June 13, 2016

Making the Familiar Strange: An Ingredient for Creative Genius

TigonzalesBy Teresa Irene Gonzales

Creativity is a response to our environment – Eric Weiner

In my introduction to Sociology course, students and I work on developing their sociological imaginations, a sociological process and way of thinking that C. Wright Mills identified in the 1950s. Mills claims that in order to understand social issues, we must situate ourselves within our current historical context, take into consideration our personal history, and make connections between ourselves and larger social issues.. This process works in both directions: history influences us and we in turn influence history.

While we cover a breadth of content in my intro course, the sociological imagination is really the one skill that we focus on developing. We pay particular attention to making the familiar strange (a short video of what this is can be found here). But what does that mean?

To do this, the sociological imagination requires that we:                 

  • Think critically by moving beyond common-sense understandings of our social world
  • Never, ever, assume anything
  • Are prepared to be wrong
  • Make no value judgements! It is not about good or bad, but rather what are the outcomes or the (unintended) consequences
  • Ask questions, and then ask more questions, and then ask questions of our questions
  • Embrace life’s complexities.

Sally Raskoff has previously written about what you can do with your sociological imagination once it’s been developed.

While making the everyday strange help’s to develop one’s sociological imagination, according to travel journalist Eric Weiner, it is also one of the basic tenets of creative genius!

On a recent trip to visit friends in Oklahoma, I picked up Weiner’s newest book, The Geography of Genius. The title intrigued me and I was curious to see how Weiner connected ideas of “genius” to place and space. It turns out, both what sociologists study and how we view the world help to inspire and understand creative genius.

In the book, as the title suggests, Weiner seeks to uncover why certain time periods and places give rise to clusters of creative genius – where the presence of creative genius is embodied in more than one person. Using Margaret Boden’s definition of creative genius, “the ability to come up with ideas that are new, surprising, and valuable,” he attempts to link the presence of creative genius to both culture and environment.

To accomplish this, Weiner draws from sociology, psychology, history, and cultural geography in order to analyze the presence of creative genius in seven different cities during specific time periods. This ranges from ancient Athens to the Song Dynasty in Hangzhou, to the golden age in Edinburgh, to late nineteenth century Calcutta, and, finally, modern day Silicon Valley in California.

Weiner picked cities because he believes that there is something about urban spaces that are conducive to creativity. This idea echoes the work of early (and contemporary) urban sociologists. Georg Simmel, for instance, understood the urban environment as affecting the internal life or personalities of the individual. For Simmel, the urban dweller develops a heightened awareness, intelligence, and sense of competition that is needed to navigate the onslaught of information that one encounters and also as a way to be noticed within densely populated areas. Early Chicago urbanists such as Robert Ezra Park understood the city as both influencing and influenced by the people who move through it. Particularly for sociologist Louis Wirth, it is this reciprocal relationship between the individual, the group, and the city as a space that actualizes the urban way of life.

According to Weiner, it is this way of life that allows creative genius to flourish. Some of the environmental conditions needed include a sense of chaos and challenge, an openness to and tolerance of difference (people, ideas, cultures, or religions, for instance), playfulness, the presence of an intellectual community that provides mentorship, and a local culture that encourages creative thinking.

“Perfect” places cause creativity to stagnate, whereas challenge, chaos, and difficulty create opportunities for creative thinking (as in New York City, or Mexico City, or Bogota, or Phuket). Openness to difference allows for a flow of ideas, and a rethinking of commonly held beliefs. Playfulness boosts creativity and builds community. Mentorship provides someone to act as an idea sounding board, who can potentially discover new questions, and who can cultivate individual talent. Finally, local culture is key to guiding creative genius into certain directions and fields. As Weiner states: “what is honored in a country will be cultivated there.”  

These conditions don’t automatically generate creative genius, however. There must also be an individual sense of risk-taking, an ability to commit mistakes, learn from them, and then go on to make more mistakes, before creating something truly wonderful. There also needs to be a commitment to inquiry – to making the familiar strange – that compels one to see and think about things differently. This allows one to ask new questions, or hidden questions, or sometimes even obvious questions. It also allows one to notice things that others don’t.

One way to begin noticing new things is to go for a walk and both pay attention to and question what you see. When I lived in Berkeley, I once saw a trio of mobile cupcakes zoom down my street. It is still one of the most amazing things I’ve seen, and it planted the seeds for my next project on the importance of adult play in public spaces.

As several scholars have found, there is a link between physical activity and thinking. According to a study completed by Marily Oppezzo and Daniel L. Schwartz at Stanford, walking (even a mere 10 minutes) boosts creative thinking in people. In a 2014 New Yorker article, “Why Walking Helps Us Think,” the author claims that “Because we don’t have to devote much conscious effort to the act of walking, our attention is free to wander…This is precisely the kind of mental state that studies have linked to innovative ideas and strokes of insight.” Weiner draws on these previous works to link the importance of walking to creative thinking (a walking culture tends to thrive in some urban centers in the U.S., whereas smaller locales generally rely on a driving culture).

So, to get your creative genius juices flowing, go for a walk, visit cities often, and cultivate your sociological imagination.


Thanks for sharing

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