Breaking Out of Boxes: Creativity, Community, and Culture

Melanie Wallendorf, University of Arizona
[ to cite ]:
Melanie Wallendorf (1997) ,"Breaking Out of Boxes: Creativity, Community, and Culture", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 24, eds. Merrie Brucks and Deborah J. MacInnis, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 9-11.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 24, 1997      Pages 9-11


Melanie Wallendorf, University of Arizona

At the beginning of my Marketing Theory seminar, I use a role-playing exercise. I am a movie casting director and the students are consultants regarding what to look for in casting the role of a scientist. Their advice is always the same: get a 50-60 year old white male with unkempt hair, out-of-fashion clothing, and glasses to correct myopia. When I probe what this person is like at a party, they chuckle: he is socially inept and shrinks to the side of the room until asked about the only thing he can talk aboutChis work.

What I then attempt to do in class is uncover the assumptions about scientific creativity that underlie this distinct image.

In preparing this speech, I read widely on the topic of creativityCscientific and otherwise. I am happy to report that the literature does not support my students’ image of creative scientists. I will be describing what I have learned about the links between "Creativity, Community, and Culture," drawing most heavily from these two books:

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (1995), Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention, New York: Harper Collins.

Howard Gardner (1993), Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences, tenth anniversary edition, New York: Basic Books.

I’ll focus on the sociocultural context, that is, the community and culture, that facilitate creativity.

I will not focus on the psychological characteristics common among people who produce creative work, because I agree with Csikszentmihalyi that creativity is not a characteristic of a person. Instead, creativity emerges from the interaction between a person’s thoughts and the sociocultural context. I’ll reserve the term originality for novel and unusual ideas. I’ll use the term creativity for people having novel and unusual ideas (that’s the psychological part), AND having those positively evaluated within a field (that’s the sociocultural part). To be specific: your work is original when none of the content or methodological codes for a conference fits your paper. It is creative when the paper is acceped and goes on to be heavily cited and/or win an award.

I have 9 suggestions for our collective nurturance of creativity. For people to be creative, rather than just original, they have to be in a sociocultural context that accepts good new ideas; they have to be in the right place at the right time. In this respect, creativity is like automobile accidents: there are characteristics of people that make them more prone to the event, but both automobile accidents and creativity arise through complex properties of systems rather than through characteristics of individuals.

I: Accept the Relativity of the Concept of Creativity.

Creativity is a relative concept: if some ideas are creative, then others are less so. We can’t all be the highly creative ones, or as my Aunt Deanne used to say when she tried to manage six young cousins: "we can’t all be chiefs; what we need here are a few good Indians." [In the late 1950’s, even she did not have the political sensitivity to use the term "native Americans."]

Not everyone in a field breaks out of boxes. Recognizing that allows us to be less fearful of the novel ideas of those few individuals who are enormously creative. Allowing them to push the edge doesn’t lead to anarchy or the demise of the field. Despite the predictions of some, Phil Kotler and Sid Levy’s notion about broadening the concept of marketing did not bring about the demise of the field of marketing. Instead, it broadened its impact and its audience.

We must encourage those few individuals who profoundly expand our range of knowledge.

II: Be on the Lookout for Creative Students.

Those of us who are college professors play an important role. Csikszentmihalyi found that his sample of eminent creative people weren’t popular as adolescents and lacked nostalgia for their teenage years.

However, college and graduate school were high points. Specific college professors provided intellectual challenges that aroused their interest. This isn’t always an easy task since these students often ask "difficult" questions about taken-for-granted assumptions.

Today’s undergraduates include people who could make creative contributions to consumer research in the future. If it weren’t for my undergraduate professors at SMU, especially Mike Harvey and Roger Kerin, I might have taken a job in bank marketing. Instead, in 1974, they suggested I enter a Ph.D. program. I thought being paid $3000 a year to read books and write papers sounded good, so I went.

We must watch for and mentor students who might make creative contributions.

III: Recruit and Nurture Multiple Intelligences.

But we must look beyond students already in our courses to find talented people. To optimize its creativity, a field needs people with diverse strengths and predispositions that make them sensitive to the multiple dimensions of human experience.

It is in this suggestion that the work of Gardner becomes useful. He identifies six relatively autonomous types of intelligence:

1. Linguistic

2. Musical

3. Logical-mathematical

4. Spatial

5. Bodily-Kinesthetic

6. Personal

Our field is set up to select people with high logical-mathematical intelligence, who confront the world and attempt to find patterns that can be represented in abstract propositions expressed through the symbols of mathematics. These are important abilities, and we continue to need their contributions. But in requiring that everyone have high logical-mathematical intelligence, our field has overlooked the potential contributions of people with other types of intelligence, especially linguistic and persoal.

Those with high linguistic intelligence are keenly attuned to the shades of meaning of words. For most consumer researchers, language is a communication tool, rather than the substantive focus of their scholarship. However, our field also needs scholars who study topics such as how the persuasive language of advertising carries meaning. Because our field has recently incorporated some scholars trained in the analysis of language and its use, namely literary critics such as Linda Scott and Barbara Stern, we are now understanding much more about topics requiring linguistic intelligence. Yet the road must be made more inviting for others who might contribute in this way.

Similarly, consumer research has not maximized what could be contributed by scholars with high personal intelligence. Personal intelligence has two aspects: The first is access to one’s own feeling life, which then is the basis for the second: the ability to notice and distinguish among other people’s moods, temperaments, motivations, and intentions. Typically, these abilities are overlooked in fields focusing on cognition as the basis for action. The recent inclusion of ethnography and phenomenology in consumer research has opened a pathway for the entry of a few scholars with this capacity.

Broadening our field’s range of intelligences may require changes in entry and training requirements. But ultimately, it would contribute to the production of creative insights.

IV: Be Open and Critical Simultaneously.

Creativity requires the flexibility to move between being open and critical. Openness encourages people to be sufficiently playful and imaginative to have original ideas.

But openness to carefully considering new ideas is different from uncritically accepting all new ideas. A field must rigorously determine whether original work makes a creative contribution and meets the high standards appropriate to that type of work.

Our challenge is to help new people internalize rigorous evaluative criteria without stifling their abilities to form novel connections. Internalized standards allow people to focus on their original ideas that have the greatest creative potential. To achieve this dualism of being open and critical, evaluative criteria must be clear at a fairly high level of abstraction, so they are applicable to a wide range of original ideas. Focusing attention on our highest scholarly values as criteria prevents us from mistaking frequently-used indicators of high quality with high quality itself.

This is the delicate balance between being open and critical that creativity requires.

V: Fight Bureaucratically-Induced Boredom.

We must protect our scholarly environment from a form of pollution that limits its ability to bear creative fruit. That pollution is what I call bureaucratically-induced boredom. Its the exhausted feeling we have at the end of a day of being busy, but creating nothing. Creative ideas come in quiet reflective time, and tend not to come to overburdened, exhausted people. Creative ideas come to intrinsically motivated people with the time to pursue their interests.

The Nobel Prize winners in Csikszentmihalyi’s sample were proud of their work not for the awards it received, but for its intrinsic satisfactions. Interestingly, it was the women in the sample who sometimes pointed to extrinsic satisfactions such as awards as a major source of pride. In large measure this was because they were keenly aware of the difficulties women have in getting institutional recognition for their scholarly work.

We must let our colleagues know that we value their creative contributions. And we must permit them to erect barriers against distractions, even when our own requests turn out to be one of those distractions.

VI: Model Intellectual Enthusasm.

Rather than being a solitary enterprise, creativity is heightened by being around those who express intellectual enthusiasm for their own ideas and the ideas of others. There are three phrases that anyone who has had the good fortune to be around Jerry Zaltman hears him use frequently. They are: "I had an idea the other day." and "Yesterday I was reading a fascinating article." And, in response to the ideas of others, "That’s interesting." And somehow those magical incantations produce more ideas, more fascination, and more interest.

This is the kind of stimulation and encouragement we can provide to our colleagues, especially those who are junior.

VII: Garner Resources.

To permit people to address important problems creatively, a field should be well connected to the rest of the social system in ways that bring in resources for doing excellent work.

As Alan Andreasen indicated in his 1992 ACR Presidential Address, there are many vitally-important, well-funded consumption arenas that are not being used by consumer researchers as the contexts for their theory-driven studies. Vast amounts of money are available to study attitudes, memory, persuasive communication, and social influence in contexts such as adolescent cigarette smoking, recycling behavior, the use of condoms to prevent HIV, and the household food insecurity of impoverished Third World consumers emulating Western food consumption patterns. In the next fiscal year, the State of Arizona alone will spend $15 million on tobacco prevention and education, much of it for research set in the context of this lethal form of consumption. Yet, oddly, many consumer researchers persist in studying small samples of undergraduates responding to fictitious brands, but, of course, noting this limitation. Our society is not ignoring its many consumption problems; it is paying economists, nutritionists, physicians, psychiatrists, and agricultural economists to do consumer research While several in our field have received research funding from breaking out of this box, many more could strengthen the creativity of their empirical work by garnering resources.

VIII: Facilitate Cross-Disciplinary Contact.

Because most scientific breakthroughs involve linking previously-unrelated information, creative people are gregarious in crossing disciplinary boundaries. Our field needs revitalization of its diversity of disciplinary perspectives to fuel our creative potential. While psychology offers a valuable approach to studying consumer behavior, so could other social science, biological science, and humanities disciplines that are annually scarce or absent at ACR. Scholars in those fields have not come knocking on our door in response to our annual laments to each other. We must be proactive in cultivating their participation and contributions.

We can do this when we send doctoral students across campus to take courses. We can read current material in other fields that has been assigned to our students, and then contact faculty across our campuses to discuss the relevance of their perspectives to consumer research. In so doing, we forge connections that enhance creative possibilities.

IX: Accommodate Personal Lives.

I would be remiss if I only addressed professional aspects of the sociocultural context that facilitate creativity. There is ample evidence of the inaccuracy of the image that links creativity with social isolation. Csikszentmihalyi found that his sample of eminent creative people, all over age 60, mostly enjoyed stable, committed marital relationships that contributed to the peace of mind needed for creative work.

The men in the sample thanked their wives for buffering them from many daily life distractions. In contrast, the women in the sample did not fel the need to express such thanks; in fact, they sometimes mentioned wishing they had a wife who would do such things for them.

Perhaps most interesting were the results of asking this sample, "Of the things you have done in life, of what are you most proud?" Given their biographies, it is not surprising that 70% mentioned professional accomplishments. What is somewhat surprising is that 30% mentioned their families as their greatest source of pride: this was 40% of the women and 25% of the men.

I am pleased that the University of Arizona Marketing Department has been the scholarly home for the production of 3/10 papers named as JCR Best Articles. Yet as proud as the faculty members who did their award-winning work in my department have been in receiving that award, they also each hold dearly to the vital importance of their familial relationships.

What that means is that our profession must make it possible for people to live full lives that include reciprocal, close relationships with others outside of work. Regardless of the professional awards or recognition someone attains for their creativity, we must recognize that they may not regard consumer research as their defining achievement as life draws to a close.

As this speech draws to a close, I hope my comments result in collective efforts to insure that our field provides a fertile context for nurturing creativity. We do not have to don out-of-fashion clothing or engage in erratic behavior, as imagined by my students. Instead, we only need to become active agents in constructing the community and culture that allow us to attain our collective creative goals.