Rodrigo Ferrari-Nunes


The concept of creativity will continue to be relevant in future anthropological discussions, and hopefully not restricted to artistic contexts. Since the concept of creativity is widespread, entangled with popular notions that transcend disciplinary boundaries, seeking consensus on what it represents outside well-defined ethnographic or epistemological contexts is not very productive or realistic. If such consensus on a definition of creativity (or culture for that matter) were possible, we would, ironically, be curtailing its growth and pruning its expressions. Therefore, this paper deals critically with anthropological associations and permutations of creativity. Some anthropologists have used the term creativity without elaboration while others proposed various definitions and redefinitions, associating them with different cultural and theoretical formulations. Some have written of human processes deemed ‘creative’ without theorizing creativity, or thinking that the concept deserves to be emphasized. Others may have only decided to consider it more closely after it became a popular keyword, of ‘wider interest and relevance’ among fellow disciplinarians. In any case, careful attention to creative processes has been at the heart of anthropology since its inception.

This piece focuses on discussions I encountered and proposes some of my own questions and ideas on creativity, with no intention to cover comprehensively the vastness of (blatant or unintended) discourses on creativity. My intention is to engage and help afford critical discussions on this multilayered notion. I argue from a perspective founded on creative-critical reflexivity (Ferrari-Nunes 2015) as a tool to transcend cultural logics and academic orthodoxies. Asking uncomfortable reflexive questions about the production of knowledge in academic cultures, following Bourdieu’s (1988) lead, is essential for fostering dialogue and generating future alternatives and possibilities.[i] In other words, finding wisdom in ethnographic contexts and bringing them to bear, creatively, in our own social worlds is a desirable and honorable, albeit not always possible, intellectual service that such an approach seeks to provide. For Myerhoff and Ruby (1982:1) reflexivity, ‘creative intensity’, and ‘heightened awareness or vertigo’ are intimately related.

As Julie Cruickshank points out, even the ‘anthropological narratives we absorb’ and the ‘theoretical perspectives that animate one generation of scholars are frequently reinterpreted by the next as the dead end of history’ (1998:161). For me, this dialogic dynamic, including flows of historical and epistemological discordance and harmonization, highlights how the task of communicating knowledge across different cultural contexts demands a level of creative and reflexive translation. In other words, the translation of experience into anthropological knowledge demands our creative engagement, calling for fluidity and eclecticism (instead of conformity) in paradigmatic and theoretical orientation. For Cruikshank, ‘unless we put ourselves in interactive situations where we are exposed and vulnerable, where [scholarly] norms are interrupted and challenged, we can never recognize the limitations of our own descriptions’ (1998:165). Dialogues ‘are most productive because they prevent us from becoming overconfident about our own interpretations’ (Cruikshank 1998:165).


A historical form of anthropological creativity involves drawing on the wisdom of fieldwork experiences to produce, with contrasts, analogies, metaphors, and local conceptualizations, self-reflexive cultural, institutional and theoretical critiques. Engaging ethnographic contexts and anthropological knowledge with the intention of improving current social and cultural conditions has been at the heart of anthropological practice historically (e.g., Sapir 1924, Lévi-Strauss 1966, Hymes 1973, Myerhoff and Ruby 1982, Clifford and Marcus 1986, Marcus and Fischer 1999). For Josephides (1997:16), ‘ethnographic encounters produce specific ethnographies that display the creativities of particular cultural contexts’. She draws inspiration from ‘curiosity about the differences in the creativity of our own co-inventions of field situations and relations’ (Josephides 1997:16). She argues that only ‘the field encounter, creative, transformative, and authoritative, can offer legitimacy to ethnographic representation’ (Josephides 1997:32).

James et al. (1997a:i) consider the impact of Clifford and Marcus (1986) on ethnographic authority and writing as a creative impetus and opportunity. The ‘traditional anthropology’ that sought to explain with objective data the exotic other to ethnocentric audiences became more flexible and responsive to field situations (James et al. 1997a:i). For them, identity is ‘fluid and contingent, but the ability to create or perform an identity is fixed as a generalised human characteristic’ (James at al. 1997b:5). Theory and practice are ‘creative’ and ‘symbiotic’, they argue, because the ‘casting of spells or the imposition of metaphors carries power in material as well as fantasy worlds’ (James et al. 1997b:12). Similarly, for Mauss, ‘words, sympathetic connexions and the transfer of properties and influences’ have a ‘creative virtue’ (2001[1902]:143). Hence, ‘rites are eminently effective, they are creative; they do things’ (Mauss 2001[1902]:23-24). Mauss noticed historical links between ‘schools of magic’ and the development of ‘a scientific tradition and methods of intellectual scholarship’ (2001[1902]:178). ‘In fact, we have seen over and over again how,’ Mauss concludes, ‘as far as magic is concerned, knowledge is power’ (2001[1902]:176). And knowledge is one of magic’s ‘mainsprings’ (Mauss 2001[1902]:176). In this sense, ‘magicians are scholars and scholars are magicians’ (Mauss 2001[1902]:178).


Most writers on creativity want to have it or get closer to its sources. Some think all humans possess creativity by default, others that only exceptional individuals have that privilege or inborn ‘talent’.[ii] If becoming creative implies developing mastery in specialized skills overtime, creativity cannot be inherent in every social action and it cannot be confused with human nature. If ‘nature’ is a contingent, cultural and historical, personal and social construction, the same should apply to ‘creativity’. Benjamin Lee Whorf (1950:70) noted how terms which ‘attain a cosmic scope of reference’ often ‘crystallize in themselves the basic postulates of an unformulated philosophy’ (e.g., ‘reality, substance, matter, cause […] space, time, past, present, future’). We may add ‘nature’, ‘human’, ‘creativity’, ‘agency’, etc. While for some ‘creativity’ is an ever-present human condition and potential, for others naturalized ideologies (i.e., neoliberal, colonial, etc) either suppress or provide conditions for cultural creativity. For Eitan Wilf, the ‘ascendance of creativity cannot be set apart from the rise of a “neoliberal agency” that requires subjects to imagine and fashion their own future by engaging with risk and making decision under constraints of increased uncertainty’ (2014:407).[iii]

If being creative is a feeling-thought resonance (Wikan 2012) contingent on the form of social interactions and other factors, then it is delicate; it can be variously cultivated and suppressed. It can also be context-dependent, based on stylistic categorizations, and norms of interaction (i.e., ballet, capoeira, jazz, samba, and so on). In this way, everyone has it but may not always be exercising it. One of my research participants argued that she was ‘not creative enough to compose from scratch’. She found it much easier to learn and play enjoyable tunes. In her view, composing makes one vulnerable, even though anyone can compose. She fears that her own compositions may not be ‘as good’ as those she is used to playing, and that once the composition is out in the social world, it cannot be taken back. In this conception, being creative is associated with writing new music and not with the technical and mechanical ability required to play an instrument. Being creative, for her, involves taking a type of social risk – the sharing of something deeply personal in public while not being fully confident about its quality. Playing the compositions of others, for her, is also creative, but just not as creative as composing well.

The dichotomy between ‘work’ and ‘play’ among professional musicians draws limits, potentials, and points to delicate and sensible aspects of culture-specific creativity (e.g., Tsioulakis 2011). Despite the convolution of these associated propositions, we can investigate what creativity can be in different contexts. Models that view creativity as a relative factor of social conditions and dynamics, constrained and enabled by them depending on particular circumstances, seem more realistic in my experience than those that rely on romantic and universal notions. Paul Stoller argues that if ‘we find a way to draw strength from both sides of the between and breathe in the creative air of indeterminacy, we can find ourselves in a space of enormous growth, a space of power and creativity’ (2009:4). ‘Living between things’, he postulates, bears ‘several existential repercussions’, pulling us simultaneously ‘in two directions’, into states of ‘indecision, confusion, and lethargy’ (Stoller 2009:4). Similarly, as Mary Douglas (2002[1966]:216) noted, Victor Turner (1962) argued that the object of the Ndembu’s Chihamba rituals ‘is to use paradox and contradiction to express truths which are not expressible in other terms’. Stoller argues that inhabiting ‘new space[s] between’ worlds, where indeterminacy and uncertainty become real, leads to ineffable experiences of creativity (2009:108). For him, the ‘world’ is a ‘wondrous place that stirs the imagination and sparks creativity’ (Stoller 2009:35). Yet, this is definitely not the world we first take for granted as self-evident, but its creative deconstruction.

For Eric Wolf, ethnographic work is ‘needed to properly evaluate some unexamined romantic notions about the nature of human action in the world’ (2010[1982]:xxii-xxiii). Whereas one position ‘portrays humans as inherently creative and ever ready to reinvent who they are and who they want to be’, another supposes ‘that humans will instinctively resist domination, and that “resistance” can be thought of and studied as a unitary category’ (Wolf 2010[1982]:xxiii). However, Wolf argues, changing conditions and circumstances ‘may further creativity or inhibit it, prompt resistance or dissipate it’ (2010[1982]:xxiii). ‘Exhibition-making’ in museum settings, for instance, is ‘not so much a matter of creativity and self-expression’ but actually ‘a process to be managed’ and a ‘matter of relative efficiency or inefficiency’ (MacDonald 1997:165-168). For Wolf, ‘[p]eople do not always resist the constraints in which they find themselves, nor can they reinvent themselves freely in cultural constructions of their own choosing’ (2010[1982]:xxiii). In this view, the exercise of creativity is shaped by systemic power constrictions. This same idea, accounting for dynamic relationships between creative agency and structures of power, appears in various other conceptions of creativity and expressions of fear for its potential demises.


Duranti (2012:140) noted a ‘tension between creativity and social control’. Csikszentmihalyi (1990:111) argued that listening to and making music can lead to experiences of ‘flow’ – an ‘optimal experience’. However, even music making can become a source of ‘psychic disorder’, he noted, for children whose parents placed ‘too much emphasis on how they perform, and too little emphasis on what they experience’, therefore succeeding ‘in perverting music’ (Csikszentmihalyi 1990:112). Even music making, an activity that is widely considered quintessentially creative and positive, can inflict painful experiences according to how personal and social relationships of power, and the circumstances of interactions, affect people’s feelings about participating. As Kaul noticed, among Irish folk musicians, artistic freedom and control is ‘more important than money’ and ‘commodification is the near-complete loss of control’ (2007:715-716). Professional session musicians in Athens conceptually divide their musical practice into ‘work’ and ‘play’ (Tsioulakis 2011). This distinction signals how different modes of music making (i.e., working under the creative control of producers and pop market trends; or, alternatively, feeling free to express oneself) afford corresponding personal and social experiences. Tsioulakis noted a sharp distinction between ‘working behind some pop star and nobody paying attention to anything but her skirt’ (2011:182) and ‘living the jazz life’ while playing jazz as ‘it’s meant to be played’ (2011:176). As Hesmondhalgh and Baker noted, that ‘strong tensions between creativity and commerce’ affect many music genres ‘perhaps because music has come to be associated so strongly with authentic and autonomous subjectivity’ (2011:206).[iv]

My own experiences in different collaborative artistic projects involving formal and informal music making, theatre, video production and original album recordings, suggests that non-hierarchical mutuality and a sense of expressive freedom are intimately intertwined with experiences considered creative. Locals associated the transgression of boundaries and prescribed stylistic norms with the process of growing creatively though a craft, developing character and voice as community members. The presence of self-selected authority figures and a hierarchical modus operandi in collaborative artistic projects immediately contradicted local ideals of open creativity, conviviality, and character appreciation, driving resident musicians away. They often expressed the anti-hierarchical and mutual sine qua non of creativity as ‘having a say’ and ‘being heard’.

For Quintilian, libera oratione, or ‘free speech’ was not supposed to be ‘simulated or artfully designed’ (Foucault 2001:21). As a form of spontaneous creativity, parrhesia is an inner urge that grows from experiencing the effects of established power hierarchies and dominant values that silence divergent and alternative positions. Contradictions and injustices accumulate, and, however minor or seemingly inconsequential, they shape and control what is proper or offensive to say. Eventually, the inner, experienced truth of those restrictions can take shape as parrhesia, putting the speaker in jeopardy. Thus, parrhesia, as a ‘form of criticism’, is not available to ‘the king or tyrant’ (Foucault 2001:16-17). Moreover, a ‘teacher or father who criticizes a child’ is not using parrhesia but when citizens criticize ‘the majority’, when pupils criticize their teachers, ‘then such speakers may be using parrhesia’ (Foucault 2001:18). As such, parrhesia expresses deeply felt truths only accessible to those outside circles of power – not from the position of decision-makers, but from the position of those directly affected by their decisions and control. Similarly, the ‘foundations of any universalist rationality’ are undermined by fieldwork experiences where the ‘deconstruction of otherness’ leads us into the ineffable (Stoller 2013:160-165). Foucault’s parrhesia can be seen as a kind of creativity that emerges from a critical awareness of power dynamics and seeks relief in public expression. Similarly, Fischer (1986:223) saw ‘future creativity’ in the interplay ‘between English and Spanish worlds; among subcultural styles, mass culture, and “high” culture; between male and female worlds’. In this view, creativity is in the ‘subversiveness of alternative perspectives (feminist, minority) for the taken-for-granted assumptions of dominant ideologies, and the polyphony of multiple voices’ (Fischer 1986:223). Vocal polyphonies lead future creativities and serve as ‘models for more textured, nuanced, and realistic ethnography’ (Fischer 1986:223). Similarly, Laura Nader’s motivations for investigating the boundaries of power and knowledge include ‘the intolerance for dissent in our culture, an intolerance that reverberates into the scientific community thereby truncating the creative impulse’ (1996a:xiv). For her, the ‘direction of creative research in the sciences’ was contingent on ‘the increasingly ideological nature of thinking about science’ (Nader 1986a:xiv). She counts as impediments to the ‘creative impulses’ the ‘relatively undemocratic nature of decision making in and about science’, the ‘absence of mutual respect and the presence of mutual ignorance between scientists and laypersons’ (Nader 1996a:xiv). Since ‘ethnocentrism runs deep’, she reasons, ‘creative ideas in the practices of indigenous people and our own folk are routinely overlooked’ (Nader 1996b:3).

The neoliberal epistemology that infiltrated university power structures transformed ‘the meaning of freedom and autonomy’ into a ‘rationality’ that promotes ‘unimpeded market behavior’ (Brown 2011:21). The romantic myth of ‘highly exceptional’ creative individuals who create ‘products of self-evident value’ (Wilf 2014:397) is also alive and well among academics, despite our awareness of it being a problem. Social media have been noted for promoting an ‘empty culture of self-promotion and self-branding, pseudo-sociality, distraction’ (Hesmondhalgh 2015:13). Flannery’s (1982) account of the ‘Child of the Seventies’ reflects his anxiety with a wider cultural transition in academia, the now almost completely realized dominance of a neoliberal academic commonsense, if not in anthropology, certainly in other fields. As Flannery (1982:266) noted, ‘blind ambition’ bypasses ‘commitment to culture history’ and ‘devotion to theory’. More emphasis on publishing than on face-to-face interactions and communication suppresses integration and mutuality, so that ‘talking past’ one another becomes more common than ‘talking with’.

Is anthropology now, as Flannery (1982:274) asked, still ‘sort of drifting, like a rudderless ship’, fragmenting ‘into a dozen lesser disciplines, with everybody going [their] own way’? The proliferation of sub-fields and exclusivist theoretical models engenders disengagement. Thus, ‘studying theory’ is confused with learning to select and conform to fashionable keywords and explanatory paradigms, securing funding and other opportunities. In this way, a careful and creative engagement with anthropological history and pressing issues becomes secondary. Such constrictions, added to the bureaucratization of research funding and academic life, and a wider social media and image-oriented culture of ‘impact’ and ‘more is better’, puts anthropology at risk of becoming a parody of itself. The silencing of institutional critiques and the increased bureaucratization of scholarship and academic life pose serious challenges to anthropological wisdom, creativity, and flexibility.

The Chipewyan ‘regard the written word as hearsay’, cast doubt on mediated or ‘academic’ knowledge, and only consider true knowledge ‘that which one derives from experience’ (Scollon and Scollon 1979:185 In Ridington 1988:104). The scope of academic creativity is implicated in processes of power and differentiation that have institutionalized the myth of exceptional individualism and veiled it with the ethnocentric cloak of ‘excellence’. As Narotzky (2006:133) argued, ‘anthropologists must deal with the awareness that all knowledge is produced in, and seeks to create, particular fields of power, and we are not exempt from this ourselves’. In other words, the breadth and scope of potential anthropological creativity and the fields of power we inhabit are mutually discordant, a tension that demands resolution and adaptation to changing social configurations, in the field and in academia. If being implicated in fields of power means that every word we choose to say reflects how we expect the reactions of others to affect our futures, we could compromise what we may ‘feel-think’ (Wikan 2012) is true. As we weight the words and actions of those around us against our own personal, social and intellectual experiences and present convictions, the threads we pull out are exercises in creative improvisation. If we see theoretical propositions and assumptions as highly flexible, contextual, situational, personal and interactive, and real on multiple levels, they become processes of creative mediation that defy and demand generalization and detail.


Lord’s (1960) attention to lyrical epic improvisation inspired engagements with the fluidity of performance and skepticism towards inflexible definitions, repeating and establishing dates and origins of things and events, evolutionary cultural progressions, and so on. For Lord, those who ‘are not accustomed to thinking in terms of fluidity’ encounter difficulties grasping ‘something that is multiform’ as they ‘construct an ideal text’ or ‘seek an original’ (1960:100). He argues that ‘trying to find an original of any traditional song’ is futile because ‘every performance is an original’ (Lord 1960:100). Depending on our conception of performance, this statement carries wider theoretical implications. Linguistic anthropologists adopted the frame of ‘performances’ in the 1970s to examine ‘genres like poetry, oratory, storytelling, or singing not as texts but also as the products of interactions between speakers (or singers) and audiences’ (Duranti 2012:13).

For Erlmann (2004:19), approaching ‘social action as performance’ shifts ‘attention away from societies as closed systems and toward more fluid notions of process, negotiation, and improvisation underlying social interaction’. In performative ethnographies, ‘the ethnographer ceases to be a mere questioner and instead becomes a provider of occasions for acting’ (Erlmann 2004:19). As Duranti (2012:13) notes, Bauman (1975) and Hymes (1975) appreciated ‘the creativity that is always at work in speaking of the responsibility that speakers assume for the ways in which they deliver a given message’. For Penny Lee, creative linguistic behavior includes when people ‘make sense of utterances they have never heard before’ and when they ‘produce unique utterances appropriate to the contingencies of new situations’ forms of linguistic creativity (1996:62). For Lévi-Strauss, the ‘creative act’ is subject to ‘the contingent’, which ‘plays’ different parts, on the occasion, execution and purpose of the work (1966:27). The contingent, he argued, ‘can be extrinsic’ and also ‘posterior, instead of anterior, to the act of creation’ (Lévi-Strauss 1966:27).[v] Erving Goffman (1956) employed a dramaturgical performance model in the analysis of everyday interactions, pointing to a logic of representation that people employ as strategies ‘to construct their identity, to shape their social image’ and thus ‘produce a show’ (Bourdieu 1983:113).

The notion that improvisation is ‘the way we work’ (Ingold and Hallam 2007:1) was articulated to challenge the distinction between ‘conventional’ and ‘true’ creativity (e.g., Liep 2001), recapitulating Bruner’s (1993:326) point that people everywhere construct ‘culture as they go along’ and respond to ‘life’s contingencies’. For Ingold and Hallam (2007), creativity and improvisation are entangled with generative, temporal and relational processes. As Schneider (2012:64) notes, studies focusing on weaving practices, and building techniques ‘have demonstrated the creativity implicated in processes of learning, imitation, repetition, and alteration, or change’. Although Ingold and Hallam (2007) rally to ‘relativize Western notions of creative genius’ and challenge the ‘universal pretensions’ of creativity (Schneider 2012:64), finding creativity everywhere artificially inoculates it from the effects of hierarchical power structures on personal and social perceptions and feelings of creativity.

Adopting ideas and materials from different cultures and transforming them according to present personal, socioeconomic and cultural circumstances does not automatically lead to assimilation and the loss of identity (e.g., Sapir 1935, Cruikshank 1990, Ridington 2002, King 2011). On the other hand, nationalist ideologies are conceived as homogenizing forces that can lead into regimes of segregation, abuse and sociocultural deterioration (e.g., Sapir 1924, Bloch 2005, King 2011). Colonial administrations and nation-states have actively sought to assimilate indigenous populations with the support of the legal system (see Bloch 2005, Tully 2008). As King (2009:146) noted, Sapir (1924) rejected ‘models that fall into nationalistic traps of essentializing specific traits, or insist in the correspondence of race, language, and culture’. For King (2011:261), ‘formal creativity’ is the ‘ability to bend old forms into new shapes and to continue in a genuine culture’. People in Kamchatka, he notes, ‘recognize the personal and moral strengths of diverse traditions and the multiple possibilities for innovation and play with Koryak culture’ (King 2011:238). Forging links between ‘old’ and ‘new’ ways in songs and stories told at significant occasions is a form of creative indigenous wisdom in the Yukon (Cruikshank 1990:355). Similarly, Inuit festivals signal ‘inner regrowth’ in Alaska (Turner 1992:101).

‘Modern society does debase local tradition and creativity’, Hymes argues, ‘but does not succeed in eradicating it’ (1996:140). It is unwise to presume that every time scholars resort to ‘universals’, humankind becomes more integrated and unified, or ‘freer and more capable of solving its problems’ whenever ‘linguistic competence and creativity’ is evoked (Hymes 1996:45). Still, English speakers often find varieties that diverge ‘from a certain standard’ as necessarily ‘deficient’, whereas they demonstrate a ‘burgeoning creativity’ that replants and crossbreeds novel resources to English, adding ‘color and beauty to the world, to those who can see them as configurations of their own’ (Hymes 1996:209).


The phenomenology of dwelling or being in the world and the materiality of material culture are two streams of thinking that have grown more popular and mutually exclusive recently, arising from different sets of assumptions. The way Boasian ethnographers talked about ‘material culture’ has little resemblance to what this term has implied in recent years. For instance, when Boas (1923:102) credited the work of James A. Teit with the basis for practically ‘our whole knowledge of the material culture, social organization, customs, beliefs and tales of the Salish tribes of the interior of British Columbia’, he did not mean that this ‘material culture’ had agency. If we approach theoretical frameworks as creative-aesthetic coatings or tautologies (Bateson 1979), we may transcend the need to position ourselves in relation to the odd coupling of phenomenology and materiality approaches in anthropology. ‘Two diverse descriptions’, Bateson argued, ‘are always better than one’ (1979:141). Moreover, experience-centered approaches that focus on ‘ways of knowing’ and long-term fieldwork make some of the same points as the phenomenological stream in anthropology without resorting to the same theory (e.g., Goulet 1998, Nadasdy 2007).

As Martin argued, Latour’s ‘fetishism of the non-human’ proposes a capitalist rationality applies to everything (1995:266-267 In Nadasdy 2007:39). In this mode of analysis, the ‘symbolic actions’ that actors ‘perform to win recognition for their ‘fictions’ are at the same time influence-seeking and power-seeking strategies through which they pursue their own glorification’ (Bourdieu 2004:28-29). Material culture theorists, for Bourdieu, ‘freely dissertate upon the way we delegate power to technical objects’, producing ‘what might be seen as mere literary game’ but framed as ‘the expression of the ‘methodological’ approach of a ‘school’’ that turns anything being or thing into ‘elements in a ‘system of actants’’ (Bourdieu 2004:30).[vi] Phenomenological approaches in anthropology engage poetic and metaphorical expression through the blending of the senses (i.e., Merleau-Ponty 2002[1945], Bachelard 1957), in starkly contrast with the approach of materiality scholars, who seek agency in objects and inventories or ‘assemblages’. When this notion is employed as taken-for-granted explanatory principle without the acknowledgement of its conceptual links to the model of material agency, a key debate is left out. The dogma that ‘objects have agency’ is a curious form of codified and dogmatic academic animism, with accompanying scientistic metaphysics that are meant to be universally applicable. After all, as Gregory Bateson noted, ‘dormitive explanations still permit abduction’ – first, a generality is enunciated and accepted, and, subsequently, it becomes a ‘plausible to use’ formula, a ‘type of phrasing for a very large number of other phenomena’ (1979:85).

Latour reproduces an anachronistic evolutionism, ethnocentrism and speciesism (Ingold 2013b) that attests to an obliviousness regarding ethnographic and intercultural discussions in the history of anthropological thought. As Ingold (2013b) puts it, Latour repeats what has already been known for ‘donkey years’ among ethnographically informed anthropologists, through formulations that are far from superior to those developed elsewhere. Fischer noted how Latour ‘explicitly eschews direct concern with non-Europeans’ (2014:344). For him, Latour’s notion that ‘only Europeans are dualists’, the ‘original sin of the Modern’, falls apart at the face of ethnographic evidence (Fischer 2014:344-345). Similarly, Bourdieu (2004) felt that giving too much attention to Latour’s metaphysics, resulting in caricatures of social relations and a vulgarization of Bourdieu’s own theory of social capital, was a waste of time. Bridging phenomenology and material culture paradigms has been made increasingly difficult by current trends and some of their irresolvable epistemological differences. We can steer clear from both by taking a fresh dive into the history of ethnographic practice, anthropological theory, and its many debates.


Do we often romanticize the work of particularly renowned artists as somehow more worthy of attention while we are urged to consider the ‘social dimensions of creativity’ and avoid the myth of ex nihilo inspiration and exceptional individuals (Wilf 2014)? Alternatively, we may ask, could anyone avoid having personal preferences and tastes regarding the relative legitimacy of different works of art? Could anyone avoid selecting materials to discuss according to what they deem valuable?

Mauss saw ‘aesthetic phenomena’ as ‘one of the largest components in the social activity of human beings’ (2007[1967]:67). He pointed out that the ‘majority of people of taste’ rely on a ‘grammar of art’ to make judgments on the beauty of actions and objects (Mauss 2007[1967]:67). For Mauss, ‘the distinction between techniques and arts, especially when we are dealing with creative arts, is only a distinction made by collective psychology’ (2007[1967]:67). ‘Art’, as many people working with the arts conceive it, is ‘associated with essential value in relation to a generalized human capacity for spirituality and creativity’ (Marcus and Myers 1995:7 In Stoller 2009:99). Distinguishing science ‘as something both above and apart’ from ‘other forms of human creativity’ is a mistake, argues Stephen Jay Gould (2011:17). Mauss thought that aesthetics, perceptions of beauty, and ‘sensory pleasure’ are inextricably intertwined (2007[1967]69). He recognized the importance of studying ‘each artistic system’ and ‘mixing of the arts’ from various ‘vantage points’, observing the ‘contrasts, the harmonies and disharmonies, the rhythms and the relations between different rhythms, the representations and relations between rhythms and representations’ (Mauss 2007[1967]:69). ‘Body techniques’, he argued, ‘should be studied with the aid of photography and if possible with slow-motion cinema’ (Mauss 2007[1967]:25).

Ingold (2013a:72) follows Baudelaire’s assertion that the ‘terrible fear that takes possession of all great artists and gives them such a passionate desire to become masters of every means of expression’ is the ‘fear of not going fast enough’ (Baudelaire 1986:17, my emphasis). Is the notion of great artists self-evident, and do they all have this fear? ‘In the game of artistic judgment’, argues Stoller, ‘transcendental Hegelianism is very much with us’ (2009:99). As Wilf noted, we should study the ‘processes by which certain objects and individuals are recognized and constructed as exemplars of creativity and thus acquire their value’ (2014:397). Runco and Jaeger (2012:95) noted that the ‘standard definition of creativity only pinpoints which criteria must be used’, saying nothing about ‘who is to judge each, and who is to judge the judges’. For them, ‘creativity benefits from permeable cognitive structures’ and greater emotional, affective, and intellectual flexibility (Runco and Jaeger 2012:95). Standard criteria take ‘surprise’, ‘novelty’, and ‘originality’ as ‘vital for creativity’. As Hart (1995:141) noted, a ‘producer of images cannot be said to be creative until he or she has first earned approval, and along with it the label of “artist,” from the art world’s social network of art critics, art historians, and curators’. Stoller holds that art ‘did not come into existence without a market’, linking its growth ‘to colonial exploitation and the processes that legitimized imperial expansion – the civilizing mission of European nation states’ (2009:99).

Is there, in Baudelaire’s (and Ingold’s) conception, behind mastery of every great artist, a desire and need to be well recognized, respected, and more prolific than others, faster and more productive? Would this desire to create produce anxiety and fear? Is becoming faster and more productive the way to become a great artist, with a corpus and oeuvre that must enter mainstream history, be celebrated, taught, and canonized? Or, is this conception of greatness, as I suspect, mere ethnocentrism based on 19th century expectations of greatness?

Contemporary artists in Senegal reject ‘any evaluation according to occidental art history’ and make no reference to European or North American artists and categorizations ‘while stretching out to older local and regional art creation’ (Fillitz 2015:311). Are these artists finding a ‘restorative and creative force’, as Carsten (2004:xiii) noted, in the ‘givenness of kinship’? Carsten (2004:9) takes ‘it as fundamental that creativity is not only central to kinship conceived in its broadest sense, but that for most people kinship constitutes one of the most important arenas for their creative energy’. In this view, humans (and perhaps other animals) possess creative energies that they often direct to ‘kinship’ or familial and familiar relationships. Among the Walbiri, tracks or guruwari are ‘marks left by ancestral beings in the country’, and refer to ‘the abstract sense of ancestral powers embodied in the country’ (Wagner 1986:22). As ‘artifacts of the creative times’, guruwari contain ‘the spirits of the creative beings’ and ‘can be used to ritually replicate or reconstitute those times’ (Wagner 1986:22). Performing a ‘constructive or creative act’ upon guruwari, is a ‘communion with, or a realization of djugurba, the creative or “story” times (“dreamtime”)’ (Wagner 1986:22). Is the creativity of ‘kinship’ (Carsten 2004), enough to explain the rejection of European and North American art history in Senegal that Fillitz (2015) described? A drive to understand, recover, uncover, and participate in the making of local histories, the rootedness that was uprooted through colonialism, is linked to a wholesale rejection of official narratives, symbols and icons that stem from colonial experiences.

As Sapir (1924:429) noted, cultural influences can be ‘invigorating’ but ‘if we are not careful, these influences may soon harden into new standardizations or become diluted into another stock of imitative attitudes and reactions’. The incorporation of various ‘Western’ themes in Australian Aboriginal culture and art, may be seen as evidence of ‘cultural renewal, creativity, resistance, and survival’ (Myers 1995:70). Hybridization ‘represents an explosion of creativity’ and challenges ‘restraints for cultural “purity”’ (Isaacs 1987 In Myers 1995:70). The ‘artistic value of individual creativity and freedom are not relevant’ among Australian Aboriginal ‘artists’ (Myers 1995:70). Living cultural traditions play with culture without losing identity (King 2011), and accept the world as inspiration for personal transformations (Stoller 2009). Do we jeopardize personal involvement in the nitty-gritty of everyday and commonplace artistic practices by focusing on the greatness of particular artists without problematizing notions of greatness and excellence? For Ruskin and Rice (2012:299), ‘ethnomusicologists belong to a subculture that values the exceptional and valorizes individual achievement’. However, in order to explore the place of the ‘intensely social and idiosyncratic’ within musical cultures (Shelemay 1997:199) they direct ‘biography toward culture and society’ and channel ‘ethnography into the life experiences and perspectives of individuals’ (Ruskin and Rice 2012:316).

For Bourdieu (1990:75), ‘every society provides structural exercises which tend to transmit a particular form of practical mastery’. He noted differences between improvising and following predetermined scripts. When the ‘stakes’ are too high, ‘agents dare not rely entirely on the regulated improvisation of orchestrated habitus’ (Bourdieu 1990:182). One can exchange dirty jokes with a judge at the pub, but it would be unwise to do so during court proceedings in front of a jury. Similarly, when stakes are low, even rituals might be ‘subject to individual improvisation’ and modified without doing harm (Bourdieu 1990:239). For Bourdieu, freedom and improvisation are closely aligned concepts, and both are constrained according to what’s at stake in a given situation. For him, there is more ‘freedom inherent in improvising on the basis of implicit practical schemes’ than in ‘executing an explicit model’ (Bourdieu 1990:246, my emphasis). The opposition Bourdieu sets up between improvising and executing is similar to the musical and rhetorical (ex tempore) conceptions of improvisation but different from the universal connection between cultural creativity, imitation and improvisation that Ingold and Hallam (2007) proposed.

The ‘ritualizing of practices’, Bourdieu proposes, reinforces a stereotyping model that ‘avoids the errors associated with improvisation’ and that can ‘trigger off social conflicts or natural disasters’ (Bourdieu 1990:257). Freedom to deviate from prescribed commonsense parameters is where creative improvisation lies for Bourdieu (1990), whereas for Ingold and Hallam (2007) it is found also in the faithful execution of scripts. Bourdieu (1990:69) argues that practical sense is ‘social necessity turned into nature, converted into motor schemes and body automatisms’ by the historical adoption of ‘common sense’. For him, the ‘consensus’ that produces the ‘immediate self evidence’ of the ‘common-sense world’ is a ‘harmonization’ between shared experiences and ‘improvised or programmed’ commonplaces and sayings (Bourdieu 1990:58). Institutions of power exploit the ‘the body’s readiness to take seriously the performative magic of the social’, and are thus ‘made flesh’ (Bourdieu 1990:57).

Ingold argues that the ‘particular skill of painters, composers and writers lies in their practised ability to keep their distance whilst in the thick of the labours of proximity’ (2013a:72). If creative capacity is available to all humans, can it also be the exclusive domain of ‘master’ artists without reinstating instead of transcending the myth of exceptional creative genius? This apparent contradiction indicates that creativity can be seen as a latent and intimate power and potentiality, it can be cultivated or withered depending on various personal and social factors and circumstances. In my own fieldwork, the perceived distribution or centralization of creative decision-making power in collaborative artistic projects related to how local musicians chose to participate or avoid them. They associated ‘having a say’ with expressing creativity, and having to ‘play by the book’ and ‘follow orders’ with an annoying creative restriction on their musicality. More importantly, they felt more or less creative depending on the circumstances and their position in the social-power structures enabling each project.

This investigation of creativity suggests that we need to devise new conceptualizations in order to transcend the limitations of abstract theory, especially when the theories we adopt crystallize into unquestionable propositions. Yet, open-ended definitions of creativity and improvisation do not account for how power dynamics may disrupt the flow of creative autonomy, and cause stress in various artistic contexts, ‘Western’ or not. Relying on ‘Western’ constructs (e.g., ‘great artists’) to transcend ‘Western’ assumptions points to an involuted circularity and simplified tautology.

The presumption of transcendence that we find in theoretical discussions is harder to encounter in lived realities, especially in the era of globalization and neoliberalism. We may align hundreds of examples to fit abstract models and theoretical definitions of creativity, but we must engage life in ethnographic situations to find out how, and whether at all, creativity is a meaningful concept. We can subject different theories to the same dataset and get a similar epistemological effect (Barnes and Bloor 1982 In Bourdieu 2004:19). As Bauman and Briggs argued, ‘attempts to identify the meaning of texts, performances, or entire genres in terms of purely symbolic, context-free content disregard the multiplicity of indexical connections that enable verbal art to transform, not simply reflect, social life’ (1990:69).


We may recognize that ‘creation’, and, therefore, ‘creativity’, are concepts loaded with religious and cultural connotations, making them less viable as scientific and analytical concepts. Yet, the same reasons render them viable as categories for ethnographic analysis imbued with local, personal and social significance. Even if developing a concept of creativity is scientifically unnecessary due to its attunement to ethnocentric and patriarchal religious discourses, its local significance should not be overlooked. Also, as I suggested, metaphorical invention, metalinguistic awareness, deviating from norms, questioning taken for granted assumptions, and using our collective fieldwork experiences (i.e., ethnographic history) to craft reflexive cultural critiques, to name a few things we do with anthropological knowledge, are creative activities. During my fieldwork, flows of creative freedom, invention, and spontaneity were stronger in social environments where hierarchical and power differences among individuals were played down while mutuality and equality were emphasized.

As a malleable and translatable category, the significance of creativity varies according to personal and social relationships and contexts, living conditions (and choice of theoretical formulae). For Macdonald, creativity has ‘very individually specific features’ (1997:168). Perhaps our task is ‘to locate the inadequacies of our concepts in order to come up with better ones’ (Holbraad In Carrithers et al. 2010:180). Conceptual ‘confusion’, noted Carrithers, ‘is a good thing’, and the virtue of an anthropological education is ‘to make the students more confused when they left than when they came’ (In Carrithers et al. 2010:157). For Carrithers, in a world with many ‘different viewpoints’ and experiences, there is ‘no single criterion, no single point of view that could offer a definitive and positive way of making sense out of everything’ (In Carrithers et al. 2010:157).


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[1] This reflexively uncomfortable ‘analysis of the relational distribution of professors according to their social origins and connections, economic and political resources, academic trajectory, titles and professional practices and renown, and political stances turns up in a chiasmatic picture that consistently reproduces the structure of the dominant class’ (Wacquant 1990:680).

[1] Howard S. Becker (1982) showed that ‘talent’ is merely a social construct. Becker’s (1982) ‘art world’ paradigm focused on functionalist explanations of institutional frameworks that make up mainstream, cosmopolitan contemporary and professional art. From a perspective sensitive to non-western ways living and making art, which are not easily isolated or isolatable from other community activities, Becker’s ‘art world’ is wholly inadequate, for it suggests that artists are those who either strive to commercialize their art or have successfully done so. As such, ironically, it excludes non-mainstream ‘art worlds’. Adepts of this analytical model circumscribed the ‘art world’ to ‘artists and their assistants, gallery owners, collectors, museums and art critics’ (Schneider 2012:58). Becker (1982) is better read as an exploration of Becker’s own ‘art world’. I believe Becker (1982) is better read as a highly contextual ethnography that shows how talent and creativity are socially constructed.

[1] For Wilf, the formation of the ‘neoliberal subject’ is implicated in: ‘mystifications of creativity that (a) presume the existence of an autonomous inner nature as a compass, (b) make each individual responsible for being in touch with and following this compass, and (c) frame failure to be creative and to transcend present constrains as the result of one’s natural predisposition’ (Wilf 2014:407).

[1] The commercial music course that one of my fieldwork research participants attends in Scotland approaches music from a strictly marketing-oriented perspective. Relying on consumer statistics and research, it teaches students how to identify commercial trends and niches for exploiting artistic work for profit. The student taking it, having grown up in Shetland, realizes the ‘soul destroying’ potential of the course but understands that those skills will help him survive the uncertainties of an environment dominated by commercialism.

[1] ‘The artist perceives [the contingent] from without as an attitude, an expression, a light effect or a situation, whose sensible and intellectual relations to the structure of the object affected by these modalities he grasps and incorporates in his work’ (Lévi-Strauss 1966:27). For me, Lévi-Strauss was trying to grasp the multiple influences that shape the things we make in different circumstances. As Lord (1960:100) characterized it, Lévi-Strauss was trying to codify and grasp the fluid in static terms. Now, contingency is a keyword that is largely naturalized among anthropologists (i.e., widely employed and rarely theorized or problematized).

[1] Latour (e.g., 1987, 1988) intended, notes Bourdieu ironically, ‘to do nothing less than challenge the distinction between human agents (or forces) and non-human agents’ by claiming humans ‘delegate’ to ‘mechanical objects’ like an ‘automatic door closer’ the ‘status of actors and also power’ (Bourdieu 2004:29). As Bourdieu suggests, in order to ‘understand these technical objects and their power’ we should ‘study the technical science of their operation’, which is obviously ‘easier with a door or a pipette than with a cyclotron’ (Bourdieu 2004:29). Bourdieu’s (2004) analysis shows that Latour and Woolgar (1986) were underprepared as ethnographers, and did not produce an analysis grounded on the ethnographic and ethnological literature. They were also unprepared scientifically to understand how the machines and theories scientists were employing worked from the perspective of the scientists. The result is an exoticizing semiologism divorced from the theoretical streams of social anthropology that had been dealing with similar phenomena and questions (such as moving beyond the nature and culture, mind and body, individual and collective, humans and other animals binaries). Ingold (2013b) has expressed similar frustrations with Latour’s work, his ‘constant back-pedaling’, claiming to be breaking new ground while ignoring ethnographic history. Bourdieu admits that he ‘would not want to give [Latour’s] work the importance it gives itself’ (2004:30). Even the time spent analyzing Latour seems like a waste to Bourdieu, who runs the ‘risk’ of ‘giving it value by pushing the critical analysis beyond what this kind of text deserves’ (Bourdieu 2004:30). Yet, he supported in spirit those who ‘devote time and energy to ridding science of the dire effects of philosophical hubris’ as ‘Yves Gingras (1995)’ did for ‘the same Latour’ (Bourdieu 2004:30).

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