The anthropology of numbers: when 2 + 2 doesn’t equal 4

numbers; maths

The use of numbers in our lives is unavoidable.  Bank balances, school grades, social media algorithms, time. Western mathematics is taught in schools and practiced in every country, probing many to consider it universal, or as Chompsky pens, a universal language. Yet under the scope of anthropology’s infamous debate, between what is universal to humans and what is subjective, the way in which numbers are considered can be challenged.

A look at anthropology’s research on numbers shows that arithmetic is not always as simple as 2 + 2 equals 4. In an ethnography on mathematics in central Brazil, Mariana Ferreira understands the use of mathematics in some communities to be based on social relations, whereby social interactions and understandings of reciprocity define arithmetic. In the Diaurum Indian School, transactions employ different understandings of value than solely economic. Ferreira shows how giving away does not mean that things are subtracted; based on the culture of reciprocity, arithmetic is measured to double what is given away, justified through the logic that ‘whenever I give my brother anything, he gives me twice as much back’.  This justification, in comparison to understandings of western mathematics, is shocking.  It presents both an alternative means to understanding quantification, and to understanding social relations in society. 

In alternative understandings of numbers, such as these, a clearer view of how our own society is structured around numbers becomes evident.  In comparison, our own society initially appears to have stricter boundaries between social relations and arithmetic, whereby what we owe, gain or reduce is not valued based on our personal relationships, but by other rules and justifications; salaries, student discounts; bonuses for working overtime. However, this lack of social relations in our arithmetic has its own implications, and indicates the role of capitalism, business and profit in ruling our relations with numbers through a more clearly defined dynamic between the public and private. 

 Early in her ethnography, Ferreira depicts the critiques that other cultures give of ‘the white man’, whereby they see the Western use of numbers as a means to value, measure, quantify and estimate as foreign and unnatural.  Ferreira noted how aid workers approaching a village would arrive and ask questions of quantification; how many of you are there?  How much land do you use? How many share houses?  In these cultures, quantification is simply not valued the same, and these questions, met with confusion.

In this reflection on Western mathematics, through the eyes of other practices, the role of numbers that are traditionally understood to be universal and politically neutral, seem to be politically loaded. The recent removal of questionnaires from the English mathematics curriculum further politicises this, as it constructs an additional barrier to a common understanding or visibility of the agenda of numbers, alongside their increasing use. 

The message of anthropological studies of numbers is loud; numbers carry and reinforce biases of society.  Their compounding use in Western society, and implementation beyond, should be preceded with caution.

Anna Sian White is a SOAS Digital Ambassador studying BA International Relations and Social Anthropology.

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