Yrjö Engeström – Concept formation in the wild

Yrjö Engeström

Center for Research on Activity, Development and Learning CRADLE

University of Helsinki

Concept formation has traditionally been seen as a process in which individual learners acquire well-defined scientific concepts determined by the curriculum. However, in the work practices of today’s organizations and professions, concept formation is increasingly a challenge of making collective sense of ill-defined phenomena. Concept formation is therefore becoming an open-ended creative endeavor characterized by uncertainty, debate, and grounding in material objects, artifacts, and bodies. We may call it concept formation in the wild (Engeström & Sannino, 2012), or as Greeno (2012) suggests, formation of functional concepts.

Functional concepts embedded in collective activities are typically polyvalent, contested and contradictory. They carry ethical and ideological challenges and visions. They are often “loose” (Löwy, 1992) and generate surprising manifestations. They cannot be easily defined and put to rest as categories in a dictionary. Yet we need functional concepts as tools, which makes it necessary that we try to fix and stabilize them, at least temporarily. Formal-logical notions of a concept are not sufficient for the understanding of functional concepts.

Three examples of functional concepts with which we are currently working in my research group will be analyzed. These are (a) the concept of a large wooden fishing boat built at the Bay of Bengal in India, demonstrating how a material product may become a concept in and for itself, (b) the concept of integrated pest management or IPM as it is shaped and implemented among greenhouse vegetable growers in western Finland, and (c) the concept of sustainable mobility as it is constructed and implemented among the workers and clients of home care for the elderly in Helsinki, Finland.

Vygotsky emphasized the verbal, language-bound character of concepts. On the other hand, researchers have shown that already preschool children are capable of key actions of theoretical thinking, namely experimentation and modeling, using material artifacts and visual images. Our own work (Engeström, Nummijoki & Sannino, 2012) points toward the great potential of physical movement and bodily sensation in the formation of theoretical functional concepts. Concept formation in the wild is a longitudinal, multi-phased process in which different mediating artifacts take center stage in different phases. In concept formation in the wild externally very different artifact modalities may serve the same epistemic function, and vice versa, similar artifact modalities may serve very different epistemic functions. The robustness and survival of a collective functional concept depends on the interweaving of multiple complementary modalities and multiple types of epistemic function.

I will examine the three empirical cases through three key questions, namely: (1) What epistemic question does the functional concept answer? (2) Through what kind of interactional and cognitive work is this functional concept formed? (3) What artifactual resources are used in the formation of the conept? The examination will lead to a proposal for a hierarchical typology of functional concepts, ranging from highly context-bound prototype concepts to generative germ-cell concepts.


Institut des sciences cognitives

Fondé en 2003, l'Institut des Sciences Cognitives de l'UQAM vise à favoriser la recherche et le développement de compétences dans le domaine des sciences cognitives, à en partager les connaissances, à faciliter les échanges interdisciplinaires et à animer la communauté locale.


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