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


  1. Thanks for this blog post. I am thinking more and more that Vygotsky is a theorist I need to look at. I am interested in PLN, PLE, open access and informal learning and his name keeps cropping up. So thanks for the brief summary of his work :)

  2. Hi Sarah,
    Pleased if it helps. It sounds like you could look at the zone of proximal development (from Vygotsky) though I should say that most of what I'm writing here follows Vygotsky rather than represents him directly so it is really worth looking at the first texts referenced there. Looking forward to reading more on your research soon.

  3. Liz, this is an interesting glimpse into some of the foundations of your work; glad you shared it here. I have had much less experience with some of these people, and find these references helpful.

    What is it about your area of interest that brings you to these sociocultural theorists? You mentioned why you use these thinkers, and while it seems clear, I am wondering how you found these thinkers in the first place?


  4. Sorry I didn't see your comment until now Jeffrey. I was considering a grounded theory approach and my supervisors introduced me to Vygotsky. When I saw how John-Steiner (prominent author on creative collaboration) and her work with Moran on felt knowledge and confidence with peers was grounded in sociocultural ideas I began to realise that understanding the process of meaning making is a powerful thing, especially where there is no concrete sense (in the group I was looking at for example) of what they would be making. CHAT would have been another helpful way of looking at this, and I'm currently reflecting on how that relates to the approach that I have taken. A good point of reference is the introduction to Claxton and Wells' book 'Learning for Life in the 21st Century'.

  5. Thanks so much for this post and insight into your thesis work. I'm fortunate to be able to teach at one of the smallest colleges in the U.S., which, at only 100 students, presents a unique model for thinking about collaboration, cooperation, and critical thinking. We truly depend upon collaboration to make the college work successfully (from students working jobs in support of the institution to faculty collaborating across disciplines to teach integrative courses). We are, however, no paragon, but constantly face a challenge to balance the idea of collaborative community with that of an accredited institution of higher learning. I had not thought of collaboration in precisely the contexts you limn here, and I'm eager to delve a bit deeper. Thanks again.