### 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**.

### Related Terms

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

### Additional Examples

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

## 9 comments

If Mathematics isn’t universal then “white” are superior

Gobbledygook X infinity = ethnomathematics

Postmodern liberals say that truth varies according to culture and that all cultures are equal and tied to race. This would indicate that the findings of Western science and math are no more valid than the insane ravings of Third World witch doctors. Thus, the assertion of the correctness of Western science or math is regarded as hate, bigotry, intolerance, xenophobia and, of course, racism.

2+2= raàaaaaaaaaacism

It is simply racist to assume our current mathematical system is “white” or “euro-centric”. Like all of Western Culture, math is an amalgamation of a thousand unique cultures from the past. The Mesopotamian city state of Sumer is the first know use of zero as a place holder. The idea of zero went underground for 5000 years before being rediscovered in India, past on to Aribic cultures and then, because it was so amazing, adopted by proto European cultures.

There is an amazing universality to math which transcends cultures and space.

We did. We dropped Roman numerals in favor of Arabic numerals, (and they actually originated in India), while keeping the Roman alphabet.

Ethnomathematics sets to challenge the most basic “assumptions” of math because they are supposedly the result of so-called White Supremacy, but are they even actually white?

I’m not an expert, but from what I know/remember, the early underlying principles came from the Greek. Algebra came from non-white Muslims. Other ideas came from India and other non-European places.

It seems to me that math as we know it is a collection of contributions from different countries, “races”, and colors. Surely many ideas have been rejected along the way, but the acceptance of ideas from many non-white sources indicates that the ideas that were rejected – were rejected on merit.

Finding ways to show that “2+2=5” may be an interesting philosophical experiment, but considering that the overwhelming proof of the prowess of so-called “Eurocentric” math is all around us in our daily lives – it seems unproductive to treat (i.e. and teach) this idea as “equal” with the concept of “2+2=4”.

Surely we should take whatever is useful from the total sum of human knowledge but we should not adopt simply to conform to the social ideology du jour.

“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.”

Why don’t you provide D’Ambrosio’s examples of the above?

Does he address the fact that Chinese & Indian mathematicians readily grasp Western math & vice versa.?