From the abstract to the concrete and beyond:

The winding road of constructing a conceptual framework


  • Liubov Vetoshkina University of Helsinki
  • Sami Paavola


intermediate concept, object of activity, intermediary object, methodological cycles, cultural-historical activity theory, theoretical operationalization, methodological operationalization, transmethodology


Methodological procedures are frequently described using ideal-typical sequences and relatively linear phases, often covering the whole research process. We aim to uncover the long-term process of construction of a conceptual framework of a study as constituted by cycles using the method of ascending from the abstract to the concrete (AAC) as a starting point. Empirical research often requires the introduction of intermediate concepts between general theory and data. In this paper we follow how a specific intermediate concept – the intermediary object – was constructed and interpreted in two research cases: 1. the use of building information modelling (BIM) in collaboration between designers, architects and engineers in construction projects; 2. the craft of historical wooden boat building in Russia and Finland. Using ‘manuscript archaeology’ we follow the construction of a conceptual framework by analysing the development of the key texts and documents in these cases. In both cases the process contained multiple ‘episodes’– relatively independent and complete parts of research process, constructed around specific tangible products (like a conference paper or a draft of an article), but forming a sequence when taken together. Each episode contained own cycle of movement from the abstract to the concrete, and the whole research process constituted a relatively autonomous but interconnected network of methodological cycles, where concepts emerged based on conceptualizations from previous episodes. This shows how transmethodological processes of constructing a conceptual framework for a specific study through multiple methodological cycles often develop across a long period, with both vertical movements between theory and data, and horizontal movements between theoretical conceptualizations. 


Dafermos, M. (2018). Rethinking cultural-historical theory: A dialectical perspective to Vygotsky (Vol. 4). Springer.

Davydov, V. V. (1990). Soviet Studies in Mathematics Education: Types of generalisation in instruction (Vol. 2) Published by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, Reston Virginia.

Davydov, V. V. (2008). Problems of developmental instruction: A theoretical and experimental psychological study. Nova Science Publishers, Incorporated.

Eastman, C., Teicholz, P., Sacks, R., and Liston. K. (2011) BIM Handbook (2nd Edition) A Guide to Building Information Modeling for Owners, Managers, Designers, Engineers and Contractors. John Wiley & Sons, New Jersey.

Engeström, R. (2014). The interplay of developmental and dialogical epistemologies. Outlines. Critical Practice Studies, 15(2), 119-138.

Engeström, Y. (1995). Objects, contradictions and collaboration in medical cognition: An activity-theoretical perspective. Artificial Intelligence in Medicine, 7, 395-412.

Engeström, Y. (1996) Interobjectivity, ideality, and dialectics. Mind, Culture, and Activity, 3(4): 259-265.

Engeström, Y. (1999) Activity theory and individual and social transformation. In Perspectives on activity theory. Engeström, Y., Miettinen, R., & Punamäki, R. L. (Eds.), pp. 19-38. Cambridge University Press.

Engeström, Y. (2015). Learning by expanding: An activity-theoretical approach to developmental research, 2nd ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Engeström, Y. (2016). Foreword. In Gedera, D., & Williams, P. J. (Eds.) (2016) Activity Theory in Education. Sense Publishers.

Engeström, Y. (2020). Ascending from the Abstract to the Concrete as a Principle of Expansive Learning. Psychological Science and Education, 25(5), 31-43.

Engeström, Y. & Blackler. F. (2005). On the life of the object. Organization, 12, 307-330.

Engeström, Y., Nummijoki, J., & Sannino, A. (2012). Embodied germ cell at work: Building an expansive concept of physical mobility in home care. Mind, Culture, and Activity, 19(3), 287-309.

Engeström, Y., Puonti, A. & Seppänen, L. (2003) Spatial and temporal expansion of the object as a challenge for reorganizing work. In Gerardi, S. & Niccolini, D. & Yanow, D. (Eds.), Knowing in organizations. A Practice-based approach. New York: M.E. Sharp.

Engeström, Y., Sannino, A., & Virkkunen, J. (2014). On the methodological demands of formative interventions. Mind, Culture, and Activity, 21(2), 118-128.

Engle, R. A., Conant, F. R., & Greeno, J. G. (2007). Progressive refinement of hypotheses in video-supported research. Video research in the learning sciences, 239-254.

Ewenstein, B. & Whyte, J. (2009) Knowledge Practices in Design: The Role of Visual Representations as `Epistemic Objects'. Organization Studies, 30(1), 7-30.

Gherardi, S. (2012). How to conduct a practice-based study: Problems and methods. Edward Elgar Publishing.

Hutchins, E. (1995). Cognition in the Wild. MIT press.

Ilyenkov, E. V. (1974). Dialectical logic: Essays in its history and theory. Moscow: Progress.

Ilyenkov, E.V. (1975). The Universal. In Philosophical Investigations in the USSR, edited by Frederick J. Adelmann, pp. 26-51. Springer Netherlands.

Ilyenkov, E. V. (1982/2008). The dialectics of the abstract and the concrete in Marx’s “Capital.” Delhi, India: Aakar Books.

Jahreie, C. F., & Ottesen, E. (2010). Construction of boundaries in teacher education: Analyzing student teachers' accounts. Mind, Culture, and Activity, 17(3), 212-234.

Kaptelinin, V. (2005). The object of activity: Making sense of the sense-maker. Mind, culture, and activity, 12(1), 4-18.

Knorr Cetina, K. (1997). Sociality with objects: Social relations in postsocial knowledge societies. Theory, culture & society, 14(4), 1-30.

Khawaja, I. & Mørck, L. L. (2021) Mo(ve)ment methodology and researcher positioning – a transmethodological take? Outlines. Critical Practice Studies.

Latour, B. (1996). On interobjectivity. Mind, culture, and activity, 3(4), 228-245.

Latour, B. (2005). Reassembling the Social. An Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory. Oxford University Press.

Leont’ev, A.N. (1978) Activity, Consciousness and Personality. Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs.

Marx, K. (1867/1976). Capital: A Critique of Political Economy. London: Penguin Books Limited.

Marx, K. (1858/ 1973). Grundrisse. London: Penguin Books.

Miettinen, R. (1999). The riddle of things: Activity theory and actor‐network theory as approaches to studying innovations. Mind, Culture, and Activity, 6(3), 170-195.

Miettinen, R. (2000). Ascending from the abstract to the concrete and constructing a working hypothesis for new practices. In Oittinen, V. (Ed.) Evald Ilyenkov’s Philosophy Revisited. Helsinki: Kikimora Publications, pp. 111-129.

Miettinen, R. (2005). Object of activity and individual motivation. Mind, Culture, and Activity, 12(1), 52-69.

Miettinen, R., Paavola, S., & Pohjola, P. (2012). From habituality to change: Contribution of activity theory and pragmatism to practice theories. Journal for the Theory of Social Behaviour, 42(3), 345-360.

Miettinen, R. & Paavola, S. (2018) Reconceptualizing object construction: The dynamics of building information modelling in construction design. Special Issue “Activity Theory in Information Systems Research” at Information Systems Journal 28, 516-531.

Paavola, S. (2006). On the origin of ideas: An abductivist approach to discovery. Department of Philosophy, University of Helsinki.

Paavola, S., & Hakkarainen, K. (2005). Three abductive solutions to the Meno paradox–with instinct, inference, and distributed cognition. Studies in Philosophy and Education, 24(3-4), 235-253.

Paavola, S., & Miettinen, R. (2019). Dynamics of design collaboration: BIM models as intermediary digital objects. Computer supported cooperative work (Cscw), 28(1-2), 1-23.

Sannino, A. (2011). Activity theory as an activist and interventionist theory. Theory & Psychology, 21(5), 571-597.

Sannino, A. (2013). Critical transitions in the pursuit of a professional object: Simone de Beauvoir’s expansive journey to become a writer. In Learning and Collective Creativity, pp. 52-72. Routledge.

Scribner, S. (1985). Vygotsky’s uses of history. In Wertsch, J. V. (Ed.), Culture, communication, and cognition: Vygotskian perspectives, pp. 119-146. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Toiviainen, H., & Vetoshkina, L. (2018). Learning for the complex object of work in a digital printing network. Studia Paedagogica, 23(2), 25-42.

Vasilyuk, F. (1991). The psychology of experiencing. Harvester Wheatsheaf.

Vazjulin, V. A. (1985). Rassudocnoe i razumnoe myslenije v razvitii poznanija [Understanding and reason in the development of cognition]. In M. N. Alekseev & A. M. Korshunov (Eds.), Dialektika protsessa poznanija [Dialectics of the cognitive process] pp. 173–197. Moscow: MGU.

Vazjulin V. A. (2005). O neobhodimostu dialekticheskogo snjatija kalssicheskoj i istoricheskoi formi marksisma [On the need of dialectical withdrawal of classical and historical form of Marxism]. Marksism i sovremennost’ [Marxism and Modernity], 99-107.

Vetoshkina, L. (2018) Anchoring craft: The object as an intercultural and intertemporal unifying factor. University of Helsinki.

Vetoshkina, L., Engeström, Y., & Sannino, A. (2017). On the Power of the Object. In Skillful Performance: Enacting Capabilities, Knowledge, Competence, and Expertise in Organizations. Sandberg, J., Rouleu, L., Tsoukas, H. & Langley, A. (Eds.). pp. 73-102.

Vinck, D. (1999). Les objets intermédiaires dans les réseaux de coopération scientifique. Contribution à la prise en compte des objets dans les dynamiques sociales. Revue française de sociologie, 40(2), 385-414.

Vinck, D. (2011). Taking intermediary objects and equipping work into account in the study of engineering practices. Engineering Studies 3(1), 25-44.

Vinck, D. & Jeantet, A. (1995) Mediating and commissioning objects in the sociotechnical process of product design: a conceptual approach. In: Management and New Technology: Design, Networks and Strategies, MacLean, D., Saviotti, P. & Vinck, D. (eds), COST Social Science serie, pp. 111–129. Commission of European Union, Bruxelles.

Vygotsky, L. S. (1978). Mind in society (M. Cole, V. John-Steiner, S. Scribner, & E. Souberman, Eds.). Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Vygotsky, L. S. (1997). The historical meaning of the crisis of psychology. In R. Rieber, & J. Wolloc (Eds.), The collected works of L. S. Vygotsky, 3, pp. 233–344. New York, London: Plenum Press.

Yanchar, S. C., & Williams, D. D. (2006). Reconsidering the compatibility thesis and eclecticism: Five proposed guidelines for method use. Educational researcher, 35(9), 3-12.




How to Cite

Vetoshkina, L., & Paavola , S. . (2021). From the abstract to the concrete and beyond: : The winding road of constructing a conceptual framework . Outlines. Critical Practice Studies, 22(Special Issue), 125–169. Retrieved from