Encyclopedia of Mathematics Education

Living Edition
| Editors: Steve Lerman

Cultural Influences in Mathematics Education

  • Abbe HerzigEmail author
  • Olof B. SteinthorsdottirEmail author
Living reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-77487-9_38-6


Access Belonging Barriers Context Culture Equity 


Extensive educational scholarship investigates why different demographic groups of students are less successful than others; much of that scholarship has focused on characteristics of the students themselves, for example, their motivation, affect, attitudes, preparation, and ability. In this chapter, we turn from characteristics of students to identify some ways that cultural and societal contexts surrounding schooling and mathematics affect opportunities and performance for groups of people who have traditionally been underrepresented in mathematics. Understanding these contexts and the constraints they impose on some students is crucial for the development of strategies to create more accessible and equitable learning environments.

Miners used to take a canary into the mines to signal whether or not the air was safe to breath. If the canary thrived, the atmosphere was safe. If the canary became sick or died, the atmosphere was toxic. Members of oppressed groups – people of color, poor and working classes, women, gays, bisexuals, and lesbians – are like the canary: They signal when the atmosphere is not healthy…. Trying to “fix” the canary or blaming the toxic atmosphere on the canary makes the atmosphere no less toxic to everyone in it. (Weber 2001, p. 22)


School mathematics can serve as a barrier or a catalyst for further educational and career opportunities. A substantial body of research has explored the reasons for the differences in the achievement, attitudes, learning styles, strategy use, and persistence between girls and boys and among students of different races, ethnicities, social classes, and language proficiencies (e.g., Leder 1992; OECD 2015; Tate 1997). Although gaps have gotten narrower, differences among groups remain, as do important differences among countries (Else-Quest et al. 2010; Lubienski and Ganley 2017). Ironically, the work of many researchers has had the paradoxical effect of creating a discourse that females and students of color cannot do math (Boaler and Sengupta-Irving 2006; Fennema 2000; O’Connor and Joffe 2014). This deficit model stereotypes some groups of students as defective and in need of repair, and the goal becomes developing interventions to fix the students who are less successful. As a result, when students do not succeed or persist in mathematics, the reason is framed as a problem with the students themselves, rather than as the result of broader social or cultural issues (e.g., Sheldon et al. 2016).

While research in mathematics education identifies some features and behaviors of students – for example, ability, persistence, and affect – that can affect success, it has also become clear that success in school mathematics is influenced by far more than characteristics of the students themselves (Herzig 2004a, b; Lubienski and Ganley 2017). Some scholars have looked beyond characteristics of students to describe political, economic, social, and cultural contexts in which education is situated and how those contexts affect who succeeds (Apple 1992; Else-Quest et al. 2010; Gutiérrez 2013; Martin et al. 2017; Tate 1997).

In this essay, we examine social and cultural barriers, both within and surrounding mathematics, that affect who succeeds in mathematics, including (1) features of mathematics as it is represented in classrooms and (2) the way the broader society perceives mathematics, mathematical ability, and the students who succeed in math.

Features of Mathematics

Mathematics is often perceived, by both teachers and students, as a set of manipulations that lead to predetermined results or, at a more advanced level, as sequence of deductive proofs of clearly stated theorems. This abstraction of mathematics has little or no explicit connection to other mathematical ideas, ideas outside of mathematics, or the mathematical “big picture” (Herzig 2002, 2004b; Stage and Maple 1996). Some feminist scholars have challenged the predominance of abstraction in mathematics, arguing that abstraction in mathematics is a consequence of modern industrial society, which is based on the idea of separating things into manageable pieces, distinct from their context (Johnston 1995). This abstraction of mathematics denies the social nature of mathematics. In an abstract context like the one that is common in Western school mathematics, a quest for certain types of understanding can actually interfere with success, as when students look to understand, for example, What does this have to do with the world? With my world? With my life? (Johnston 1995). Of course, intuition, creativity, insight, and even trial-and-error give rise to important mathematics as well, and give meaning to the results (Burton 1999; Herzig 2002). Applications of mathematics are often included merely as demonstrations rather than as the meaning of mathematics itself. Also omitted are the political, economic, social, and personal contexts and applications, and the esthetics of mathematics that have inspired mathematicians, musicians, and visual artists (Montano 2014).

Perceptions of Mathematical Success

Building students’ sense of belongingness and engagement with mathematics has been proposed as a critical feature of an equitable education (Allexsaht-Snider and Hart 2001; Darragh 2013; Herzig 2002; Ladson-Billings 1997; Tate 1995). Allexsaht-Snider and Hart (2001) define belonging as “the extent to which each student senses that she or he belongs as an important and active participant” in mathematics (p. 97). A similar construct has been proposed at the post-secondary level, with several authors arguing belonging in the communities of practice of mathematics is important for student success and persistence (Herzig 2002, 2004a; Solomon 2007).

The way that mathematics students are perceived outside the classroom also affects students’ involvement and sense of belonging in mathematics (Campbell 1995; Damarin 2000). Noddings (1996) argued that

There seems to be something about [mathematics] or the way it is taught that attracts a significant number of young people with underdeveloped social skills…. If this impression of students who excel at math is inaccurate, researchers ought to produce evidence to dispel the notion, and teachers should help students to reject it. If it is true, math researchers and teachers should work even harder to make the “math crowd” more socially adept. Because that group so often tends to be exclusive, girls and minority youngsters may wonder whether they could ever be a part of it. But when the group is examined from a social perspective, many talented young people may question whether they want to be a part of it. (p. 611; italics in original)

As Noddings (1996) argued, mathematics educators need to find ways to make the social world of mathematics – its culture – more accessible to a broader range of people, and the world outside of mathematics needs to change its perception of those who succeed within it. Only then can more students, including females and people of color, find a way come to feel that they truly belong in some part of the mathematics world.
Damarin (2000) compared people with mathematical ability to “marked categories” such as women, people of color, criminals, people of disability, and people who identify as LGBTQ, and identified these characteristics:
  1. 1.

    Members of marked categories are ridiculed and maligned, and descriptions of marked categories are used to harass, tease, and discipline members of the larger society.

  2. 2.

    Members of marked categories are portrayed as incompetent in dealing with daily life.

  3. 3.

    In institutions designed to meet the needs of all, the needs of members of marked categories are deferred to the needs of the members of unmarked categories.

  4. 4.

    Members of marked categories are feared as powerful even as they are marked as powerless.

  5. 5.

    Explicit or social marking serves to define communities of the marked.

  6. 6.

    Membership in multiple marked categories places individuals in the margins of each marked community.

  7. 7.

    The study of a marked category leads to the construction and study of the complementary class of people.

  8. 8.

    The unmarked category is generally larger than the marked category; even when this is not the case, the marked category is not recognized as the majority (Damarin 2000, pp. 72–74).

Damarin then presents an analysis of discourses surrounding mathematical ability and concludes:

From leading journals of pubic intellectual discussion, from the analyses of sociologists of science, from the work of (genetic) scientists themselves, from the pages of daily papers, and from practices of students and adults within the wall[s] of our schools, there emerges and coalesces a discourse of mathematics ability as marking a form of deviance and the mathematically able as a category marked by the signs of this deviance. (p. 78)

Given the common perceptions of mathematics students as being white, male, childless, and socially inept, having few interests outside of mathematics, students who explicitly do not fit this description might conclude that they do not wish to fit in. Thus belonging in mathematics might not be an entirely good thing, as it “marks” a student as deviant and as socially inept. Herzig (2004b) found that some female graduate students described ways that they worked to distance themselves from some of these common constructions of ineptness and social deviance, which, paradoxically, led them to resist belonging in mathematics.

Damarin (2000) argued that membership in the deviant category provides the “deviant” with a community with which to affiliate: Being identified and marked as mathematically able encourages mathematics students to form a community among themselves – if there are enough of them and if they have the social facility needed. Unfortunately, females are members of (at least) two marked categories, and the double marking is not merely additive: That is, females are constructed as deviant as females separately within each marked category in which they are placed. Within mathematics, they are marked as females, but among females, their mathematical ability defines them as deviant. In particular, given common stereotypes of mathematics as a male domain, mathematical women are marked among mathematicians as not actually being mathematicians. For women of color, the marking is three-fold and even more complex, making women of color “deviant” within each of the communities to which they belong.

Researchers have described the phenomenon of stereotype threat (Steele and Aronson 1995), in which student achievement tends to mimic stereotypes (Hill et al. 2010; Nguyen and Ryan 2008). For example, female students who are reminded before a test of the stereotype that females perform more poorly than males, perform worse than those who did not receive a reminder (Spencer et al. 1999). In their review of research on gender in mathematics, Lubienski and Ganley (2017) cite conflicting evidence of the effect of stereotype threat on gender differences in mathematics, but theorize that more nuanced research may reveal ways in which stereotype threat affect specific populations or in specific contexts.


Educational scholarship has made great strides in understanding why mathematics has generally attracted certain types of students. Rather than studying what is different about women and minorities – groups that have typically been viewed as unsuccessful in mathematics – some scholarship now acknowledges and investigates cultural and societal contexts affecting the opportunities and performance for groups of people who have traditionally been underrepresented in mathematics. In addition, the literature has shown that students are most engaged in an educational environment that fosters belonging, which can be difficult for some students. The stereotypical views of mathematics students can make it particularly challenging for women and minorities to succeed. The mathematically capable may not wish to be socially or culturally marked as such due to common preconceived notions of mathematics students. However, by understanding the cultural and societal issues in mathematics learning, researchers and educators can begin to implement policies and strategies to create more accessible and equitable learning environments and atmospheres.



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Copyright information

© This is a U.S. Government work and not under copyright protection in the US; foreign copyright protection may apply 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Educational Theory and PracticeUniversity at AlbanyAlbanyUSA
  2. 2.Department of MathematicsUniversity of Northern IowaCedar FallsUSA

Section editors and affiliations

  • Bharath Sriraman
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of Mathematical SciencesThe University of MontanaMissoulaUSA