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Criticisms and contradictions of ethnomathematics

Pais, Alexandre (2011) Criticisms and contradictions of ethnomathematics. Educational studies in mathematics, 76 (2). pp. 209-230. ISSN 0013-1954

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Abstract

This article aims to contribute to the ongoing discussion about the epistemology and philosophy of ethnomathematics, and to debate its educational implications. It begins by identifying in recent literature two categories of criticism of ethnomathematics: epistemological, related with the way ethnomathematics positions itself in terms of mathematical knowledge; and pedagogical, related to the way ethnomathematical ideas are implicated in formal education. After a description of both of these categories, the pedagogical implications of ethnomathematics are considered by means of confronting the criticisms of recent research in the field. Ethnomathematics research conceives its pedagogical implications in different ways, some of them contradictory. Such contradictions are related with the societal role of school, with the idea that we can “transfer” knowledge from one setting to another and the tendency to reduce ethnomathematics to a ready-to-apply “tool” for the school-learning of mathematics. The author discusses the first two criticisms in the light of recent research concerned with the social and political dimensions of mathematics education. Concerning the latter, a typical case of an ethnomathematical research study looking at bringing local knowledge into school in the name of promoting diversity is analyzed. It is the author's contention that ethnomathematical research runs the risk of conveying an idea of culture where the Other is squeezed from its otherness. The article concludes by arguing that a deeper theoretical discussion is needed in the majority of the research currently done in ethnomathematics so that well-intentioned actions do not end up having a result opposite to their aims.

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