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Thursday, 16 May 2013 14:48

Culturally Competent Creativity, Creative Process in Context

The culturally competent creative recognizes the dramatic effect that culture plays in the creative process. Identifying and mediating the influence of tradition, audience, and authority in the environment will enable greater potential for creative success.

Written by Dr Tara Grey Coste, Leadership Studies, University of Southern Maine;  Cassandra Coste, Social Work, New York University and George Fish, Leadership Studies, University of Southern Maine


In this age of the global marketplace in which the world's people have become linked through unprecedented connectivity, it has become quite obvious that cultural competency is key to successful creativity. The culturally competent creative must be truly committed to the pursuit of multi-culturalism, truly committed to respecting another's values and beliefs and acknowledging that assumptions resulting from these values and beliefs are logically connected. The moment one expresses an idea to an audience the concept is no longer what it was in the author's mind as it now belongs to the audience. We would suggest that placing usefulness as perceived from within the value system of the audience would be a preferred place to start if a creative idea is to find success. What is of utmost importance is that we have some mastery of cultural competency as it may be applied to the pathways creative ideas take once they enter the public sphere.


Creativity, culture, process, context, competency, tradition, audience identity, authority

In this age of the global marketplace in which the world's people have become linked through unprecedented connectivity, it has become quite obvious that cultural competency is key to personal and professional success. Furthermore, the link between culture and creativity is well established in the literature. Csikszentmihalyi (1998) identifies three primary forces that mediate creativity: the culture, the social system, and the individual. Numerous other studies charting the differences between cultural conceptions and perceptions of creativity have emerged in the literature (Baer, 2003; Kharkhurin & Motalleebi, 2008; Kim, 2005; Niu & Sternberg, 2002; Paletz, 2004). However, most studies follow a somewhat simplistic path, focusing largely on the fabled East/West cultural dichotomy.

As an example, Kuan Chen Tsai's (2012) article, The Interplay between Culture and Creativity, focuses on how culture impacts the generation of creative thoughts. While the introduction and conclusion of this piece point to a deeper understanding of complex states and identities, Tsai makes some troubling generalizations about culture. Recent scholarship reflects a methodology shift that accounts for many narratives of identity. Although Tsai asserts that culture and creativity cannot be untangled from one another and must be situated with the 'conflux of historical, societal, and individual variables' (p. 18), his article falls into the same Eastern and Western dichotomy that leaves many people invisible.

While work such as this is necessary and informative in terms of cross cultural explications of and for creativity, what is required (and what is currently absent) is a systemic interpretive framework that is itself adaptive, self as well as environmentally responsive, and self-reflexive. Looking at the interplay between culture and creativity through the lens of contemporary globalization study would be more inclusive. Dichotomies of culture are a falsity, and the likely flows of creativity are mediated by institutional or hegemonic thinking.

Thus, multiple lenses should be used to view creativity from all angles. This holistic approach must be developed systematically to tie together and make sense of the diversity of perspectives found in any environment (Hennessey & Amabile, 2010). Further, the position must be taken that creativity is specific relative to the pressing forces of mediation that pertain to the local, the social, and the cultural. Claiming creativity as universally meaningful is unrealistic, ethnocentric, and destabilizes any subsequent claims to knowledge. For example, Niu and Sternberg (2002) point out that divergent thinking tests are based on Western perceptions of creativity and thus should not be used as sole measures of creativity. This resonates with a position that rejects claims to creativity as being universally meaningful since such claims are located in ethnocentric methodological thought.

Where the force of cultural mediation of creative success comes powerfully into play is at the point where the creative idea must be sold as useful, must appeal to an audience external to the creators. Noble, Sander, and Obenshain (2000) identify six appeals that impact desirability (tradition, precedent, flattery, feasibility, authority, and sympathy). Of particular importance to our discussion are tradition and authority, which stand out amongst these as contexts dependent on both the audience and the speaker as actors in the exchange. What is critical here are the ways the conveyor of creativity must adapt his or her self-identity and the perceived identity of the audience relative to historical and contemporary notions of how the cultures of the creator and audience interact.

Simply put, communicating creativity requires understanding of the macro (culture), meso (the social system), and micro (the individual) and must be understood as being influenced by notions of creativity. It is also important to acknowledge that the inverse is similarly true. The locus of the disjunction between the ethnocentric and the ethnorelative must also be considered as contextually relevant, influenced and intersected as it is by the three units of analysis above. For example, is creativity more likely to occur at the nexus of the ethnorelative or ethnocentric environment? Indeed, Klausen (2010) argues creativity is deeply paradoxical and, as such, adopting an ethnorelative approach becomes quite important.

Supplementing Bennet's concept of ethnorelativity are Covey's consciousness shifts and Hall's mind shift (as cited in Cortes & Wilkinson, 2009)—theories, that combined, represent the importance of attempting to understand cultural domination and discrimination (racial, gender based, or other) in any form. It is this that Cortes and Wilkinson (2009) suggest is essential to remove the barriers of cultural constraint so that we are able to move forward and embrace cultural transcendence. Indeed, Leung, Maddux, Galinsky, and Chi-yue (2008) found that multi-cultural experiences in various settings (organizational, educational, exchange programs, etc.) help enhance creativity.

Consequently, it would seem that the culturally competent creative must be truly committed to the pursuit of multi-culturalism, truly committed to respecting another's values and beliefs and acknowledging that assumptions resulting from these values and beliefs are logically connected. Thus, 'respect for a person ... involves locating him against his cultural background, sympathetically entering onto his world of thought, and interpreting his system of meaning' (Parekh, 2002, pp. 240-41). This highlights the intersection of cultural intelligence and multi-culturalism in the creative and the audience as well as their relationship to the societal institutions and practices prevalent in a given environment—irrespective of the aim of the communication.

In support of this line of thinking, Bjerregaard, Lauring, and Klitmøller (2009) suggest that current understandings of culture as fixed are problematic. While this may seem apparent, their refutation of culture as something 'self-contained' resonates with our argument that cultural exchange across boundaries, real or imagined, is fluid and reflexive. Bjerregaard et al. put forth the call to switch from a framework of 'culture-as-code to a culture-in context' view. This progressive way of understanding transcultural interactions as a flow of cultural capital that is not free of histories is very important to the development of a culturally competent creative.

Returning to the fact that culture is not 'self-contained' and relating that to the communication of creativity, we suggest that the moment one expresses an idea to an audience the concept is no longer what it was in the author's mind as it now belongs to the audience. This concept is found in Barthes (2001) essay, The Death of the Author, which attests that the origin of a text is not what is relevant, but rather it is the audience that matters. Furthermore, Barthes highlights the reality that there is no one way to decipher the meaning of an author's words. Creatives simply must be content with the fact that their ideas will be understood differently by each audience member because no two people have had the same life experience.

This does not mean to say that the creative has no control over the communication exchange. We posit that communicators can help to predetermine understanding if they identify and target the cultural space and context in which their ideas will prove meaningful to the audience, if they pay due respect to the fact that understanding of communicated ideas is socially situated in context. Thus, while socially situated cognition is indeed heavily influenced by individual histories, we argue that it can be also be powerfully influenced by culturally strategic communication.

To this end, the recognition that macro, meso, and micro units of analysis intersect and interrupt one another is merely a starting point. In practice, one must recognize that this relationship is often non-linear, inherently subjective, adaptive, and 'emerges as a far more complex phenomenon than in the individualistic perspective' (Rudowicz, 2003, p. 274). Indeed, the differential power distribution within environments greatly affects, restricts, and mediates creative processes at the individual, group, and societal levels (Seitz, 2003). As Schlesinger (2010) observes, moderating factors on the culture of creativity are roughly in-line with the wider political and cultural shifts and contexts of the time.

Kharkhurin and Motalleebi (2008) examine different environmental influences on creativity. Their study of Iranian, Russian, and American individuals involved looking for different patterns of divergent thinking, which lent itself to 'different' creative idea generation. Kharkhurin and Motalleebi argue that culture is extremely relevant in mediating creativity as a celebration of the unique and taking initiative, parallel to their definition of creativity as 'a process in which simultaneous activation of different and often unrelated, ideas or categories creates a new plane on which original and novel ideas might be generated' (p. 405). The ability or incapacity to be able to generate creative thought based on individual identity recalls a Foucauldian idea of discourse. Foucault (1979) argues that it is impossible to define one's identity without using the terms previously established by established authority. Essentially, an inner identity will always be in reaction to an outer environment. In terms of creativity, this would indicate that the language and discourse surrounding thought and individualism will formulate the sphere within which one must work creatively, and it is only within the boundaries of the language one communicates with that one can generate creative ideas and share creative output.

Although the traditionally dichotomous cross-cultural work in creativity studies is informative (and necessary to building knowledge of cultural mediation of creativity), developing the skills that have the capacity to articulate the adaptive and nonlinear is preferred. In order to effectively study creativity and design ways to optimize it, the pressures, requirements, politics, and essence of the local, social, and cultural as well as the theoretically abstract will likely all be informative. Thus, by eschewing conventional dichotomous thinking in regard to both creativity and methodological thought, the traces of a new model for studying and delivering creativity begins to emerge.

The culturally competent creative understands that examining the creative process in context requires us to be comfortable with the crystallization of the amorphous. As eloquently described by Richardson, 'Crystallization provides us with a deepened, complex, and thoroughly partial understanding of the topic. Paradoxically we know more and doubt what we know. Ingeniously we know there is always more to know' (as cited in Denzin & Lincoln, 2005, p. 965).

What we argue for is an emphasis on cross-cultural acceptance finding as critical for the creative process. Erez and Nouri (2010) examine exchanges between creativity and cultural contexts and propose a framework for understanding the observed outcomes. Studies show that the inclination to create new ideas is universal, yet Erez and Nouri explore reasons that creativity manifests in different ways across cultures. They break creative ideas into two components—useful and novel—and argue that certain cultural situations favour one over the other. They further break down different cultural contexts, such as uncertainty-avoidance, power-distance, and individualism-collectivism, and speak of how approaching them from either a perspective of originality or usefulness can lead to creative outcomes. We would suggest that emphasizing usefulness as perceived within the value system of the audience would be a more likely place to start if we are to find success.

What is of utmost importance is that we have some mastery of cultural competency as it may be applied to the pathways creative ideas take once they enter the public sphere. One of the greatest gaps in the literature on creativity and culture is in the reaction to creative thought across cultures. This is quite unfortunate, as our new global environment will certainly present boundaries or frameworks which creative thought is restricted to, and the culturally competent creative must overcome those boundaries.

Noble, Sander, and Obenshain (2000) describe the culturally competent individual as one that is able to navigate different cultural spaces without extensive knowledge of the specifics of the culture that he or she is trying to be creative within. Noble et al. claim that 'currently, identifying effective communications remains an art practised by experienced and talented people' (p. 1). Not surprisingly, they find that it is highly unlikely that one argument or presentation of ideas will be effective across all cultures. This skill set must be demystified, taken from the hands of the elite few, and shared with all who work in multi-cultural environments, which increasingly means all of us. If we are to be able to share creative ideas in this environment, we simply must develop a robust cross-cultural tool kit that helps identify cultural differences and enables effectively responding to the power of these differences.


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Dr Tara Grey Coste

Tara Grey Coste is a Leadership and Organizational Studies professor at the University of Southern Maine. Her work focuses on refining the training processes that enhance creativity in teams and on teaching business professionals techniques to enhance their leadership abilities in multi-cultural, multi-national environments.

She has published numerous articles and presented her work at venues around the world. She is a Colleague of the Creative Education Foundation, a Leader at the Creative Problem Solving Institute, a Visiting Scholar at Singapore Management University's Wee Kim Wee Centre for Cultural Diversity in Business, Co-Founder of the International Forum of Creativity Organizations, and Past-President and Director of Communication of the American Creativity Association.

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