This post is in the Literature category

The collaborative practices of musicians in multi-discipline environments constitute a small part of the literature on creative practice in general. Indeed, as recently as 2006, Scottish researchers looking at the relationships between group composition tasks and flow theory (MacDonald, Byrne, & Carlton, 2006) noted that the “relative dearth of research literature investigating the process and outcomes of creative tasks” (p. 294). MacDonald (p. 295) has also highlighted that collaboration in musical composition by individuals who consider themselves close friends produces a better process and product, and notes the quality of verbal, non-verbal and musical communication between them. This assertion raises questions over the processes employed by collaborators whose communication and empathy processes may be affected by autism. The works cited here are typical rather than exhaustive in that they tend to be either somewhat generalised, or targeted on issues such as intellectual property and technique (Goodman, 2004), or basic accounts of the results of process (Searle, 1973; Williams, 1999). Looking further afield in the arts, several accounts and studies of collaborative theatre and multimedia appear (Hancock, 2002; Oddey, 1994; Thibault, 2001). Even within these texts, the idea that “good communication is essential” is ubiquitous, but examination of exactly what that entails is notably rare.

Beyond the arts literature itself is the richer pickings of psychology, sociology and group dynamics, where the processes of implementation and communication of ideas in groups are examined along with aspects of structure, status and role within the group. Several publications (Brown, 2000, pp. 67-73; Forsyth, 1999; McClintock, Stech, & Keil, 1983, p. 206) have been useful in analysis phases of the research when drawing distinctions between “normal” group dynamics and behaviour impacted by autistic traits. Much useful insight was also gained from Bennis and Beiderman’s Organizing Genius (1997) in their case studies of highly successful creative groups, particularly regarding the impact of individuals with highly focussed expertise and interests but limited social skills and the need to properly manage creative teams that contain such individuals.

The aspects of the group dynamics that have emerged as important to this study are the generation and communication of ideas, along with creative decision-making or problem solving hierarchies. The relevant settings vary from text-based situations such as interpreting and rehearsing a musical score to composition for film theatre or multimedia where there is no text or prescribed method of interpretation. Group sizes in my own case range from two to ten individuals. Working in a group situation is known to negatively affect the range and quality of idea generation (Brown, 2000, p. 169; Hennessy, 2003, pp. 181-202; Smith, 2003, p. 16) and this can actually be exacerbated by the introduction of examples, as the group becomes “fixated” on these and the generation of new ideas is blocked (Rodriguez & Ryave, 2002, p. 214; Smith, 2003, p. 16). Indeed the fixated idea may become a majority viewpoint. The problem is then solved according to the way in which that kind of problem has been solved in the example.

Group members will display a tendency to conform to the majority for a variety of reasons including role, status, or drive for consensus (Nemeth & Nemeth-Brown, 2003, p. 56). Brown (2000, p. 126) notes that one individual can create a majority view (even if it is wrong) if their status in the group is high enough, such as in a teacher-student, or director-actor relationship.

Two factors can reduce the tendencies to conform to old or majority ideas. Dissent, either natural or introduced, (McClintock et al., 1983, pp. 205-233) stimulates creative thinking and divergent thought (Nemeth & Nemeth-Brown, 2003, p. 67). This weakens the position of the majority view because it tends to encourage individuals to assess their viewpoint rather than simply go along with the majority. However, unless a collaborative environment of trust is established (Kam, 2000 para. 30-33) along with an acknowledgment of common goals, dissent may not be voiced for reasons such as status, individual personality or communication style or the observation that “deviates are not particularly liked” (Brown, 2000, p. 105). This introduction of dissent is a strategy that I employ regularly in my teaching work, by setting up a discussion and then playing Devil’s Advocate role.

Diversity, based on factors like ethnicity, age, gender, background or cognitive differences also tends to encourage a wider range of creative outcomes but, at the same time may decrease group cohesion (Forsyth, 1999; Ito, 2000; Kam, 2000 para. 2; Milliken, Bartel, & Kurtzberg, 2003, p. 33). Particularly where the nature of the difference is cognitive and not physically obvious, confusion may arise in the group as to the reasons for difference and result in segmentation (Milliken et al., 2003). These observations suggested that an individual with AS or strong autistic traits may have a strong positive affect on the creativity of the group if communication is appropriately managed, however the perceived authority of that team member is also likely to be a factor.

Much research has focussed on verbal communication, assuming that this form of symbolic communication is central to achieving mutual goals in groups. However in many creative settings verbal or written communication may be “lacking, forbidden, interrupted, too costly or voluntarily eschewed” (in McClintock et al., 1983, p. 210). This description aligns with chamber ensemble rehearsals and performances as well as aspects of group composition environments such as song writing or studio production. Malhotra’s (1981) widely cited study looked at the group dynamics within a symphony orchestra and noted that communication occurred in different forms in different contexts and was not based solely on semantic forms, but also on continuous and complex interpretation of gesture via direct observation of others and through the music itself during the process of music making (p.105).

Sawyer (2003) cites a variety of sources in his assertion that virtually all social interactions are a form of group creativity, involving verbal and non-verbal elements and forming a collaborative exchange of meaning. This view contrasts somewhat with that expressed by the MetaCollab researchers in their more restrictive use of the term collaboration. However, collective construction of meaning and the interdependency of the verbal and non-verbal are widely accepted as a “moving Gestalt” (ten Have, 1992, p. 19). Indeed the speaker and the hearer may unconsciously adopt motion synchrony. In their 1971 article Speech and body motion synchrony in the speaker hearer (Condon, 1971) Condon and Ogstone observed “the speaker and the hearer look like puppets moved by the same set of strings.” It is clear that this process requires empathy, and a degree of reciprocality in ability to communicate effectively. These are the very aspects of group activity where autistic traits, independent of personality (Attwood, 1998; Craig & Baron-Cohen, 1999) are likely to have an impact.

This general overview of research into group collaboration served as a starting point when examining the ways that interactions developed in my own case. Further references are embedding into the Insights posts.

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