Social Justice Usage
Source: Powell, Arthur B., and Marilyn Frankenstein, eds. Ethnomathematics: Challenging Eurocentrism in Mathematics Education. SUNY Press, 1997, p. 6.
D’Ambrosio (1985/reprinted here as chapter 1), the founder and most significant theoretician of the ethnomathematics program, points out that belief in the universality of mathematics can limit one from considering and recognizing that different modes of thought or culture may lead to different forms of mathematics, radically different ways of counting, ordering, sorting, measuring, inferring, classifying, and modeling. That is, once we abandon notions of general universality, which often cover for Eurocentric particularities, we can acquire an anthropological awareness: different cultures can produce different mathematics and the mathematics of one culture can change over time, reflecting changes in the culture.
New Discourses Commentary
Ethnomathematics, like many specialized terms in Critical Social Justice (and, more specifically here, critical pedagogy) is a term that lacks a precise definition and means several things at once. On the one hand, perhaps the narrowest, ethnomathematics refers to “the mathematics of illiterate cultures,” as was originally defined in the 1980s. On the other hand, and as we will understand the term, ethnomathematics refers to an approach that sees math ultimately as a cultural artifact that is contingent to the culture in which it is applied and thus not universal. In that regard, ethnomathematics is a critical project in the postmodern social sciences that seeks to apply its underlying assumptions of cultural relativism and radical egalitarianism (and liberationism) to the study and practice of mathematics.
Loosely, then, ethnomathematics is a project that is meant to apply a particular approach (from Critical Theory and postmodernism—see also, applied postmodernism) within sociology and especially cultural anthropology and have it bear upon the study and practice of mathematics, thus mathematics itself. Its primary goal seems to be to point out that the assumed universality of mathematics is merely a Eurocentric assumption that needs to be disrupted and decolonized. That is, it sees what is generally considered mathematics as one approach to mathematics (even one “rationality”) among many competing alternatives and one that, because of the privileging of white, Western, and Eurocentric assumptions about knowledge(s), mistakenly believes itself to be objective and universal (see also, Enlightenment, positivism, and science). Ethnomathematics aims to get white, Western, “Eurocentric” people to realize that their mathematics is just one approach among many others, and also to understand that those others have been unjustly excluded from consideration due to systemic power dynamics including Eurocentrism, white supremacy, and Western hegemony (and also, patriarchy, masculinism, and misogyny). As a reply, not only should people see the “dominant” form of mathematics as one among many, but they should also forward and favor other “marginalized” mathematics from other cultures as a result.
Typical practices within ethnomathematics would be discussing various aspects of mathematical ideas and “knowledges” from cultures that Theory deems to be oppressed, marginalized, and othered. On its own, this is an interesting pursuit, but ethnomathematics advocates will recommend that these anthropological and historical details be taught in place of basic mathematical skills and literacy. Meanwhile, the standard curriculum in mathematics will be positioned by ethnomathematics as just another “ethnomathematical approach,” namely that of white, Western culture—which will further be positioned as having unjustly excluded other ways of knowing and lived experiences from the mathematical canon. That is, ethnomathematics will intentionally attempt to make the case that what we understand mathematics to be is bad and oppressive while alternative mathematics are good and liberatory. Ethnomathematics is therefore an activist approach consonant with the broad project of Critical Theory, which is to undermine the hegemony of Western culture, often by critiquing it ruthlessly while comparing it against heavily whitewashed alternatives, especially indigenous mathematics.
Ethnomathematics therefore attempts to introduce skepticism around ideas like that getting the right answer is important in mathematics, or that there is one right answer (to many mathematical problems). A specific example of a battleground that ethnomathematics has waged in this regard is over the “question” of what 2+2 equals. The position in ethnomathematics is that 4 is one possible answer among many others and the one favored by hegemonic (white, Western, Eurocentric, white supremacist, etc.) power dynamics—and thus it should be held in (moral) skepticism as the best answer to the question. While ethnomathematics doesn’t forward any other specific “right answer” to the “question” of what 2+2 equals, it insists that “thinking about other values it could take” is a useful exercise in mathematics education and has explicitly taken up a long-running project to find ways “to make 2+2=5 a true statement.” (Encyclopedist’s note: 2+2 never equals 5—see also, truth, reality, realities, pseudo-reality, and paralogy.) Ethnomathematics explicitly names both objectivity and a focus on “getting the right answer” in mathematics as features of “white supremacy culture” in mathematics, which needs to be disrupted and dismantled (by ethnomathematics).
Ethnomathematics also criticizes (as white supremacist, etc.) individualism in mathematics, urging that mathematics should be made more collectivist in nature. This may go some way toward explaining why ethnomathematics sees itself as a part of a broader project to initiate a “revolutionary mathematics” (see also, communism, Leninism, Marxism, and neo-Marxism). As this makes no sense whatsoever within mathematics itself, this project is brought in through ethnomathematics’ primary line of action, which is the applications of Critical Theory to (math) education, known as “critical pedagogy.” In this sense, ethnomathematics uses the idea of a basis in ethnic studies to attempt to replace mathematics education with a “critical” education, i.e., the raising of critically conscious revolutionaries who wish to subvert Western civilization to make way for, if you will, a new world order run by Critical Theorists (see also, Cultural Revolution).
See also, mathematx and white mathematics.
Applied postmodernism; Communism; Critical; Critical consciousness; Critical pedagogy; Critical Theory; Cultural relativism; Cultural Revolution; Decolonize; Dismantle; Disrupt; Dominant; Enlightenment; Eurocentric; Exclusion; Hegemony; Indigeneity; Individualism; Injustice; Knowledge(s); Leninism; Liberationism; Lived experience; Marginalization; Marxism; Masculinism; Mathematx; Misogyny; Neo-Marxism; New world order; Objectivity; Oppression; Other; Paralogy; Patriarchy; Positivism; Postmodernism; Power (systemic); Privilege; Pseudo-reality; Radical egalitarianism; Realities; Reality; Revolution; Science; Social Justice; Subversion; Theory; Truth; Universalism; Ways of knowing; Western; White; White mathematics; White supremacy
Ethnomathematics was forged in the cauldron of experiences, reflections, delusions, and hopes of the uses of modem science, particularly mathematics, for a better quality of life for the entire human species. We all share the dream of equity and dignity in the relation of every human being to the other, of understanding our place in the cosmic reality, of achieving inner peace, and of finding a relation of equilibrium with other species and with nature as a whole. Some of our colleagues may still come with the question: “But what do mathematics and mathematics education have to do with all this.” And they may go even further: “These are the domains of the social and political sciences, of philosophy and religion, of psychology and psychoanalysis, of environmental sciences and ecology, not of mathematics and mathematics education.”
I see ethnomathematics as a way of going back to basics. Of course, basics in the broad sense mentioned above, with the global objectives that constitute our common dream. Some people still may not see what this has to do with such a specific mode of thought as mathematics, which has its own codes, norms, rules, and values—including rigor, precision, non-contradiction—identified with what some call “positivistic rationality.” However, it is indeed conceivable to ask about other codes, norms, rules, and values belonging to alternative rationalities.
The complexity of every society, so different one from another, is responsible for the generation of codes, norms, rules, and values in the direction of organizing, classifying, comparing, and ordering the action of its individuals. Instances of these codes, norms, rules, and values are instruments of analyses, of explanations, and of actions, such as more or less, small and big, few or many, near and far, and in and out. These codes, norms, rules, and values—for instance, cardinality and ordinality, counting and measuring, and sorting and comparing—take different forms according to the cultures in which they were generated, organized, and accepted. To recover these forms and behaviors in different cultural environments has been the main thrust of ethnomathematics, which has found a common ground with the objectives of intellectual movements in psychology and anthropology.
Source: D’Ambrosio, Urbitan. “Foreword.” Powell, Arthur B., and Marilyn Frankenstein, eds. Ethnomathematics: Challenging Eurocentrism in Mathematics Education. SUNY Press, 1997, p. xvi.
Revision date: 3/22/21