Concept Formation in the Wild - MCA

Special issue on “Concept Formation in the Wild”


Abstracts submission: April 15 2011. Manuscripts submission: July 15 2011

Guest Editor

Yrjö Engeström and Annalisa Sannino (University of Helsinki)


It is commonly accepted that concepts are among the basic building blocks of human cognition, knowledge, and learning. What is not so often realized in cognitive science and educational research is that coping with the world requires that we operate with increasingly complex theoretical concepts. Terms like terrorism, global warming, HIV-AIDS, globalization, or human genome are not merely words. They are names for multi-faceted and ill-bounded  -  sometimes monstrous  -  objects, ideas, and practices, which human beings and their institutions desperately try to understand and manage, or conceptualize.It is not an accident that in many languages the word ‘concept’ (e.g., in German ‘Begriff’) is derived from the word ‘to grasp’, literally to take or grab with one’s hand. It is equally interesting that the English word concept is related to ‘conceiving’, that is, imagining, envisioning or making up a possible future state of affairs. These two roots indicate the dual meaning of concepts: they are practical tools for handling and mastering objects, and they are also future-oriented visions or ways of world-making.The examples listed above make it clear that complex concepts are restless, contested and contradictory. They carry ethical and ideological challenges. They evolve and generate surprising manifestations. They cannot be easily defined and put to rest as categories in a dictionary. In other words, our conceptualizations also grab and mold us. Yet we need concepts as tools, which makes it necessary that we try to fix and stabilize them, at least temporarily.Standard cognitive theories of conceptual change have been preoccupied with the individual formation of stable, well-defined and relatively neutral concepts, typically those taught in schools in natural sciences and mathematics. These theories offer relatively little for the understanding of collective formation of and work with emergent, unstable and contradictory complex concepts. Concept formation ‘in the wild’, especially in workplaces and grassroots community movements, is practically absent in these studies.The study of concept formation in the wild may require and foster epistemological and theoretical approaches that differ radically from dominant ideas about concepts. The Hegelian and Marxist legacy of understanding theoretical concepts in terms of ascending from the abstract to the concrete (Il’enkov, Davydov) is one such avenue. Ideas of double stimulation (Vygotsky), conceptual blending and material anchors (Hutchins), model-based reasoning (Nersessian), cognitive trails (Cussins), social representations (Moscovici, Markova), and embodied cognition (Lakoff, Gibbs) are further examples of promising openings.The special issue is aimed at bringing together alternative theoretical and methodological frameworks for studies of concept formation in historically changing practical activities, organizations and institutions. In this context, concepts are understood as collective, emergent and contested constructs that have serious practical consequences. The articles of the issue will be selected so as to represent theoretically and empirically important studies in this emerging field of inquiry.We are especially interested in articles that illuminate the relationship among the three categories that are on the journal's masthead (mind, culture, and activity). We also encourage potential contributors to look back over prior issues of MCA to see what topics have been visited and especially how the authors' work contributes to the problematics of MCA.

Guidelines for submisions

Potential contributors should first submit an abstract of their manuscript. Abstracts should be up to 500 words in length. The authors of selected abstracts will be then asked to submit manuscripts up to 8,000 words in length. Manuscripts will be subject to peer review process. Manuscripts should be prepared according to the /Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association/ (5th ed.) For further information and abstract submission, please write to

For further information see


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Concept Formation
in the Wild

Special issue of Mind, Culture, and Activity