research as creative practice

Health warning – this is a tiny rant about one of my pet peeves, research “training”. It also draws on my own research in creativity and education.


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.


Photo by “My Life Through A Lens” on Unsplash

About pat thomson

Pat Thomson is Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham, UK
This entry was posted in academic writing, courses, creativity, doctoral education, doctoral pedagogies, doctoral research, methods, research methods, research training and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

12 Responses to research as creative practice

  1. Pingback: research as creative practice · Lizzy Mu, PhD

  2. fortuneall says:

    I am really impressed with this piece and I am in support of creativity in research … however, some creative abilities in scholars are killed before they are being put to use, unfortunately.


    • I’m undertaking a creative research project as part of my Masters dissertation (Public History & Heritage), exploring perceptions of hijab wearing in the UK since 9/11 through a participatory embroidery project. My supervisors have been incredibly supportive and encouraging in me exploring in this way. What has caused equal parts excitement and doubt about the project has been that I am researching in a way completely different to the rest of my cohort. But I feel I am using the most effective method to achieve my research goals and learning really practical skills for the future.

      Liked by 2 people

      • fortuneall says:

        A little bit curious and interested in your research work. If you don’t mind, I would like to know more about your target group, your data collection methods and participants’ responses.

        Hijab is beautiful and is people’s culture as well which shouldn’t be limited to one aspect only. However, there is a diverse opinion to wearing hijab or not. Although hijab may have been associated with religion, it may also depict people’s culture and their dress mode. Furthermore, there is continous trend in fashion and Hijab has not been left of it.
        Well done and all the best for your research work!

        Liked by 2 people

  3. Thank you for your interest @Fortuneall, you can find out more about the public participation side of the project here I’d welcome your feedback. 🙂


  4. I wonder whether the creativity-killing training is as universal as you claim. Engineering grad school in the USA seems to me to push for creative solutions to problems (though not achieving them as often as we would like).


    • pat thomson says:

      The PHD in USA and Canada is very different from the Uk where there is nationally approved and government funded training, this acts as a kind of norm against which a lot of other training is modelled. You have a much longer time doing courses in the USA so there is more time and space for including other approaches. I’m guessing that engineering, unlike science or social science, also includes design research – which is about creative solutions? And it’s Great to hear you’re doing something creative. Maybe we can learn from you.


  5. Pingback: Research & Scholarship Skills Creativity in Research

  6. Elizabeth says:

    This is just the piece I have been waiting to read!! Thank you so much!


  7. fortuneall says:

    Great response/comments here from Dr. Thomson. Well done!


  8. I’ve never really thought about it in this way, but I completely agree with this. I find the courses that simply describe the different methods too prescriptive, and don’t help researchers for the connections that are needed. I often recommend the book “The Artist’s Way” to researchers because the process often seems the same. I would also like to see the idea of reflexivity offered in courses. The idea that as researchers, we need to understand the why, the how of our own motivations in order to truly understand what it is that as researchers we are trying to understand, to uncover.

    Thanks for this thought provoking post.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. TRSi (Donostia / San Sebastián) says:


    Yes, research is a creative process. I like your argument
    here, and welcome your attempt to make teaching creativity a
    central part of PhD teaching.

    Under the banner of the Foundations of Research Practices I
    teach two PhDing by Design courses: (1) Designing and Building
    a Critical State of the Art for Research; and (2) Designing
    and Preparing a Research Publication. These are each
    eight-week long practical courses which both start with PhD
    students learning (by doing) how to design things for

    Designing here is the disciplined exploration of the possible
    to discover alternative ways in which what is possible can be
    made to respond well to the need that motivates the designing.

    To teach this I operationalise the exploration and discovery
    of designing as Puzzle-Making and Puzzle-Solving with
    Requirements, in which the Puzzle-Making and Puzzle-Solving
    and discovery and specification of Requirements form a three
    way conversation (argument might be better) that needs to
    arrive at an agreement. (It is not a linear process, despite
    it being written as if it is.)

    Learning how to make designing understood this way work well
    involves PhD students learning how to use their imagination,
    curiosity, risk-taking, and judgement skills in a disciplined,
    efficient and effective ways. Creativity is, I would say, the
    notion that would describe well this combination.

    I teach these courses to small groups of (upto 18) PhD
    students from any discipline, across all the Arts, Humanities,
    Sciences, and Engineerings. The greater the mix of
    disciplines in the group the better: students learn a lot from
    seeing how things are similar and different for others in the
    same and other disciplines. This opens their minds and
    perspectives, and this too strengthens creativeness.

    (I should perhaps add that I mostly do this teaching at what
    is my local Public University, here, in the Basque Country,
    Northern Spain.)

    This is not the only way to introduce a more explicit teaching
    of the essential creative aspects of doing good research, but
    it is one way, I would say.

    Tim Smithers
    Independent Research Practitioner
    TSRi: teaching and strengthening research


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