What are cultures?
In this paper, I will argue for two claims. First, there is no commonly agreed, unproblematic conception of culture for students of mathematical practices to use. Rather, there are many imperfect candidates. One reason for this diversity is there is a tension between the material and ideal aspects of culture that different conceptions manage in different ways. Second, normativity is unavoidable, even in those studies that attempt to use resolutely descriptive, value-neutral conceptions of culture. This is because our interest as researchers into mathematical practices is in the study of successful mathematical practices (or, in the case of mathematical education, practices that ought to be successful). I first distinguish normative conceptions of culture from descriptive or scientific conceptions. Having suggested that this distinction is in general unstable, I then consider the special case of mathematics. I take a cursory overview of the field of study of mathematical cultures, and suggest that it is less well developed than the number of books and conferences with the word ‘culture’ in their titles might suggest. Finally, I turn to two theorists of culture whose models have gained some traction in mathematics education: Gert Hofstede and Alan Bishop. Analysis of these two models corroborates (in so far as two instances can) the general claims of this paper that there is no escaping normativity in this field, and that there is no unproblematic conception of culture available for students of mathematical practices to use.