Creativity and Culture: A Comparative Study on Creativity Theories of Lev Vygotsky and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi


Kiran. S

Research Scholar, Zakir Husain Centre for Educational Studies (ZHCES),

Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi – 110067, India.

*Corresponding Author Email:



The present study examines creativity theories proposed by Vygotsky, and Csikszentmihalyi. Theories will be content analysed on various dimensions: Imagination, Consciousness or Unconscious or both, predominantly Individualistic or Culturalistic, Personality dimension, Environment dimension, Attribution dimension, Qualitative or Quantitative or both, Creativity as Rare or Universal phenomenon, discussion predominantly on Characteristics or Processes of creativity or both, emergence of Creativity from Imagination, Independent trait or Interconnected trait, theory appreciating Time dimension, theory appreciating Dreams and Fantasies in relation to creativity, creativity as Decision making and theory appreciating the Collective character of creativity.


KEYWORDS: Creativity, Flow theory, Vygotsky, Cultural-historic approach.




The progress humans have achieved in the civilizational history can be attributed to the processes of creativity and imagination. These processes are of vital significance even in day to day activities and are the basis for scientific inventions, art and architecture, paintings and sculptures. Organizations select individuals for the job on the basis of their creative talent. Creative people such as artists, scientists, business persons, writers are well regarded in different cultures where it is a desirable attribute. Creativity is relevant to education (Jaydeep, 2014), effective works in advertising (Mehta, Mehta, and Jain, 2017) and textile industries (Sayankar and Kale, 2011).


Creativity has been problematized and theorised by many thinkers and paradigms in different ways.



Freudian interpretation of creative process is different from Jungian conception as well as from the Vygotskian perspective. Similarly, a psychometric approach to creativity is different from its cultural-historical approach and developmental perspective. This conceptual difference in theorising creativity is reflected in different kind of definitions available in creativity research field. Creativity research is such an area where the kind of definition adopted in research will determine the kind of results obtained (Kaufman and Sternberg, 2010). These theoretical differences and various definitions may point to the different dimensions of creativity. Dimension is defined by Merriam Webster dictionary as ‘an aspect or a feature of a situation, problem or thing’. Dimensions of creativity refer to the basic aspects or features of creativity. For instance, the basic dimensions of Freudian theory of creativity are unconscious mind and wishes repressed in id. Sternberg regards confluence as the basic dimension of creativity whereas Vygotsky points to imagination. Other than dimensions, there are correlates of creativity. Correlate is defined by Merriam Webster dictionary as related or complementary thing. Dimensions and correlates together give better conceptualisation and perspective of creativity. For instance, the researches on creativity focussing on personality of an individual may regard personality as dimension and environmental factors as correlates.


However, the mechanism underlying creativity lies both in the human thought process and in the culture. Explanations for human thought processes and formation of human mind are still questions that require proper answers or solutions. Theoretical perspectives that explain creativity also reflect the meta-theoretical assumptions about human mind and culture.


Creativity and Culture:

Rather than understanding creativity in an individualistic way and not confining to the conscious-unconscious dichotomy certain thinkers have established their theories where the culture is given importance in shaping the individual and cognitive processes. It may be noted that these theorists have not completely ignored the individual but predominantly considered the cultural factors in determining creativity of the individual. The prominent theorists whose works included here are Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and Lev Vygotsky.


Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s concept of Flow and Creativity:

Csikszentmihalyi understood creativity through systems approach. Csikszentmihalyi defined creativity as, “An act, idea or product that changes an existing domain, or that transforms an existing domain into a new one” (Csikszentmihalyi, 2009, p. 28). According to him there are three elements or nodes in any understanding of creativity; a) the individual or person, b) the domain or area of working or discipline, c) the surrounding field that may judge the products and individual. Creativity occurs through the interaction of these elements which include the process of dialectics (Thomson, 2011).


He observed that the socio-cultural validation of the product is very important. Any product is determined whether it is creative or not, is a judgement in the minds of observers and experts in that field (Csikszentmihalyi, 1988). The product is judged by the surrounding society which is identified with the term validation. The validation process is the final step in the recognition of a creative product. However, this process emphasizes the need of good communication by the creator to the audience. Furthermore, social, political, economical aspects of a particular culture may determine the judgement of a product.


Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has introduced flow theory that helps us in the understanding of creativity. He studied artists, doctors, scientists using semi-structured interviews and studied their activities. He learned that the activities give them satisfaction and happiness provided they are fully involved in them. Enjoyment and satisfaction for these people was not from a stress- free state rather when the activities were immense and there were stress and challenges in their jobs (Buchanan, 1991; Csikszentmihalyi, 2009). The working hours provided them with more flow than the resting times and holidays and activities that are passive as watching TV may less account to flow (Biasutti, 2011).


Flow is not specific to any age groups as adults, old persons and teenagers are all reported to have experienced flow in their activities. Csikszentmihalyi identified nine characteristics of flow variable; a) Challenges and skill balance – A good balance between challenges and skills are necessary, b) Action and awareness merging – Development of a mind-body harmony is important and focus and concentration on the tasks are also detrimental, c) Clear goals – there should be well specified goals, d) Unambiguous feedback – feedback helps in adjusting the products accordingly, e) Concentration on the task – Must avoid distractions and must focus on the tasks at hand. This may include the narrowing of awareness and rejecting unwanted items from perception, f) sense of control – in flow people are not bothered of failures and are focussed on the tasks, g) loss of self-consciousness – people get so engaged with the activities such that there will be less mental resources left to focus on other information. The self-consciousness becomes engaged with the activity enormously, f) distorted sense of time – when the person is actively engaged in a task then time will flow fast compared to a state where the person is performing a routine and monotonous activity, g) autotelic experience – when people are in flow then the creative urge comes from inside and activity becomes its own reward (Biasutti, 2011).


There is an affective dimension to flow variable. Research done by Csikszentmihalyi and colleagues among singers, artists, painters, basketball players and music composers have found that this altered sense of consciousness help them with a sense of transcendence. The performers experienced intense calm feeling while performing the activity and the space-time perception was distorted as they were less aware of the passage of time. These moments were characterised by intrinsic motivation, high levels of concentration, skills and understanding.


Csikszentmihalyi identified the characteristics of the mental attitude that is required in a flow. Flow occurs when a) people are convinced about the activity at hand and they are highly focussed in the task, b) the skills of a person  are  adequate to the task at hand and c) the ability to direct the consciousness during the activity which requires skill and effort (Biasutti, 2011).


Vygotsky’s Cultural-historic theory of Creativity:

Lev Semyonovich Vygotsky (1896 – 1934) was a literary critic before working on psychological themes. He was also interested in pedagogy studies and child development. He remarkably observed that there was a crisis in psychology discipline at that time. His concerns were more particular into different schools to which psychology as a discipline was conceptualised. According to him there are only two camps in psychology: Objective psychology deals with the principle of natural science such as the works of Pavlov on reflexes and Subjective psychology which is phenomenological and idealistic. On one hand Vygotsky tried to give the basis for a Marxist psychology and on the other hand he observed a crisis in the contemporary psychology. His works were in one way or other dialectical and pointing towards the pitfalls in the theoretical conceptualisation within the discipline. He understood creativity through a cultural-historical approach.


Vygotsky has seen creativity as a rule rather than the exception (Vygotsky, 2004, p. 11). Although he postulated that everyone has creative talent with them, he clarifies that the highest expressions of creativity remains with a few selected individuals. He insisted that creativity is necessary in everyday life and it amounts to a survival value. In other words, it is essential for existence. In his theory of creativity, he relates to another construct of imagination to give a broader picture of the process. According to him, the creative activity based on our brain to combine elements, is called imagination or fantasy in psychology. Imagination is the basis of all creative activities. It is also an essential cultural component in artistic, scientific and technical creation (Vygotsky, 2004). His conception of creativity was remarkably distinct from everyday use of the term. According to him creativity is not only an individualistic phenomenon but also a collective phenomenon.  The individual minute creative works combine to form collective phenomena of creativity. The total creation of humanity in terms of cultural products is predominantly collective creativity.


Vygotsky described creativity as the creative act of imagination. The creativity of a person thus depends on the richness and variety of person’s previous experience (Vygotsky, 2004, p. 13). These materials are the same by which the products of fantasy are constructed. The richer experience leads to richer imagination and greater creativity. Here imagination is not the opposite of reality but is conceptualised as a process which supplies materials for reality. Vygotsky concept of imagination is different from the mainstream as in his theory the imagination takes the psychic materials from reality.



Creativity was conceptualised as a higher psychological function that helps humans to deal the future, apart from dealing with the past and present. He postulated that creativity has social origins like all other higher psychological functions. The child learns to be creative through a process called internalisation where development of the child takes place initially from a social plane to an individual plane. Internalisation is a dialectical process. For instance, a child learns to be creative by observing the adults and doing activities with them in such situations. Later the child internalises the activity and knows to do it by itself. According to his general law of cultural development, not only creativity but all higher psychological processes first originate in a social plane and then transfers to individual plane. Similarly, child development occurs in two planes; first as a social collective activity and later as an individual activity. Vygotsky also addresses the question of what guides creativity; intelligence or emotion? According to him both the factors are necessary for producing creativity. Both feelings as well as thoughts help in creativity (Vygotsky, 2004, p. 19).


He postulated that creativity has a mediated structure. Therefore, the creative activities found in different cultures may vary depending on the cultural tools the society generates and the same with the individual capacity. This theoretical explanation to creativity helps in explaining the cultural variation of the process. Creativity is influenced by both cultural and historical processes within the society. There is a radical transformation with creativity during the developmental process. As a child the creative imagination is first displayed during play. Here the child learns to distinguish between reality and imagination. During this time the beginnings of symbolic play is observed in children. But the entire system and way of creativity changes when the child reaches adolescence. Now the symbolic play is absent and the mediation is more complex with words, symbols, signs and abstract thinking. This transformation is conceptualised by Vygotsky but radical transformations with new systems taking active role in mediation.


Creativity is not an isolated island in the developmental process. It cannot be studied by isolation. The development of creativity essentially involves the dialectics with memory, motivation, abstract thinking, inner speech and perception. This development is also very gradual and is directly dependent on such psychological processes. So studying creativity should address all such possible interactions of these systems and the dialectics involved within them. There was the theory of divine inspiration which insisted that the artist involved in a creative work and finally producing it is controlled and sourced by divine forces that definitely is not within the artist.



Theoretical perspectives belonging to the cultural paradigm and important thinkers were discussed in the narrative above. It is worthwhile to note the comment of Sternberg here that there is much creativity even in the theories of creativity. His view stands valid even in the current analysis too. The works belonged to different paradigms. However, the discussion on theories of creativity was not intended to exhaust all theories in all paradigms, rather it was selective. The paradigms provide structure for analysis and investigation and thus the theories emerging from such a paradigm will definitely have characteristics in common. For instance, psychometric tradition provides for the basis for the theory of Torrance. The criteria for choosing the theories were on the basis of their significant views, popularity and differences. The critical and crucial works were discussed here as these help in getting the study feasible and useful, at the same time it may be regarded as one of the limitations of the study.


Csikszentmihalyi in his social-cultural theory of creativity also deals with individual, the domain and the surrounding field which cumulatively determine creativity (Csikszentmihalyi, 1988). It can be observed that he deals both conscious and unconscious mind of the individual. Vygotsky in his cultural-historical theory where he postulated that both cultural and historical time scales combined with the individuals developmental timescale will be the broader framework to understand behaviour (Rey, 2011; Vygotsky, 2004). He accepts the historical and cultural factors influencing behaviour and thus creativity of individuals but remain focussed with the conscious processes of individuals. 


Another aspect is whether the theory dealt predominantly with individualistic dimension or cultural dimension. In other words, how the theory engages with the cultural aspect of creativity or the individual aspect of creativity. Thinkers such as Freud, Sternberg, Guilford, Torrance and Chomsky were more individualistic in their theory on creativity whereas Vygotsky and Csikszentmihalyi were more culturalistic in the nature of theories they proposed. Vygotsky insisted on the cultural and historical time determining the creativity of individuals. The creative vision and psychic material for it comes from the society or the social plane. He believed in the phenomena of collective creativity. According to him


“No invention or scientific discovery can occur before the material and psychological conditions necessary for it to occur have appeared. Creation is a historical, cumulative process where every succeeding manifestation was determined by the preceding one.” (Vygotsky, 2004, p. 30). Csikszentmihalyi insisted that a product if produced has to be judged by experts or the society. Only after such a judgement, it may be decided whether the product is creative or not. This aspect he calls as validation is an essential element in the establishment of a creative product (Csikszentmihalyi, 1988). He also insists that particular social, cultural, political atmosphere of the culture may influence the creative production in that place. Thus, his socio-cultural theory of creativity is more culturalistic as there is high regard of cultural influence in creativity. Vygotsky and Csikszentmihalyi approve the environment’s influence over creativity, but go further to state that creativity is socio-cultural. Csikszentmihalyi emphasises his claim by providing the socio-cultural validation claim for a creative product. Similarly, Vygotsky goes even further to state that every behavioural manifestation has the origin in social plane that completely states his view in the environment’s influence in creative performance.


Another characteristic to be described on the theories would be attribution. Here we will be seeing attribution as how a label of creative person comes just by picking up the environmental cues or dispositional cues. Vygotsky was not focussed into the attribution dimension of creativity. However, Csikszentmihalyi had dealt with the attribution dimension. According to him, the society is the ultimate authority to say whether a product is creative or not. Thus the creativity at this stage is a judgement with experts and members of a society (Csikszentmihalyi, 2009). Here the author deals with the attribution dimension of creativity. The next characteristic that defines these theories is methodology. Here, Vygotsky and Csikszentmihalyi have used qualitative methods. Csikszentmihalyi has done an  interview study on ninety-one individuals who were recognised for their creative achievements. He has used semi-structured interviews and experience sampling method (ESM). Another characteristic that has to be identified from the theories is whether creativity was conceived as a universal phenomenon or a rare phenomenon. Both Csikszentmihalyi and Vygotsky have regarded it as universal. Csikszentmihalyi pointed out that every individual has the potential to lead a creative life. There are blocks produced by the community or society and one has to overcome that. Though he regarded creativity as a process that is deeply cultural and community- driven he accepts on the premises that creativity is universal, as inferred from his writings. However, Vygotsky makes it very clear in statement that everyone is creative. According to him


Table 1. Comparative analysis of Creativity theories proposed by Lev Vygotsky and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi


Lev Vygotsky

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi




Consciousness or Unconscious or both

Conscious process

Both conscious and Unconscious

Predominantly Individualistic or Culturalistic

Predominantly Culturalistic

Predominantly Culturalistic

Personality dimension



Environment dimension



Attribution dimension



Qualitative methods or Quantitative methods or both

Qualitative methods

Both Qualitative and Quantitative

Creativity as Rare phenomenon or universal



Predominantly on Characteristics or Processes of creativity or both


Both Process and Characteristics

Emergence of Creativity from Imagination



Independent trait or Interconnected trait

Interconnected trait

Interconnected trait

Time dimension



Dreams and Fantasies in relation to creativity



Creativity as Decision making of individual



Collective character of creativity




“A scientific understanding of this phenomenon thus compels us to consider creativity as the rule rather than the exception. Of course, the highest expressions of creativity remain accessible only to a select few human geniuses; however, in the everyday life that surrounds us, creativity is an essential condition for existence” (Vygotsky, 2004, p. 11). But he warns that even though creativity exists in every individual, the highest expressions of creativity are for selected individuals. However, we may infer Vygotsky’s theory regarded creativity as universal. The next characteristic observed is whether the thinkers discussed characteristics or processes involved in creativity. Characteristics is the ‘what’ of creativity whereas process is the ‘why’ and ‘how’ of creativity. Csikszentmihalyi who focussed predominantly on characteristics, in contrast with Vygotsky who focussed predominantly on processes.


The role of dreams and fantasies in creativity is debated. Vygotsky argued that what we see in dreams and fantasies are not something that is produced from nothing. The components of dream are obtained from the real experiences. The process of dissociation and association happens for the dreams to come true. Csikszentmihalyi has not dealt such mental contents directly with regard to creativity. Another aspect to discuss would be whether the theorists conceptualised creativity as predominantly decision making of the individual or as a collective activity. Csikszentmihalyi and Vygotsky regarded the creative act as a collective activity.


The final aspect to analyse about the theories is whether they projected creativity as interconnected or independent trait. It means that whether the theorist have portrayed creativity as a unique specific domain or an intermixing domain. All of the theories were revealing an interconnected nature of creativity. Vygotsky have seen creativity in relation to intelligence, dreams, fantasy and discovery only to characterise it as interconnected trait. He said that creativity is essential in an everyday basis. Csikszentmihalyi have seen creativity essential for a good and happy life and profession. He related it to wellbeing.



This article provides a brief analysis of the theories of creativity by Csikszentmihalyi, and Vygotsky. The selected theories are analysed using categories such as imagination, consciousness or unconscious or both, primarily individualistic or culturalistic, personality dimension, environment dimension, attribution dimension, Qualitative or quantitative methods or both, creativity as rare or universal phenomenon, discussion predominantly on characteristics or processes of creativity or both, emergence of creativity from imagination, independent trait or interconnected trait, theory appreciating time dimension, theory appreciating dreams and fantasies in relation to creativity, creativity as decision making and theory appreciating the collective character of creativity.


Culturalistic conception of creativity predominated in theories of Vygotsky and Csikszentmihalyi.  Both theorise creativity as universal phenomenon and conceptualise as collective in nature. Both of them are used qualitative methods for deriving creativity theories. They regarded creativity as interconnected trait. Creativity theory of Vygotsky have dealt with imagination whereas creativity theory of Csikszentmihalyi has never referred to the term imagination. Vygotsky is the only theorist to postulate creativity as emerged from imagination whereas Csikszentmihalyi does not deal the issue.


Creativity theory of Vygotsky deals with conscious mind whereas Csikszentmihalyi deals both conscious and unconscious mind in creativity theories.               Both of them deal with personality and environment dimensions in explaining creativity.  Csikszentmihalyi deals with attribution dimension in explaining creativity while Vygotsky is not. Csikszentmihalyi predominantly focussed on characteristics of creativity whereas Vygotsky focussed on the process of creativity. Vygotsky theorises on time dimension of creativity and the relation of dreams and fantasies with imagination, Csikszentmihalyi does not mention about these.



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Received on 15.06.2019         Modified on 05.07.2019

Accepted on 28.07.2019      ©A&V Publications All right reserved

Res.  J. Humanities and Social Sciences. 2019; 10(3):847-852.

DOI: 10.5958/2321-5828.2019.00139.6