Math in Relation to Place

Thinking back on my experience in high school, I can’t remember an occasion where I felt that math was particularly oppressive. That’s probably because I was born into a western culture where the mathematical ways of knowing taught in schools were normalized for me. As an immersion student, I do remember some initial discomfort about learning math in French, quibbling over the possibility that learning PEDMAS instead of BEDMAS might thwart my understanding of English math, essential to conducting myself in an English-dominant culture, and thus drastically limit my career options in the not-so-distant future. In the end, the linguistic differences, say, between “division” and the inscrutably French “divisionwere not as insurmountable as I thought. I persevered.

Obviously, my learning math in French was not that big a deal. English or French, it was still being taught the same way, favouring the same western-focused tradition that I had grown up absorbing. Numbers were numbers, after all. At least that’s what I thought. What I have only recently considered, thanks to Louise Poirier’s article, “Teaching Mathematics and the Inuit Community” and a recent enlightening class visit from Dr. Gale Russell, is that mathematical ways of knowing are hardly universal. To demonstrate this point, Poirier (and Dr. Russell, in drawing upon Poirier’s article), focuses on Inuit people’s mathematical ways of knowing, demonstrating that math is as culturally specific a concept as language (and the two are inseparably intertwined). Some general points and themes I found interesting from Poirier’s article:

  • On measurement of time: Inuit people measure their months of the year based on natural phenomena. As Poirier explains, “the name of each month comes from animal activities or from nature,” for example “the coldest of all months,” “when baby seals are born,” “when birds lay their eggs,” or “when the seal elephants rest on land.” While the western calendar similarly emphasizes natural phenomena (rotations around the sun), our calendar units of measurement (weeks, months) are based largely on numeric balance as opposed to the natural phenomena that actually transpires in those months (I think?). Inuit mathematics appears to foreground the environment in its ways of knowing as opposed to seek to impose onto it (often) arbitrary quantities and divisions.
  • On measurements of length: Inuit measurements of length emphasize parts of the body (the finger, foot, etc.). Whereas western math imposes units of measurement onto the physical, bodily world (a person might be 1.7 m tall, weigh 64kg), Inuit measurements foreground the body in space as central to understanding.
  • On “the adopted line”: The Inuit terming a straight line “the adopted line” seems to highlight its foreignness to their ways of knowing. As Poirier explains, “there are very few straight lines but many curves” in the Inuit environment. The expression, for me, seems to highlight the Inuit’s recognition of the natural environment as fluid and contingent as opposed to fixed and linear.

Ultimately, the Inuit people’s understanding of math, as presented in Poirier’s article, seems to be irrevocably tied to the body, a unique and changing environment, and the relationship between body and that environment. This is because the ability to navigate the fluctuating Northern landscape (for food, for example) is integral to the Inuit way of life. Their mathematics thus reflect a way of life irrevocably tied to their relationship with place. This approach is quite the departure from a “western” tradition of mathematics, where math is presented as a means of objectively quantifying and empirically knowing one’s environment, regardless of the intricacies of culture or place. The way of math that I’m familiar with doesn’t seem to affirm the presence of our bodies in space so much as diminish the body and the environment to universally quantifiable and knowable objects.



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