Research as creative practice


My starting point – Research is a creative process.

The connection between research and creativity is embodied in some disciplines. C. Wright Mills for instance famously talked about the necessity of the ‘sociological imagination’ – understanding how larger unseen social relations are embedded in and frame everyday events, conversations, processes and relations.

But perhaps the equation of research and creativity is more convincing to non-social scientists if we look at common understandings of creativity. The recent Durham Commission on Creativity and Education in England offered these definitions:

Creativity: The capacity to imagine, conceive, express, or make something that was not there before.

Creative thinking: A process through which knowledge, intuition and skills are applied to imagine, express or make something novel or individual in its contexts. Creative thinking is present in all areas of life. It may appear spontaneous, but it can be underpinned by perseverance, experimentation, critical thinking and collaboration.

These two are not just for/by artists. They apply to research, to what we researchers do, right?

Let me explain. We generally accept that research is about making a contribution to knowledge. If this is so then research is, by definition, making something that was not there before. Perhaps confirmation studies are an exception to this rule, but certainly doctoral research is almost always geared to the production of something “novel or individual in its context”.

Bear with me here. There is a point to this. If research is a creative practice, I’m curious about how creativity is being supported and fostered across disciplines and institutions.

I’m situated in the UK where there are mandatory courses for social science and science doctoral researchers. I’ll just talk about my field of social science here, but I think the point is true for scientists too.  The required courses are intended to help the next generation of social scientists to understand research designs and underpinning philosophy, and to acquire a basic “toolkit” of quant and qual approaches. Well and good, that’s perfectly admirable and understandable – and if I was a policy maker I’d want to do that too.

But I’d also recognise the problems. This training  is often a “one-best” model. It is also time-limited, a module, a workshop. What can be covered is thus also limited. And generally what’s on offer doesn’t cover nearly the range of approaches and situations that social science doctoral researchers encounter. PhDers often have do a lot of additional work on traditions and approaches that are barely mentioned in the mandatory courses.

What’s also at issue,and more to the point, is the kind of implicit messages – the hidden curriculum – that goes along with the courses. The emphasis tends to be on technique – follow the yellow brick road of set processes – and on a “canon” of research literature. Fix the design first, specify outcomes. Design the impact. All very linear and logical. Walk this way. Talk this way.

But one of the things not covered at all, or as well,  in this kind of “training” are processes that are integral to creativity and creative research thinking.

I’ve been wondering how prioritising research as a creative  practice might change the ways in which we organise the “training” we offer to doctoral researchers. If creative thinking involves for example

  • making connections between apparently disparate ideas
  • generating a lot of possibilities
  • coming up with interpretations with distinctive and unique characteristics
  • challenging taken for granted lines of thought and
  • exploring and elaborating a line of thought

then how might this re-orient the ways in which courses in research design and methods, and in analysis, are designed and taught?

If creative people are curious, not easily satisfied, inventive and lateral but also determined, tenacious, disciplined, evaluative and purposeful – then how do our courses support researchers to build these dispositions and a repertoire of strategies? How do we also encourage the collaboration that can accompany creative work at scale? What if we put creativity at the heart of research education?

I reckon we wouldn’t stop emphasising the importance of being systematic. Or making sure that the implications of working with specific traditions of inquiry are clear. My proposition is not a binary. Abandon what we do now and opt for something entirely different. Rather, it’s about changing the conversations.

What if… we built in regular discussions about what it means to work creatively and how this sits with common notions of rigour and trustworthiness. What if we considered seriously the place of intuition and serendipity in research, come to terms with the messiness of process, develop strategies to think divergently rather than always following pre-set processes, or play with inventing new ways to investigate a problem.

Sometimes I think we act as if we don’t trust doctoral researchers to be able to deal with debate and uncertainty and cope, we think that without prescription they will be lost. No, that can’t be right. Continue.

Creative approaches to being researcher, thinking research, doing research are now live conversations occurring in multiple scholarly fields. While there are exceptions I am sure,  these conversations often don’t find a place in the introductory and generic courses on offer in the UK. Is this a problem? Yes – sometimes it is. Doctoral researchers can experience considerable dissonance between their “training” and the thinking in their discipline. And it sometimes takes quite some time to unlearn the apparently “correct” approach to inquiry taught in official “training”  – and take up a different option.

Lack of attention to creative practice is also a potential problem for those who care about research in and on the world. Given that those who fund research training want a new generation of creative researchers capable of solving massive social challenges, it does seem rather myopic to leave creativity to chance – or the capacities of supervisors and the luck of the draw in early career support.

Perhaps there is more that can be done. I know there is more that could be done. If research is creative, and if it is both dispositional and practical, and if it is of high social importance, then I do wonder why we don’t pay more attention to it.