesday evenings 7.30 for an hour. I wish I wasn't busy at that time.

Also visit to vote on the topic that is to be discussed. 

Writing analytic approach - current challenge

Having reworked the literature review several times, and started analysing the potentially richest moments in the data recordings (two composers working out how they will write the same soundtrack for the dance film piece that they are collaborating on), I have reached a point where a tidy analytic rational is needed.

So research questions are revised:

How is the process of collaborative creativity mediated by social and cultural contexts when computer-based music composers collaborate with each other and peers from other disciplinary backgrounds, in small group settings and across time. 


...more specifically...

How are contextual resources used by the students to develop a shared meaning of what they are making together over time within and across different creative disciplines?

How is the process of co-constructing creative work mediated through an interrelationship with the tools used? ('tools' needs clarification: physical tools such as the studio but also conceptual tools linked to creative disciplines i.e. styles of dance, composition philosophy or sound theory)

How does talk shape the genesis and negotiation of creative contributions in different contexts and across time in socially mediated creative collaboration.  (Language is a psychological tool that mediates joint activity)

If these questions interest you I'd be interested to hear your thoughts. I've developed an analytic method that looks at the incremental moment-by-moment events to understand what is happening and this approach is stimulated by research that focusses on process in creativity in other (mainly music making) situations. This should reveal a more macro-level perspective of how creative work can be mediated by collaboration over time. 

The document I'm working on now has to show the following:
  • What I'm interested in (the above) 
  • What analytic choices I've made and what theoretical ideas, materials and theories have motivated them - so what they connect with. 
  • What is distinct about my contribution

Useful exercise I think for anyone dealing with a large amount of data. 

This cartoonist MUST know me!

Ok, I aim to be known as Dr Elizabeth - I teach music technology - I own two cats!

Software for Research

I've used a range of software packages (beyond the obvious) over the last few years. I might review some of them if anyone is interested in anything specific so this is just a list for now.

Scrivener -
NVivo -
Transanna -
Audacity -
Selfcontrol -

Scrivener is extremely interesting and I'll publish a blog post on that at some point soon.

It is a tool for writing large documents (play, book... thesis). It works well for people who need to navigate a lot of materials and keep them stored in one place. Considering the price in particular I would urge anyone writing a thesis to think seriously about using it. Actually, I picked this up from observing how music postgrads and post-docs in our department work. 

More soon!

Please contact me with questions since I would rather post things here that you're interested in than throw paint at the wall. 

tra for now. 

PhD Blogging

I've changed the function of my general blog - because the PhD takes over pretty much everything... so I've decided that it is about time I develop it as a research blog!

Things to be thrown at the keyboard in the coming weeks:

- links or good advice I've had
- thoughts about my research (eureka moments, spirit crushing experiences, stories, and reflections on creativity as I push through a mountain of audio and video recordings)
- info on writing and method related tools I'm using

basically, anything I think that might be useful and/or just interesting to other PhDers. 

So my first enjoyment as a PhD student is PhD Comics (above). Well it makes me smile almost as much as watching my cat looking for mice in and behind my laptop after 5 minutes of mouse videos on youtube. 

As you can see - I work hard!