ASA05: Creativity and cultural improvisation

4th - 7th April 2005, University of Aberdeen, UK

There is no ready-written script for social and cultural life. People have to work it out for themselves as they go along. Though the idea that folk in ‘traditional’ societies are destined to follow routines transmitted as a legacy from the past might find few anthropological adherents today, we have not entirely thrown off the yoke of a way of thinking that pits individual invention against cultural convention. This has prevented full recognition of the creative dynamic of cultural processes – of the extent to which cultural forms are produced and reproduced, rather than merely replicated and transmitted, through the active and experimental engagement over time and generation of persons with their social and material environments. Nevertheless in recent years a number of approaches have been developed that challenge the association at the heart of modern thought between creativity and individual talent and expression, and that highlight its performative and political dimensions. The conference reviewed these approaches across a range of fields in which they have been influential, in studies – for example – of visual and material culture, art and architecture, storytelling and memory, technology and skilled practice, learning and apprenticeship, ritual and secular performance, personhood and embodiment, perception and cognition, and authority and resistance. It considered how a focus on creativity either supports or subverts existing paradigms both within and beyond the discipline of anthropology, such as in history, sociology, psychology and biology. It will examine how the significance of the concept of creativity has itself changed in the history of modernity, and its applicability as a term of cross-cultural comparison. The conference discussed the creativity and improvisational quality of anthropological scholarship itself. How, if at all, does the generation of new knowledge in the dialogic contexts of encounters between ethnographers and their subjects, or between teachers of anthropology and their students, differ from the generativity of those interpersonal encounters in which all social and cultural life subsists?

In pursuit of these general objectives the conference addressed the following themes:

Creativity, visual perception and material culture:

  • design, construction and what it means to make things
  • the generation and reproduction of form in landscapes and buildings
  • ways of seeing in art, architecture and anthropology
  • making, learning and apprenticeship
  • speaking, writing, drawing and imaging
  • the novelty of technology and the creativity of the machine

The creativity of social, political and religious life:

  • the creation of persons, bodies and identities
  • the creation of authority and the generation of resistance
  • movement, dislocation and appropriation
  • economies of creativity
  • creativity in religious belief and ritual practice
  • authenticity and cultural reproduction

Creativity and temporality:

  • creativity in time and history
  • continuity, transformation and the work of memory
  • the dialectic of tradition and innovation
  • improvisation and creativity in narrative performance
  • the creativity of myth and dreaming
  • the changing meanings of creativity

The creativity of anthropological scholarship:

  • creativity, reflexivity, research and responsibility
  • the creativity of learning and teaching
  • creating representations and representing creativity
  • the artist and the anthropologist as creative practitioners
  • confusion, ambiguity and clarity
  • the limits to creativity

Each of these four themes were explored in a double (whole-day) session. Sessions ran in parallel. The conference opened with a keynote address, and closed with a plenary panel with contributions from distinguished practitioners (including artists and writers). There was also a workshop discussing issues of creativity in teaching and learning. This was based around the results of the project ‘Learning through doing and understanding in practice’, based at the Department of Anthropology at the University of Aberdeen, and funded by C-SAP for 2003-04. .