The UK Arts and Humanities Research Council has agreed to fund a research network on mathematical cultures. Here, I describe this project and what we hope to learn from it.
Why study mathematical cultures? Why now?
Mathematics has universal standards of validity. Nevertheless, there are local styles in mathematics. These may be the legacy of a dominant individual (e.g. the Newtonianism of 18th century British mathematics). Or, there may be social or economic reasons (such as the practical bent of early modern Dutch mathematics).
These local mathematical cultures are scientifically important because they can affect the direction of mathematical research. They also matter because of the cultural importance of mathematics. Mathematics enjoys enormous intellectual prestige, and has seen a growth of popular publishing, films about mathematicians, at least one novel and plays. However, this same intellectual prestige encourages a disengagement from mathematics. Ignorance of even rudimentary mathematics remains socially acceptable. Policy initiatives to encourage the study of mathematics usually emphasise the economic utility of mathematics (for example the 2006 STEM Programme Report). Appeals of this sort rarely succeed with students unless there is a specific promise of employment or higher remuneration.
What these political anxieties call for is a re-presentation of mathematics as a human activity, which means, among other things, that it is part of culture. The tools and knowledge necessary for this have been developing in recent years. Historians of mathematics have begun to consider mathematics in its social, political and cultural contexts. There is now an established sociology of science and technology, published in journals such as Science as Culture and the Journal of Humanistic Mathematics. Mathematics educationalists have begun to draw on some of these developments (particularly historical research).