Mathematics and its publics: Texts, contexts and users

Social Epistemology 14 (1):55 – 68 (2000)
This paper argues that mathematics education curricular policy has slowly effected a reversal in the relationship between mathematics and its publics: from mathematics assuming its users to mathematics defined by its (supposed) users. Mathematics education research itself, its contribution to challenging the former notwithstanding, has often unwittingly supported this shift. While in the mid 1980s the mathematics educators propagating the teaching of mathematics by applications represented a small and unique group, by the mid 1990s those advocating teaching mathematics this way had grown appreciably. A characteristic of this change in conviction is the emphasis on the importance of the context of mathematical thinking and problem-solving. Paradoxically, the consequences of the coupling of mathematics, both with utilitarianism,as other have argued, and with essentialism,as we argue in this paper, have been to narrow its scope (e.g. to a narrow version of 'numeracy') and to distance mathematics from its publics. In the paper we argue that action is needed to counter these trends, and to develop the area of the public understanding of mathematics. Otherwise policies aiming simply to 'popularize' mathematics might exacerbate these consequences. In particular, research is necessary along the lines followed by the social studies of science. For such research-by posing as pertinent the question of describing and accounting for differences between practices of knowledge production, dissemination and use-can help to avoid the assumption of a unique essence of some unitary culture called 'mathematics' and therefore a public (or publics) separated from it.
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