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The Sociopolitical Turn in

Mathematics Education

Rochelle Gutiérrez

University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Over the past decade, the mathematics education research community has incorpo-

rated more sociocultural perspectives into its ways of understanding and examining

teaching and learning. However, researchers who have a long history of addressing

anti-racism and social justice issues in mathematics have moved beyond this socio-

cultural view to espouse sociopolitical concepts and theories, highlighting identity

and power at play. This article highlights some promising conceptual tools from

critical theory (including critical race theory/Latcrit theory) and post-structuralism

and makes an argument for why taking the sociopolitical turn is important for both

researchers and practitioners. Potential benefits and challenges of this turn are also

discussed.

Key words: Equity/diversity; Race/ethnicity; SES; Social and cultural issues

We are at a moment in history when it is both very easy and very hard to attend

to identity and power issues in society. For many mathematics education

researchers, an emphasis on the social has already begun, causing us to rethink

such common terms as “learning.” This shift in thinking lays the foundation for

sociopolitical perspectives to inform education, to imagine new possibilities for

relationships between people, mathematics, and the globe (Gutiérrez, 2002). At

the same time, however, the research methodologies preferred in awarding grants

and the publication outlets used to evaluate tenure/promotion of faculty continue

to work against researchers taking risks in this arena. That is, focusing on issues

of identity and power do not easily translate into large-scale policy recommenda-

tions or prescriptions for practices in the classroom. Similarly, for educators, the

effects of a global society (e.g., the flow of goods and information) are present in

the learners who arrive in our mathematics classrooms every day. Who can ignore

the influence of media and technology on today’s youth? And yet, the standardiza-

tion of the curriculum and the focus on high stakes tests (at least in the United

States) leave teachers with little room to reflect upon how such students are

constructing themselves and being constructed with respect to mathematics. The

rush to move onto the next mathematical concept (or response to intervention

procedure) almost ensures we will not ask why this concept? Who benefits from

students learning this concept? What is missing from the mathematics classroom

because I am required to cover this concept? How are students’ identities implicated

in this focus? Indeed, we are at a moment in history where we have ready excuses

Journal for Research in Mathematics Education

2013, Vol. 44, No. 1, 37–68

Copyright © 2013 by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, Inc., www.nctm.org. All rights

reserved. This material may not be copied or distributed electronically or in other formats without written

permission from NCTM.

38 The Sociopolitical Turn in Mathematics Education

not to attend to issues of identity and power in mathematics education—after all,

what does power have to do with a rational, universal field like mathematics? Yet,

we are also at a time when not attending to identity and power means we are at best

fooling ourselves about future prospects and at worst likely to ensure that mathe-

matics education will be unable to realize its full potential for the 21st century.

FRAMING EQUITY

It is undeniable that “talk” of equity has become more mainstream in the math-

ematics education community. A look at the programs for the annual meetings of

the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, Association of Mathematics

Teacher Educators, National Council of Supervisors of Mathematics, and even the

International Study Group for the Psychology of Mathematics Education shows a

surge in themes and number of sessions devoted to understanding and promoting

increased participation and achievement in students who historically have been

marginalized by the school system. Moreover, the general public is firmly aware

of an “achievement gap” as the media has cashed in on headline-worthy findings

from the plethora of studies and related writings produced on the topic by indi-

viduals within and outside of mathematics education. Although the theoretical

framings of equity in mainstream mathematics education tend to reflect equality

rather than justice, static identities of teachers and students rather than multiple or

contradictory ones, and schooling rather than education (Gutiérrez, 2008a;

Gutiérrez & Dixon-Román, in press), the increased attention to equity-related

issues is palpable.

Alongside this heightened interest in equity is a parallel trend of wanting to

understand the social nature of teaching and learning. Sociocultural theories, once

seen as on the fringe of a mainly cognitive field, now take their place squarely

within mainstream mathematics education journals like JRME. Concepts such as

“communities of practice,” “learning as participation/belonging,” and “out-of-

school mathematics” are being used by researchers who do not necessarily identify

with an equity stance or concern for social justice/transformation. A shift toward

focusing on social issues has allowed us to uncover the importance of students and

teachers needing to belong to something larger and for changes in one’s identity to

serve as evidence of learning. That is, the concern for the individual (and related

cognitive functioning) no longer is the central point of learning or teaching under

a sociocultural lens. As such, it has opened doors for researchers to study classroom

culture, participation structures, socialization processes, and teacher professional

development in whole new ways. Today, meaning, thinking, and reasoning are seen

as products of social activity (Lerman, 2000). Teachers who long ago saw beyond

the utility of outside “experts” entering schools for a 1-day workshop on improving

student learning without first trying to understand the local context of teachers’

work can attest to the shift in thinking that now has the potential to position teachers

as internal experts who, in part, can professionally develop each other.

Even so, many researchers who have dedicated their work to understanding and

39

Rochelle Gutiérrez

advocating for anti-racism, social justice, and transformation have moved beyond

using the kinds of sociocultural tools that draw primarily from cultural psychology

to highlighting identity in social interactions; they privilege the voices of subordi-

nated groups and forefront the politics and power dynamics that arise from sites of

interaction. In this work, a shift has occurred from examining school structures and

institutions to examining discourses and social interactions. This is not just about

understanding students’ identities in some kind of developmental, linear trajectory,

or deterministic manner. It is about how identities are (re)constructed in spaces and

moments. In this work, questions shift from what do American Indian students

know/learn in mathematics to what forms of power and authority are enacted in

determining what American Indian students learn and from whose perspective do

American Indian students learn.

Just as a shift to sociocultural theories has led to new framings of persistent prob-

lems (and therefore potential solutions),1 so, too, do critical perspectives offer new

insights for researchers and practitioners. For example, research by feminist scholars

in the 1970s and 1980s highlighted the ways in which studying the problem of girls

engaging in mathematics needed to be turned on its head. It used to be common

practice that researchers concerned with gender inequities in mathematics education

would focus their efforts on such things as documenting the differences in achieve-

ment and learning strategies between boys and girls, exploring the cognitive strate-

gies that helped boys successfully negotiate the math classroom and the mathemat-

ical tasks they were presented, and describing the different levels and nature of

“confidence” between the genders. Such framings of the “problem” and associated

research methodologies produced findings and policies that basically amounted to

trying to get girls to become more like boys—something most people could now

recognize as far from equity. And yet, similar framings of the “problem” exist today

in mathematics education’s preoccupation with the achievement gap, indicating

much more work could benefit from adopting a sociopolitical perspective.

The purpose of this article is not to do an exhaustive review of the work that has

been done on identity and power issues in mathematics education.2 Rather, I intend

to highlight with selections what this sociopolitical turn means for mathematics

education and why taking such a turn might be fruitful for the field. I argue that it

is from the views of subordinated individuals and communities that we will learn

how to rethink mathematics education. Along the way, I will identify some of the

advantages and difficulties in adopting a sociopolitical frame of mind.

1See Ellis and Berry (2005) for an argument about how moving from a procedural–formalist para-

digm to a cognitive-cultural paradigm has inﬂuenced our understanding of reform mathematics—shift-

ing from questions of whether reforms work to what might such reforms entail?

2 For thorough reviews of the treatment of race, culture, and power in mathematics education, see

for example Diversity in Mathematics Education Center for Learning and Teaching (2007), Gutiérrez

(2002), Martin (2009), Mellin-Olsen (1987), Nasir, Hand, and Taylor (2008), Stinson (2008) and for

discussion and for examples of post-structuralism/postmodernism in mathematics education, see

Brown (1994), Brown and McNamara (2005), Ernest (1994, 2004), Stinson (2006, 2008, 2013), and

Walshaw (2001, 2004, 2007, 2013).

40 The Sociopolitical Turn in Mathematics Education

WHAT IS THE SOCIOPOLITICAL TURN IN

MATHEMATICS EDUCATION?

A shift in view to include sociocultural theories is partly what Stephen Lerman

(2000) was referring to in his argument that mathematics education has made the

social turn. Lerman suggests that the origins of this social turn are in three general

fields outside of mathematics education—anthropology (from, e.g., Lave), soci-

ology (from, e.g., Walkerdine), and cultural psychology (from Nuñes; Crawford).

For these researchers, knowledge and identity are intricately linked and situated in

specific practices.

At the time, Lerman’s meaning of the term “social” went beyond the layman’s

definition of involving social beings and interactions and included the conse-

quences for addressing hegemony in society. However, not all projects drawing on

sociocultural concepts today address issues of power.3 In fact, several scholars have

clearly demarcated research that is sociocultural (with underlying goals of encul-

turation) from that which is political (with underlying goals of emancipation).4

Regardless of the focus of a research project, the fact that mathematics is a human

practice means it is inherently political, rife with issues of domination and power,

just like any other human practice. So, while many mathematics educators are

comfortable with including social and cultural aspects in their work, most are not

so willing to acknowledge that teaching and learning mathematics are not politi-

cally neutral activities.

I use the term sociopolitical turn to reference a growing body of researchers and

practitioners who seek to foreground the political and to engage in the tensions that

surround that work. The sociopolitical turn signals the shift in theoretical perspec-

tives that see knowledge, power, and identity as interwoven and arising from (and

constituted within) social discourses. Adopting such a stance means uncovering the

taken-for-granted rules and ways of operating that privilege some individuals and

exclude others. Those who have taken the sociopolitical turn seek not just to better

understand mathematics education in all of its social forms but to transform math-

ematics education in ways that privilege more socially just practices.

A variety of perspectives can be considered part of the sociopolitical turn. Here

I discuss three that have garnered greater attention in mathematics education in the

past decade. Regardless of whether researchers name these theoretical perspectives

as such, it is in adopting the stance that politics are always present that is key.

CRITICAL MATHEMATICS EDUCATION

Critical theory, with its roots in the Frankfurt School, has influenced greatly the

development of critical pedagogy and resulting forms in mathematics education:

3For example, Atweh et al. (2001) cluster psychological, political, and social perspectives in one

section.

4See, for example, Greer, Mukhopadhyay, Powell, and Nelson-Barber (2009), Mukhopadhyay and

Greer (2001), Valero (2004), and Walshaw (2007).

41

Rochelle Gutiérrez

critical mathematics education (Frankenstein, 1989, 1990, 1995, 2009; Powell &

Brantlinger, 2008; Skovsmose, 1994, 2004) and social justice mathematics educa-

tion (Gutstein, 2003; 2006). Two of the main goals of critical mathematics are to

(1) develop within learners “conscientizacao” (a kind of political awareness) that

allows an individual to recognize her or his position in society and as a part of

history (Freire, 1987) and (2) motivate individuals to action. Conscientizacao is

produced through one’s ability to analyze society from a political point of view,

incorporating that view into one’s identity, and being able to identify injustices in

the world. In mathematics, this has translated into learners being able to make sense

of data in ways that help them see the humanity behind the numbers and to use

mathematics as a tool for exposing and analyzing injustices in society and as a

means for convincing others of a particular (often nondominant) point of view.

In this line of work, the meanings that students make of quantitative data are

partly influenced by the forms of quantitative data presented (Frankenstein, 2007).

Learners as active inquirers and participants in a problem-posing dialogue are

important parts of critical mathematics education. Through dialogue, learners are

given opportunities to express themselves and act on their knowledge. In this way,

students are offered a greater number of choices in how they can interact as citizens.

Much has been written in this area in mathematics education lately, especially as

it pertains to curricular reform (e.g., social justice mathematics projects), however,

the field continues to evolve to consider broader notions of pedagogy and stance

(Gregson, 2007, 2008; Gutstein, 2006; Powell & Brantlinger, 2008). Moreover,

practitioners and researchers who seek to understand their place both in society and

history and aim to challenge the status quo reflect the growing field of critical

mathematics education.

CRITICAL RACE THEORY AND LATCRIT THEORY

Although many forms of hegemony exist in our global society, racism is a

particularly prominent form in the United States, with a long history of positioning

African Americans, Latin@s,5 and American Indians as inferior and/or deviant.6

As such, some scholars have found an explicit focus on race/racism/racialization

(not just social justice) important to their research endeavors, applying conceptual

tools from critical race theory (CRT) (Ladson-Billings & Tate, 1995) and critical

studies. Education scholars outside mathematics have long highlighted the ways

in which racism operates at many levels: individual, institutional, societal, and

5 I use the @ sign to indicate both an “a” and “o” ending (Latina and Latino). The presence of both

an “a” and “o” ending decenters the patriarchal nature of the Spanish language where is it customary

for groups of males (Latinos) and females (Latinas) to be written in the form that denotes only males

(Latinos). The term is written Latin@ with the “a” and “o” intertwined, as opposed to Latina/Latino,

as a sign of solidarity with individuals who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, questioning,

and queer (LGBTQ).

6 Latin@s now outnumber African Americans as the largest “minority” group in the United States

(US Census Bureau, 2010); the growing number of mixed-race individuals is shifting the dialogue on

the relationship between race and identity.

42 The Sociopolitical Turn in Mathematics Education

global/epistemological (Scheurich & Young, 1997). Drawing from Matsuda et al.

(1993), Dixon and Rousseau (2006) offer some central tenets of CRT, including

recognizing that racism is endemic to American life; rejecting dominant legal

claims of neutrality, meritocracy, and objectivity; maintaining an interdisciplinary

grounding; requiring a contextual/historical analysis; assuming racism contributes

to the construction of dis/advantage that people experience in society; attending to

the experiential knowledge that people of color have; and seeking to end racism.

CRT seeks to privilege the voices of scholars of color and the experiences of

students and teachers and to work against popular discourses that suggest such

experiences are subjective, illegitimate, or biased. As such, common conceptual

tools are counter-narratives and storytelling. In 2005, Dixon and Rousseau

suggested that even 10 years after the introduction of CRT into education, efforts

to operationalize the conceptual tools for understanding and deconstructing race

in society are only slowly developing. Yet, over the past few years, a growing interest

in mathematics education has emerged.7

Latin@ critical theory, also known as LatCrit theory, is similar to critical race

theory in its goals of transformational resistance. However, LatCrit theory also

focuses squarely on the relationships between racism and other forms of subordina-

tion: through sexuality, language, immigration status, and phenotype (Solórzano &

Delgado Bernal, 2001; Bernal, 2002; López, 2006). In LatCrit theory, transforma-

tional resistance can occur in the form of big acts, such as protests that create soli-

darity in a movement or in small acts that help validate one’s worth and dignity when

feeling oppressed (e.g., speaking out at a public meeting, telling oneself that an

administrator does not speak for you or some “natural” order of things). A key aspect

here is that resistance does not necessarily mean a person acts in a way that is visible

or that presumes a lack of participation in schooling (Davidson, 1997; Fernández,

2002; Flores & Garcia, 2009). For those using LatCrit theory, social activism is an

important part of education and testimonios form the basis of the stories that people

tell about themselves. Similar approaches considering other intersections include

Femcrit, Tribalcrit, Asiancrit, and Whitecrit. In all of these CRT forms, there is

acknowledgement that ranking the oppressions is not the goal (Yosso, 2005).

Although a plethora of writings have not been produced within mathematics

education using a CRT framework, those who do draw on a CRT or LatCrit frame-

work in education offer convincing claims about the value of deconstructing race/

racism in particular as a means to highlight whiteness as property and its relation

to “normality,” to value the strategies and strengths of people of color, to highlight

community wealth, and to challenge commonly held beliefs about a racial hierarchy

or a neutral society.

7For a more comprehensive look at the causes, consequences and manifestations of race, racism, in-

equity, and the dynamics of power and privilege in schooling, see Dixon and Rousseau (2006); Parker

(1999); and Taylor, Gillborn, and Ladson-Billings. (2009)For speciﬁc connections to mathematics

using a CRT framework, see for example, Berry (2008), Martin (2009), Rousseau and Tate (2003),

and Stinson (2008).

43

Rochelle Gutiérrez

POST-STRUCTURALISM

Although many mathematics educators have heard of critical and social justice

mathematics and possibly critical race theories, fewer are likely to be familiar with

post-structuralism. Yet, post-structuralism offers additional theoretical tools for

those who have adopted a sociopolitical stance. Aligned with sociocultural theories,

a post-structuralist view considers the individual not as the source of his or her own

meaning, reasoning, knowledge, and action, but rather, as a product of discourses

(Foucault, 1977, 1980; Peters & Burbules, 2004; Walshaw, 2007). That is, the mean-

ings that people make of themselves and of their world are the result of the political

struggles they undergo as they negotiate discourses. Here, discourses mean much

more than talking and words. Discourses include institutions, actions, words, and

taken-for-granted ways of interacting and operating. So, in some ways, discourses

can be thought of more like paradigms in which we operate. Discourses reflect a

particular point in history, including specific relationships between people, knowl-

edge, and agency; they come to define what we think of as “normal.” For example,

the achievement gap is one kind of discourse that is prominent in U.S. mathematics

education today. It is what people take as the normal state of things because it has

been repeated and reported upon in so many ways.

The importance of understanding discourses in this way is that they produce

“truths.” They do not just reflect some natural order of the world; rather they

structure the world. Take, for example, the notion of “success” that is used in

reference to students. Most mathematics education researchers and practitioners

would agree that one driving force in our work is for students to be successful. Yet,

what constitutes success is largely driven by discourses of achievement and profi-

ciency on standardized exams, tangible outcomes that can be measured in some

way. A post-structuralist view works against singular meanings and truths such

that concepts like “success,” “proficiency,” “achievement gap,” even “mathe-

matics” are now open for debate. Unless learners and practitioners have the means

to challenge these discourses or re-inscribe them with other meanings, they can

come to believe they are successful or unsuccessful based on the discourses that

operate in schooling practices. As such, they may evaluate themselves (often

unconsciously), perhaps even rein in particular behaviors so as to be in line with

what we think of as habits of successful learners or practitioners (a form of internal

surveillance) (Foucault, 1977). Rarely do our definitions of success include self-

actualization—the idea that we should be allowed to become better people by our

own definitions, not just those prescribed by schooling. That is partly why discus-

sions of identity and power are so important—because the goals we have for

students may be disconnected from the ways in which they see themselves now or

in the future. And, yet, even in constructing and privileging certain truths over

other possible ones, discourses are malleable—subject to outright rejection or

(re)inscription (Butler, 1999).

That is, teachers who have adopted a sociopolitical stance may decide not to judge

their success only on whether they close the achievement gap (Gutiérrez, 2009) but

also look for ways in which students are being creative and imaginative when doing

44 The Sociopolitical Turn in Mathematics Education

mathematics or for when students see a more positive relationship between them-

selves, mathematics, and their futures. One difference in the way discourse is

interpreted by Foucault is that unlike other theories that imply an overarching

metanarrative, where people are oppressed by the narrative, post-structuralism

ascribes more agency to individuals in recreating or shifting meanings of the

discourse.

From a post-structuralist point of view, knowledge and power are inextricably

linked. That is, because the production of knowledge reflects the society in which

it is created, it brings with it the power relations that are part of society. What counts

as knowledge, how we come to “know” things, and who is privileged in the process

are all part and parcel of issues of power. Here, power is not a possession but is

circulated in and through discourses. Educational practices allow for particular

forms of knowledge to be produced, thereby determining legitimate participation.8

For example, when schools demarcate which algorithms are valid when learners

are asked to show their work, the practice can lead to immigrant students discounting

the knowledge of their parents who have learned mathematics in other countries,

even if those “foreign” algorithms are correct.

SOCIOPOLITICAL CONCEPTIONS OF IDENTITY AND POWER

One might ask: why the fuss about identity and power if those terms are already

starting to be used in mainstream mathematics education? Don’t all teachers want

to empower their students and doesn’t that require at some point attending to their

identities? The answer lies partly in who defines these terms, how these terms are

being used, and for what purposes. That is, these terms mean different things to

different people, partly because people have different reasons for including them

in their research and everyday work.

Identity

The term identity in mainstream mathematics education research often is used

to mean a cultural marker of students or teachers. Many mathematics education

researchers like to describe a study as taking place in a context that has some

meaning because of the learners who are served. They might say something like,

“This project is a case study of one teacher’s approach to engaging her Filipino

students in reform mathematics.” However, in many cases, what it means to be

Filipin@; how students’ interpret the data or make meaning of classroom practices;

how students are positioned in mathematical practices; and how this teacher and

her students fit into a broader discourse about the politics of language, racism,

sexism, and teaching and learning at this particular point in history are issues that

are never discussed.9 Instead, researchers might move on to examine the specific

8For a good introduction to post-structuralist accounts of mathematics education, see Walkerdine

(1988), and Walshaw (2004, 2007).

45

Rochelle Gutiérrez

practices the teacher uses to teach and perhaps the meanings those practices hold

for that teacher, offering findings and potential implications for future research and

teaching.

If the teacher is “successful” and students learn the requisite mathematical

concepts, the authors of such research might conclude that these particular teaching

practices are useful for other teachers of Filipino students. If the teacher is unsuc-

cessful, the authors might focus on the injustice of such practices, the subordination

of students in the process of schooling, and students’ unfair access to “high-quality”

teachers. For those who embody a sociopolitical stance, both of these major claims

may have some merit but also reflect several flaws in research, particularly seeing

identity as a fixed, overarching metanarrative, owned by the individual.

The important point is that a sociopolitical perspective challenges whether the

identities presented in the research project align with the ways in which educators

and/or learners who are participants in the project would choose to describe them-

selves. In different contexts and at different moments, Filipin@ learners and their

teachers may find other features of their identities more salient to their work or

interactions with others.

As previously mentioned, these terms, once introduced, can end up serving as

nothing more than a classification system, a common trend in research that employs

an achievement gap lens (William, 2003). More often than not, these dividing

practices make it difficult to see points of solidarity. What is hidden in using

ethnicity to signify identity is who gets to decide how identity is being defined and

employed. Moreover, by continuing to use static cultural markers, many mathe-

matics education researchers are complicit in the practice of constructing brown

and black bodies in a deficit and overly simplistic manner.

In contrast to this view, researchers and practitioners who espouse a sociopolitical

frame of mind (in particular post-structuralists) see identity as something you do,

not something you are. This kind of performativity (Butler, 1999) occurs because

all learning and knowledge is situated in social interaction. That is, an individual’s

identity is partly in his or her control and partly in the hands of others who seek to

define/create/act themselves. As an individual, I can project a particular image of

myself by the things I say (to myself and others) and the ways I interact, but others

also participate in my identity by interpreting (through their own lenses) the mean-

ings of my words and actions.

Within mathematics education, Sfard and Prusak (2005) make distinctions

between actual and designated selves, suggesting that the goal in learning should

be to narrow the gap between these two selves. Yet, to the uncareful reader, the term

“actual” self can imply a kind of truth about the self. In fact, the “self ” and “other”

are co-constitutive (Anzaldúa, 1987; Buber, 1970). I find the work in Latin@

studies to be more useful in this arena.

9The question of what it means to be Filipin@ is important. In México, the mix of Spanish and in-

digenous blood is considered Mestizo while that same mixture of Spanish and indigenous blood in the

Philippines is considered Asian (Rodriguez, 2003, p. 15).

46 The Sociopolitical Turn in Mathematics Education

Norma Alarcón (1996) refers to the “subject in process” to capture how margin-

alized people reject a determined/predictable identity. For Alarcón, an individual

is always in development, but not in a linear or unidirectional way. There is no

beginning or end. For Chela Sandoval (1991) these “tactical subjectivities,” where

Mestizas negotiate between and amongst the different narratives that are being

written about them, create a “differential consciousness”—a shattering of the

unitary self, a space that maintains contradictions and ambiguity, thereby allowing

a mobile form of identity to take hold. Similarly, for Anzaldúa (1987), the “herencia

de Coatlicue” (ongoing state/process of breaking free from the old boundaries of

oneself to develop new ones) is an important process in the creation of self. That

is, groups need to constantly highlight the differences between themselves and

others to create collectivity while also bridging those differences so as to avoid

further oppression. In mathematics education we recognize that learners, practitio-

ners, and researchers are constantly creating themselves—writing themselves into

the space of education and society as well as drawing upon and reacting to those

constructions.

Because individuals participate in varying communities and discourses over time,

identity is necessarily dynamic, multivocal, even occasionally contradictory. The

self, therefore, is a collection of interconnected identities constituted in practices

such that any given practice positions an individual through and in race, class,

ethnicity, sexuality, gender, religion, language, and so forth. For example, I am a

Chicana10 researcher, mother of three children in the public schools, wife, daughter,

vegetarian, bilingual citizen, yoga enthusiast, teacher-educator, activist, and so on.

None of these identities are mutually exclusive or completely overlapping. Even

given this multivocality, a person’s sense of self is tied up in the discourses that he

or she participates in (historically and in present day), a kind of amalgamation in

an ongoing process. So, things that have occurred in a person’s past are not discon-

nected from the present or the imagined future.

The importance of all of these views is that the individual is both greatly influ-

enced by and greatly influences the taken-for-granted rules and institutions in

mathematics education. In terms of broader politics, identity does not just happen,

it happens for a reason. As mathematics education researchers, we need to ask:

under what circumstances are identities (e.g., of learners, educators, families,

communities) constructed, and whose interests do those identities serve?

Pow er

Just as identity has taken on many meanings in mathematics education, so, too,

has power. For many in mainstream mathematics education, power is related to one

of two major constructs: (1) the power of mathematics or (2) the power associated

with being successful in mathematics. The first of these two ideas, the utilitarian

10 The term Chicana reﬂects a political stance and refers to persons of indigenous origin who claim

their homeland (Aztlán) in the southwest United States and northern part of México before the U.S./

Mexico border was constructed. I did not cross the border; the border crossed me.

47

Rochelle Gutiérrez

view of mathematics, is implied in many policy documents and curricular text-

books. The argument goes something like this: mathematics, as a rational,

universal, and logical discipline is located in a unique position to be the ultimate

arbiter of truth. Its ability to model the real world and to maintain a kind of internal

certainty gives evidence of this privileged and earned position. Something proven

with mathematics is seen to have final say. This concept of power is the foundation

of assertions that learning mathematics gives students power in society (Malloy,

2002). It is as if mathematics carries with it something separate from humans that

can be conveyed to individuals, thereby affording them a more powerful view of

the world.11

Because mathematics has been constructed in society as a valued, high-status

field, arguments that are not mathematizable are easily dismissed. Such arguments

are said to be charged with politics, ideologies, and personal interests. Yet, those

who have adopted a sociopolitical stance in their work recognize that it is this

mathematical formatting (Christensen, Skovsmose, & Yasukawa, 2008; Skovsmose,

2004), reducing a phenomenon to its primary (measurable) characteristics, that

erases part of reality, leaving it a fiction. This fiction then becomes the means for

domination. Elsewhere I have argued that rather than perpetuating the idea that

mathematics has an intrinsic power, we might want citizens to develop the ability

to discern for themselves which kinds of questions can be answered using mathe-

matics and which cannot (Gutiérrez & Dixon-Román, in press). By thinking criti-

cally about the benefits of and drawbacks to formatting realities with mathematics,

we might be more deliberate in how and when we want to use/create mathematics

in our everyday lives.

Another version of power often used in mathematics education research relates

to the status conferred on those who are successful at mathematics. That is, just as

mathematics is often perceived as an arbiter of truth, it follows that an individual

who masters the discipline should be imbued with a sense of higher esteem, intel-

ligence, and, for recent immigrants, even “insider” status (Sfard & Prusak, 2005).

With the ability myth strong in the United States, most citizens who do not meet

with success in mathematics early in their lives assume they just are not smart

enough to have mastered it. Schooling tends to perpetuate the discourse that some

people are good at mathematics while others are not by tracking students into

particular forms of mathematical practices based upon perceived ability and high-

lighting the winners of the system as evidence that the system works. This gate-

keeping view of mathematics is present in the many forms of testing and creden-

tialing that are used in further schooling and work. An individual who is interested

in pursuing graduate work in the arts and humanities must take an exam that

evaluates analytic and quantitative reasoning skills in addition to reading compre-

hension. High scores on the analytic and quantitative portions of an exam can confer

11I do not mean to imply that learning mathematics does not offer a different view of the world.

However, that view is partly tied up in the practices and meanings that are associated with doing math-

ematics for any given individual. There is no “absolute” form of mathematics that can be transferred

to others.

48 The Sociopolitical Turn in Mathematics Education

intelligence, even if not seen to relate to an individual’s f ield of study. And yet,

those in mathematics-related fields are not required to show the same levels of

competence in fields like English or reading comprehension.

In both of these definitions of power, it is a tangible thing that is conveyed to an

individual through a process, often learning. The fact that mathematics in these two

definitions is all positive and unchanging is never questioned in many projects

involving mathematics education. Teachers are often unknowingly complicit in this

arrangement that assumes mathematics provides a useful tool that all students should

want (or need) to learn. Although some educators may claim there is inherent beauty

in mathematics, for example making things in the world visible that without math-

ematics are not, students do not always see that mathematics is beautiful in this way.

More often than not, school mathematics serves to obscure things that otherwise

were previously visible to them. Even projects that focus squarely on equity issues

in mathematics education often have an underlying deficit perspective in terms of

trying to get more (and different kinds of) students to learn mathematics. Elsewhere,

I have referred to this perspective as “people need math” and have countered that

claim by suggesting that, in fact, “math needs people” (Gutiérrez, 2002, 2008b).12

However, a sociopolitical frame of mind challenges these two (and other) popular

definitions of power in mathematics education. Researchers concerned with the

philosophy and sociology of mathematics have made convincing arguments against

a rational, universal logic that allows mathematics to operate outside of individuals,

morals, or power relations (Clarke, 2001; Ernest, 1994, 2004; Fitzsimmons, 2002;

Restivo, 1992, 2007). Even mathematicians, when asked, offer a multitude of defi-

nitions of mathematics, including definitions that recognize human nature in its

creation (Burton & Morgan, 2000). By highlighting the fact that mathematics as a

research field is constantly changing and allows for contradictions (e.g., catastrophe

and chaos theory, undecidability, uncertainty, and fuzzy logic) researchers in this

area have started to raise questions about the very nature of mathematics (not just

mathematics education) and its relation to power.13

Moreover, those who espouse sociopolitical perspectives tend to move beyond

Marxist views of power operating from above, power as the possession of specific

individuals or groups (Yosso, 2005), or power as controlling individuals in some

kind of predetermined manner (McCarthy, Crichlow, Dimitriadis, & Dolby, 2005).

In fact, because power relations are part of our everyday lives, we participate in the

construction and circulation of power.

These sociopolitical definitions of identity and power offer an important move

against the kinds of binary categories that have proven problematic in the past. It

is overly simplistic to conclude that either students learn or are alienated; either

12 See also Walkerdine (1988) for how this perspective relates to rationality and the subordination

of girls.

13 See for example, Borba and Skovsmose (1997) as well as Skovsmose and Valero (2001) for a good

discussion of this underlying myth of a utilitarian mathematics and D’Ambrosio (1990, 2006), Powell

and Frankenstein (1998), and Gutiérrez (2002) for a discussion of a more humanizing mathematics.

49

Rochelle Gutiérrez

teachers are complicit in the racist practices of schooling or they are not. For

example, in recognizing that identity is produced through power relations, that it is

an ongoing act of cultural production, and that power is not the sole property of

one group opens up opportunities for us to see how learners and educators

constantly shape shift, how they come to define mathematics teaching and learning,

and how they can adopt lines of solidarity and responsibility for one another. The

intention of creating solidarity can be carried out without ignoring the material

realities of society and a schooling system based on capitalism. For example,

because the process of racialization is relational (i.e., one is always positioned with

respect to others), research that investigates the ways that African American,

Latin@, and American Indian students are raced/positioned opens the door for us

to see that all students are raced/positioned. As such, a focus on identity and power

is appropriate for understanding and improving the conditions not just for margin-

alized students, but for all students.

So, a study of African American preservice mathematics teachers learning to

teach social justice curriculum projects does not address identity because these

teachers are introduced as African American. Naming these teachers as African

American presents the danger of reinscribing static categories. For identity to be

taken seriously, we must also see some analysis with respect to how they are posi-

tioned in doing this work, how they position themselves in doing this work, and

what meanings they ascribe to the work that they do. That is, how is being African

American and teaching social justice mathematics for these particular teachers

different from other teachers engaged in similar activities? How do their students’

identities interact with and inform the teachers’ identities and practices? How does

teaching as an African American educator at this point in history inform and make

salient particular aspects of one’s identity?

Furthermore, the fact that these teachers are learning to teach social justice

projects (a practice that theoretically seeks to transform) does not automatically

mean this study is addressing power. Again, some level of investigation must be

taken to unveil how power operates in this setting. If the teachers are learning this

curriculum in an uncritical manner; if their definitions or interpretations of social

justice are merely content-oriented and fail to privilege the voices of their students

or result in different interactions between students in the classroom; if local

contexts are not investigated or reflected in the work; if learners are positioned as

“consumers” of the social justice projects or the teacher’s ideology; then power

may be operating in the study as little more than an empty signifier, a place holder

for later recommendations, not being created discursively through practices.

A more fluid notion of identity allows for me, as a Chicana at this point in

history, to use my Spanish language as a public act, as a form of opposition to the

English-only movement in the United States, even while fully recognizing that

Spanish was the language used to colonize my Raramuri-speaking, Tarahumara

great-grandparents. Clear lines of “oppressor” and “oppressed” are blurred if power

is not something that is owned by a particular group or enforced from above. The

very language that was once wielded against my ancestors I now use to challenge

the politics of language. Again, it is possible for individuals to play the game while

50 The Sociopolitical Turn in Mathematics Education

also changing it; learners and practitioners do it all the time.

Three useful concepts are brought forward from critical studies when one adopts

a sociopolitical stance: transparency, subjectivity, and agency/voice. Transparency

refers to the process of making the familiar seem strange, deconstructing the

operating paradigms, and making the taken-for-granted rules of the game more

explicit. Making dominant discourses more apparent is a necessary step toward

both recognizing how those discourses dis/advantage individuals and in chal-

lenging those discourses and their associated practices so as to put new ones into

place. For example, deconstructing the notion of “empowering students” to show

that it relies on a definition of raising test scores, not self-actualization, means

being able to recognize that there may be a space for educators to incorporate into

their goals definitions of futures that students envision for themselves. In this

sense, deconstruction is a useful process, as it highlights the ways in which current

realities are not necessarily the only, or the most natural, of those that could be

constructed (e.g., we could have a very different evaluation system in place for

students, teachers, and researchers). Similarly, by highlighting that society is set

up with whiteness as a norm, it offers greater perspective for understanding how

whites, without doing anything, are privileged and can feel normal in their

everyday practices while people of color are disadvantaged. Deconstructing social

discourses like “whiteness as normal” or “whiteness as neutral” also highlights

the fact that negotiating whiteness for people of color (beyond learning how to

“pass”) requires additional skills/strengths/sensibilities, practices that often are

not seen or valued. The same could be said around issues of gender/sexuality,

religion, (dis)ability, and language.

Subjectivity is also an important concept for many who adopt a sociopolitical

stance, highlighting the idea that individuals are not fixed, that they defy catego-

ries. Recognizing that individuals are constantly in the making, internally multi-

vocal, and contradictory is necessary for seeing the collection of identities that

they bring to bear on the enterprise of mathematics education. This complexity is

useful if we are to move beyond the kinds of list-generating and dividing practices

that are tempting in education. Such lists (e.g., of effective teaching of English

learners) work against the professionalization of teachers and the dignity of

students in a global society. No two students are identical; the same could be said

of teachers. In fact, individuals are positioned within practices that construct them.

When teachers are expected to follow a prescribed way of interacting with students

because they fit a particular category of identity, in essence they are under surveil-

lance (Foucault, 1980), a kind of external and internal monitoring that goes against

their ability to remain sensitive to the needs of particular students and the relation-

ships they create with them. That is not to say that researchers and practitioners

cannot learn from previous research that has been conducted where students like

theirs have excelled. It is only to say that this kind of knowledge must be tempered

by their successful experiences and their deep connections with students.

A third useful concept, agency/voice, arises for those who espouse a sociopo-

litical viewpoint in their work within mathematics education. When individuals

51

Rochelle Gutiérrez

are seen as enacting their identities and actively negotiating schooling, we are able

to view the mathematics classroom as more than a site for enculturation or social

reproduction. That is, while researchers and practitioners have their own agendas,

these agendas are constantly in negotiation with the needs of others and the mean-

ings they place on circulating discourses. Any teacher who has attempted to imple-

ment a reform-oriented curriculum can tell you that students do not simply follow

along because the teacher is the authority in the classroom. Similarly, while policy

documents can promote a particular discourse in mathematics education, alone

they are not capable of determining the meanings or actions that will ensue. If

parents, teachers, administrators, and researchers did not have agency, the

Principles and Standards for School Mathematics as put forth by the governing

professional organization (National Council of Teachers of Mathematics) would

be followed in every U.S. school. That simply is not the case. So, where power

arises in discourses, it also serves as a site for resistance.

WHAT DO WE GAIN BY TAKING THE SOCIOPOLITICAL TURN?

Just as adopting sociocultural views helped us challenge widely held notions of

“learning” and “participation,” adopting sociopolitical views offers the ability to

rethink terms such as “mathematics,” “who is good in mathematics,” “the role of

resistance in relation to dominant circles,” and “quality teachers.” The process of

deconstruction is particularly useful to expose current practices/knowledges/

categories as socially constructed in a particular point in history. Doing so opens

up new possibilities—new views on learners and educators, new arrangements

within/beyond school upon which we can act. Although many gains are offered

by taking on a sociopolitical stance, I focus on a few here in hopes of further

grounding my argument.

Beyond Essentialization

It is important to highlight the features of practice that coincide with certain kinds

of students engaging/succeeding in school mathematics (and this form is much

more productive than focusing on failure and/or disengagement). However, a socio-

political lens helps us recognize the danger of perpetuating the view that students

that share home language, nation of origin, gender/sexuality, ethnicity, or other

features of culture are basically all the same.

Essentialization, reducing a group to a single characteristic that seeks to convey

the essence of that group, goes against the very idea of creating meaningful bonds

with students through shared interaction. Yet many well-meaning teachers and

administrators who seek to connect with their students unknowingly rely upon

distilled versions of a culture or background.

Let me be clear. I do not mean to imply that reading about successful teaching

practices with population X is not useful for helping practitioners begin to develop

a better appreciation for the ways in which they can support such students. However,

because identity is fluid, complex, multivocal, and contradictory, researchers and

52 The Sociopolitical Turn in Mathematics Education

practitioners who adopt a sociopolitical stance also recognize that a research study

can offer only one representation in a particular point in time and in a particular

context. Researchers employing a sociopolitical lens who advocate for English

learners, students with disabilities, or recent immigrants generally acknowledge

the tensions of creating knowledge that builds upon previous work and informs the

field while also not implicitly conveying that all English learners, students with

disabilities, or immigrant students are the same.

The position of the researcher, the research methodologies employed, along with

the kinds of questions asked highly influence the nature of “findings” that any study

can produce. Without the voices of marginalized people commenting on their

interpretations of the mathematical practices in which they are engaged, we are

unlikely to fully understand the possibilities of other arrangements in mathematics

education. Equally important, recognizing that identity is something that an indi-

vidual does, not is, opens the door for learners and educators to (re)produce,

(re)signify, and (re)use the operating paradigm for their own purposes.

Beyond Victimization

If power is not something that is wielded against people by other individuals,

but rather institutionalized in discourses, then students who have been marginal-

ized by society have the ability to construct a counter narrative (either through

voice or actions) that justifies their position and affirms their self-worth. We have

to remember that learners, like educators, are fairly sophisticated. They do not

merely succumb to the framings that others cast upon them. All individuals

(students, teachers, administrators, family members) negotiate the education

context; some are merely more effective/resourceful at it than others, given their

intentions. So, while we should be concerned that students could be forced to

assimilate into a particular way of interacting in a classroom in order to participate,

a sociopolitical perspective can also show us that just because a student is partic-

ipating in ways that we ascribe to “successful students” does not necessarily mean

that student buys into deficit notions of kids who do not participate in the same

manner. Nor do students necessarily define themselves based solely on how well

their behaviors or grades correlate with discourses on the achievement gap

(McGee, 2009; Stinson, 2010).

Resistance is often thought of as fairly one-dimensional. That is, when school is

seen as the site of social and political struggle, students who resist authority and the

reproductive role of schooling in a capitalist society end up sacrificing participation

in learning (Willis, 1981). Unfortunately, this is the kind of thinking that leads people

to buy into such discourses as “the burden of acting white.” Yet we learn from

conceptual tools like counter narratives, subversion, testimonios, and resignification

that resistance exists in forms that are not easily unearthed in interviews or classroom

observations and, perhaps more important, that exercising agency does not neces-

sarily mean choosing to fail. Students can knowingly play the game without letting

the game define them. They do not do this individually, but rather as part of a larger

group of people who are (re)writing society and education.

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Rochelle Gutiérrez

Educators who take a sociopolitical stance recognize that mathematics education

is identity work. Learners are always positioning themselves with respect to the

doing of mathematics, their peers, their sense of themselves and their communities,

and their futures. So, when an astute teacher sees that a student is not doing what

is expected in the mathematics classroom, the teacher can recognize that the reason

for this unexpected activity is connected to identity-in-the-making: resisting narra-

tives that position the student as inferior, unworthy, abnormal, or on the margins of

the local (e.g., classroom) culture. Savvy teachers can then use this understanding

to think about how to be empathetic toward students who are doing this self-

protective work and to think about how to better support students negotiating the

mathematics classroom (e.g., opening up the range of identities), without

prescribing the kinds of identities that are seen as valid.

Challenges Common Notions of Teacher Quality

As American researchers and policy makers race to close the “achievement gap,”

greater emphasis on mathematical knowledge for teaching has taken hold (Ball,

Thames, & Phelps, 2008; Hill, Rowan, & Ball, 2005; Hill, Sleep, Lewis, & Ball,

2007). School districts and teacher education programs are investing in profes-

sional development of teachers, the underlying theory being that the main problem

with student learning is that their teachers do not know their mathematics in deep

enough or flexible enough ways. What is lacking in these approaches is a model

of teacher development that includes giving teachers the skills to form a deep

connection to students and political knowledge: negotiating the world of high-

stakes testing and standardization, connecting with and explaining mathematics

to community members and district officials, and buffering themselves, rein-

venting, or subverting the system to be an advocate for their students (Gutiérrez,

in preparation).

I recently gave a talk to a large audience of researchers and practitioners on the

dangers of using an achievement gap lens in mathematics education. One

gentleman in the audience, an administrator, talked about a number of things he

had tried in his district to improve mathematics scores over the years and eventu-

ally decided it was time to focus on some diversity training, rather than more

mathematics professional development. I would argue that he was on the right

track. Too often, we develop categories of “effective mathematics teachers” or

“high-quality mathematics teachers” strictly around lines of mathematics or

narrow versions of pedagogy, failing to fully capture the dispositions, social inter-

actions, and commitments to advocacy that go hand in hand with the very practices

necessary for supporting marginalized students in mathematics—challenging

discourses such as “doing well in school requires acting White” and/or “Whites

and Asians are good at math.” By recognizing that students’ identities are not first

and foremost about mathematics (even in the mathematics classroom), we begin

to see how “highly qualified teacher” is not a category that can be dismissed from

the kinds of students one teaches, the interactions in which one engages, or broader

power relations in society. The very practices that are taken up in the classroom

54 The Sociopolitical Turn in Mathematics Education

and the meaning of doing mathematics are inextricably tied to the constellation of

other identities that students bring to the classroom. Such an acknowledgement

opens the doors for us to see that holding an equity stance means recognizing that

as a mathematics teacher, one teaches mathematics and so much more than math-

ematics that influences students’ development (Gutiérrez, 2008c, 2009).

Challenges Racial Hierarchy

Recognizing that the identities of individuals are constructed partly through the

discourses that operate in mathematics education, we can begin to see how ability

is socially constructed. The achievement gap is a perfect example. Although

mainly concerned with the well-being of marginalized students (defined here as

African American, Latin@, American Indian/indigenous, working class students,

and English learners), mathematics education researchers who focus on the

achievement gap support practices that often are against the best interests of those

students. In fact, “gap gazing” offers little more than a static picture of inequities,

supports deficit thinking and negative narratives about marginalized students,

accepts a static notion of student identity, relies upon Whites as a comparison

group, divides and categorizes students, ignores the largely overlapping distribu-

tions of student achievement, offers a “safe” proxy for talking about students of

color without naming them, relies upon narrow definitions of learning and equity,

and perpetuates the myth that the problem (and therefore solution) is technical in

nature (Gutiérrez, 2008a).

Regardless of whether one operates in a setting that explicitly articulates an

achievement gap focus, it is the gaze, along with the power of repeating this focus

that gives authority to a particular discourse about equity, thereby allowing for

only certain “truths” to arise—that African American and Latin@ students are

inferior to Whites. By providing the categories by which teachers and students see

themselves (e.g., gap closer, bubble kids), the gaze can further serve to regulate

bodies in ways that shut down other possible discourses and practices within

school. This regulation occurs because schools produce mechanisms for shaping,

monitoring, and disciplining the knowledges, modes of operating, and positionings

of teachers. Every teacher wants to be “normal,” or seen as professional. The idea

that others will be judging you to see how your students measure up on standard-

ized tests causes many teachers to go against their better judgments of focusing

on relationships and broader notions of learning to focusing on test preparation.

The mere threat of surveillance is enough to affect the practices seen to be valid.

Engaging issues of identity and power helps unveil the problems with framing

equity from an achievement gap perspective. It highlights how a focus that

purports to be in the best interest of students of color reduces them to little more

than a test score, with little regard for how mathematics may be meaningful or

useful in their lives. It also makes possible other goals in mathematics education.

“Excellence” as defined by marginalized students is one such example (Gutiérrez,

2008a; Hilliard, 2003; Matthews, 2008).

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Rochelle Gutiérrez

Challenges (School) Mathematics

A final way in which a sociopolitical turn can help mathematics education is

that it opens the door for mathematics itself to be deconstructed and examined so

that we are more conscious of the discourses and practices that we reinforce and/

or challenge. If mathematics is not something out there (rational, universal,

innately useful), separate from humans, then researchers and practitioners can

learn from students and communities (both inside and outside of school) the

various meanings that can be ascribed to doing/creating mathematics. Some

research suggests that, in fact, holding a view of mathematics where truth is

historically located, connected to the knower, and mutable may be an important

component of being a critical mathematics educator (Povey, 2002).

This process of learning from students and communities does not mean a kind

of appropriation or exploitation of meanings or practices separate from that which

is negotiated by and with individuals. That is, we would not expect to import tasks

that involve basketball or dominoes into the classroom merely because they have

meaning for some African American students outside of school (Nasir, 2000,

2013). The meaning of a mathematical concept (e.g., What is slope?) cannot be

extracted from the meaning of the mathematical task that is presented to and

interpreted by students. However, being open to the multiple meanings that

students place on mathematical practices and offering an educational setting where

those meanings can be valued and built upon is a step in the right direction.

It is important to pay attention to the views of subordinated peoples, as they

offer a critique of what has been normalized in school. In this way, we open the

possibility not just for teaching mathematics in more equitable ways (as it relates

to oppressed peoples), but also for a radical revolution in mathematics (Bueno,

2007). This move to challenge what counts as mathematics is driven not from a

perspective that assumes certain students cannot be motivated by abstract versions

of mathematics (Dowling, 1998) or that all mathematical practices should relate

to the “real world” in a concrete sense, but rather from a perspective that assumes

that mathematics as a human practice can become more just.

CHALLENGES TO ADOPTING A SOCIOPOLITICAL STANCE

I have outlined some of the potential benefits of taking the sociopolitical turn

in mathematics education. However, understanding some of the difficulties in this

work may be just as important. First, post-structuralism has been faulted for an

overemphasis on deconstruction to the point where everything can be seen as

relative (Hill, 2001). That is, breaking something down into its parts is necessary

if we are to reconstruct something more equitable. However, an overemphasis on

deconstruction can reduce social interactions to the point where economics, values

and morals disappear, where justice becomes a moving target depending upon

whose view is taken. Similarly, in focusing on how individuals are raced, we must

work hard to connect such analyses with how people are gendered, how the politics

56 The Sociopolitical Turn in Mathematics Education

of language operate, economic positioning, and other areas related to identity.

As mathematics educators, we also must not ascribe too much agency to indi-

viduals. That is, just because I can deconstruct the politics of language and can

use a counter narrative (e.g., seeing monolingualism as a deficit position to

bilingualism or multilingualism) or can resignify the meanings of the English-only

discourse (as a position of fear, leaving those who speak other languages with

more power) does not mean that others will value or acknowledge those framings.

Others still might view me as inferior. So the danger is in thinking that because

students and teachers are sophisticated and are capable of negotiating complex

power relations that they should have to do so, that they are never victims of insti-

tutional structures and practices, or that the mathematical practices in school

should not change.

In the same way that I highlighted the importance of not focusing too strictly

on mathematics so that social relations and advocacy disappear, we must also be

cautious of not focusing on discourse to the point where mathematics disappears

(Sierpinska, 2005). Mathematics has been constructed in particular ways

throughout history that have allowed for particular meanings and “truths” to arise,

positioning some individuals as inferior or illegitimate. While connections

between mathematics and other human practices is critical, we should not lose the

perspective provided by those who employ a philosophical, sociological, or anthro-

pological view of mathematics who have invested time in thinking about how

mathematical practices in particular are constructed by, through, and in individ-

uals. Too many research projects pass up this opportunity.

Finally, we must also not fall into the trap of analyzing power and identity for

its own sake. Taking the sociopolitical turn means deconstructing the taken-for-

granted rules and modes of operating and making the familiar seem strange, not

as a kind of intellectual exercise, but as a means to open up possibilities for some-

thing new—new forms of operating, new strengths to be valued, new arrangements

in schooling practices, new meanings of mathematics education, new connections

between mathematics education and the world. It is easy to philosophize about

what mathematics is or can be. But, ultimately, we care about how mathematical

practices connect with the identities, futures, and lived consequences for indi-

viduals in society.

WHY HASN’T THE SOCIOPOLITICAL TURN HAPPENED SOONER?

If making the sociopolitical turn offers so much promise, you may be asking,

why haven’t these theories and conceptual tools become more prominent in main-

stream mathematics education? The reasons are complex. Partly, the field is still

somewhat in its infancy. Ethnomathematics, which seeks to decenter Western

mathematics and highlight the mathematical practices of people throughout the

world, was created in the 1980s; critical and social justice mathematics has flour-

ished just in the last 2 decades; critical race theory, LatCrit theory, and science

and technology studies only gained momentum in the mid-1990s, and

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Rochelle Gutiérrez

post-structuralism and postmodernism have been embraced in mathematics educa-

tion only recently.

In addition, conducting research that highlights the dynamic nature of identity

and the production of power in social interactions requires knowing multiple

literatures outside the field of mathematics education and finding appropriate

ways to draw upon them. Opportunities to learn these bodies of literature as part

of one’s formal preparation in mathematics education are rare. Although educa-

tional fields like literacy already seem to have embraced the sociopolitical turn,

and many fields have moved on from the purely political to emphasize the spiritual

(Anzaldúa & Keating, 2002), mathematics still is largely regarded as a discipline

devoid of human influence. As mentioned previously, the strides in challenging

this view have come from researchers with one foot in mathematics and the other

in philosophy, sociology, science studies, or anthropology. Yet, the broader math-

ematics education community has not taken full advantage of the products of such

labor.

Researchers concerned with a liberatory aspect of mathematics education as

related to oppressed peoples tend to embrace interdisciplinarity and draw from

cultural studies and critical theory to explain and attempt to intervene in the

production of hegemonic practices. Again, doing so requires staying abreast of

several quickly moving fields. In the United States, the development of researchers

who are capable of doing this complex work means not only large grants that will

support such research endeavors (as seen in centers of learning and teaching such

as CEMELA, DiME, and to some extent MetroMath14), but also senior scholars

who can mentor students into this work in meaningful and sophisticated ways,

along with institutional practices that value interdisciplinarity and commitment to

research for the public good. Just as teaching from an equity stance is much more

than knowing the latest findings on effective teaching in marginalized populations

(Gutiérrez, 2008c, 2009), enacting research that focuses on identity and power is

not as simple as being able to manipulate the various literatures in a technical

sense. The researcher must in some way embody the tenets of an emancipatory

framework. For some, that means drawing heavily on lived experiences as a

marginalized person. For others, it means applying and (re)writing theories and

frameworks that give voice to others.15 So, while “equity” has become a hot topic

in mathematics education, the theoretical underpinnings, epistemologies, and

methodologies employed still lag far behind other disciplines. Any resistance to

the sociopolitical turn is a form of hegemony.

From the point of view of regular JRME readers, opportunities to engage in

14 The Center for Mathematics Education of Latinos/Latinas (CEMELA), Diversity in Mathematics

Education (DiME), and MetroMath were all National Science Foundation funded centers that brought

together faculty from universities across the United States and sought to develop researchers who

could better attend to the complexity of equity issues in mathematics education.

15 For excellent discussions of research methodologies as they relate to sociopolitical dimensions

and power speciﬁcally, see Bernal (2001, 2002), Kaomea (2003), Lather (1991), Lomawaima (2000),

Lopez (2001), Sandoval (2000), Solórzano and Yosso (2002), Smith (1999), St. Pierre and Pillow

(2000), Valero and Zevenbergen (2004), and Villenas (1996).

58 The Sociopolitical Turn in Mathematics Education

these issues have been limited by the number of research articles that have

embraced critical perspectives on mathematics education. As recently as 1994,

Elizabeth Fennema and Laurie Hart completed a review of research on gender in

JRME and concluded

It is clear that some types and areas of scholarship dealing with gender and mathe-

matics have not been represented in the pages of the JRME. Undoubtedly, this has

occurred for a variety of reasons: Articles of publication-quality have not been

submitted, reviewers and editors have not thought work within certain areas appro-

priate for JRME publication, or there just have not been any studies representing the

area submitted for review. (p. 651)

All three of these reasons are plausible. If the aim of research is viewed as

uncovering “truths” and “knowledge” in absolute terms, then gender studies that

draw upon feminist theory (aiming not just to understand within the current para-

digm, but also to liberate girls) is easily construed as not “publication-quality.” It

is very likely that the image of JRME (its focus on cognitive issues and truths)

prevented researchers who drew upon feminist theory from ever submitting their

work.

A decade ago, Lubienski and Bowen (2000) did a review of mathematics educa-

tion articles in a number of journals, including JRME. In their review of articles

from 1982 to 1998, only 5% addressed issues related to race, ethnicity, or social

class. More specifically, they found that

In comparison with research on ethnicity, class, and disability, research on gender

was more prevalent and integrated into mainstream U.S. mathematics education

research. Overall, the majority of research seemed to focus on student cognition and

outcomes, with less attention to contextual or cultural issues. (p. 626)

Today, that same statement could be made with respect to sociocultural views

being more present in mainstream mathematics education research than sociopo-

litical views. A review of JRME articles from 1999 through 2008 reveals a similar

trend. Ignoring book reviews, 17 research articles out of 124 address issues of

race, class, gender, language, or equity broadly related.16 Of those articles, only

five frame these issues in political terms, as related to racism, classism, language

politics, or gendered lives. Interestingly, Walshaw drew on the early work of

Walkerdine and postmodernism to develop an article on gender issues that

appeared in JRME in 2001, but it was not embraced by the mathematics education

community at large in the United States. However, she continued her work and

helped usher in (along with many others) an international line of thinking that

draws on post-structuralist and postmodernist perspectives in mathematics educa-

tion (Brown, 1994, 2005; Fitzsimmons, 2002; Puig, 1998; Stinson, 2013;

Tymoczko, 1994; Vass, 1994; Walkerdine, 1988, 1994; Walshaw, 2001, 2004;

2013).

Although reviews of journal articles suggest the sociopolitical turn is not occur-

16 During this time frame, two short articles by the Research Advisory Committee of JRME and a

trio of short research commentary pieces related to equity were also published.

59

Rochelle Gutiérrez

ring within JRME, it certainly has been happening elsewhere in mathematics

education. Evidence of this turn has arisen in such forms as the handbook chapter

by the Diversity in Mathematics Education Center for Teaching and Learning

(2007), U.S. education journals without a mathematics focus (see for example,

Ellis, 2008; Gutiérrez, 2009; Martin, 2009; Stinson, 2006; 2008), international

mathematics education journals (two Mathematical Teaching and Learning special

issues—vol. 4, 2 & 3, and vol. 8, 3; a special issue in Educational Studies in

Mathematics—vol. 64; as well as in Mathematics Education Research Journal),

international books and series (e.g., Atweh, Graven, Secada, & Valero, in press;

Brown & McNamara, 2005; Ernest, 1994; Skovsmose & Valero, 2002; Walshaw,

2004, 2007; the Falmer Press series Studies in Mathematics Education, as well as

the Springer series), international study groups and conferences (e.g., ICMI,

ISGEM, MES, MERGA, RadicalMath.org), and to a certain extent in newly started

electronic journals in the United States (e.g., Journal of Urban Mathematics

Education). This collection of articles seeks to further highlight the voices and

perspectives of researchers, learners, and educators who are grappling with what

it means to (re)construct themselves and mathematics in ways that are more just.

In doing so, it offers JRME readers and other researchers ways of embracing not

just the social, but also the political.

On the one hand, special issues of journals and single handbook chapters dedi-

cated to issues of equity run the risk of reifying a marginalized position in the

mathematics education community. The Journal for Research in Mathematics

Education has had two such special equity issues. The first, published in 1984,

was chaired by Westina Matthews and focused on “minorities in mathematics.”

The second was published in 1997, chaired by Bill Tate and Bia D’Ambrosio, and

focused on culturally relevant pedagogy and opportunities to learn. So, in some

ways it is not surprising that a decade later, JRME is prepared to offer a special

issue related to equity. Some could discount this special issue, seeing it as further

ghettoization of the ideas, as not really leaving an impact on JRME or its readers.

In fact, by creating special issues on equity topics, JRME has positioned its readers

to easily “ignore” or “distance” themselves on the issues. On the other hand, it

also marks a particular point in our history and creates a sense of energy/synergy

to have so many articles, from an international group of authors, positioned

together and offering a critique of the status quo within mathematics education.

As such, this issue has the opportunity to provide the very counter narrative that

is needed in mathematics education, opening a space for dialogue among those

who have taken the sociopolitical turn and others who share their views as well as

those who are new to these ideas.

It is from within the margins that new sites of cultural production arise. That is,

because mathematical practices are inherently social and there exist a variety of

social groups that will embed their own meanings and purposes onto and through

such practices, there will always be subgroups that will challenge the current order

of things. Considering these alternate spaces of cultural production as legitimate

critiques of schooling (McCarthy et al., 2005) opens up new lines of research and

60 The Sociopolitical Turn in Mathematics Education

new ways of imagining mathematics education. Without these critiques, mathe-

matics education as a field is in danger of stagnation, unable to address the reali-

ties of global citizens. Even so, education is always going on in life (e.g., street

corners, churches, families, while standing in line). We are fooling ourselves if we

believe that schooling is the main vehicle by which people learn (mathematics).

As such, we need to better understand how subaltern groups negotiate the spaces

outside of schooling and how they make sense of their surroundings if we are to

develop a fuller picture of how mathematics education operates. In that sense,

taking the sociopolitical turn is a necessary chapter in mathematics education, as

it is from the views of such groups that mathematics education will continue to

grow and evolve (in ways that allow schooling to appropriately supplement what

goes on elsewhere). With new conceptual tools in mind, we can begin to investigate

such questions as these:17

•Howdomathematicseducationresearch,practice,andpolicyshapeconstruc-

tions of African American, Latin@, American Indian, poor, English learners,

LGBTQ, and other marginalized learners? And, what are the ways in which

such learners accommodate, resist, subvert, (re)signify, (re)produce, and

transgress those constructions?

•How and why do mathematics educators develop an understanding of the

politics and values involved in knowledge creation? How and why do they

develop the commitment/power to challenge the conventional wisdom of what

counts as mathematics and who is good at it?

•Howdoeducatorsdeveloptheknowledgeanddispositiontoconnecttheprac-

tice of teaching with their learners’ development as critical citizens? What are

some common tensions in this work?

•Whatarethestrategiesandexperiencesoflearnerswhosuccessfullynegotiate

the mathematics classroom and education as a broader social practice so that

they maintain their cultural identities and fare well on standardized measures

of (school) success? How can educators support these strategies of negotia-

tion?

•Howdowereframemeasuresofsuccessandcompetenciesin mathematics

education? What is the role of the construction of difference and/or solidarity

in this reframing?

•Withrespecttolearning/doingmathematics,whatdoweneedtounderstand

about how learners are positioned and how they position themselves when they

use their cultural/linguistic resources across multiple settings, both in and out

of school?

•Whatistheimpactofcurricularpolicyinmathematicsonthedevelopmentof

17These research questions were developed in part with members of the Editorial Panel, includ-

ing Beatriz D’Ambrosio, Marilyn Frankenstein, Signe Kastberg, Danny Martin, Judit Moschkovich,

Edd Taylor, and Dave Barnes (NCTM liaison).

61

Rochelle Gutiérrez

mathematical identities within raced, gendered, and other subaltern learner and

educator populations?

•Howdothemultipleidentitiesoflearnersinfluencetheadoptionandimple-

mentation of mathematics curricula or pedagogical embodiments?

•Inwhatway(s)aremathematicseducationresearchersandeducatorscomplicit

in the institutional practices that perpetuate inequities and unnecessarily

constrict the identities that learners and teachers are able to enact around

mathematics?

•In what way(s)can thinking about education more comprehensively (e.g.,

recognizing that education occurs in all facets of one’s life—including street

corners, doctors’ offices, families, religion, even standing in line) help us

better unite philosophers, sociologists, and cultural anthropologists of math-

ematics with those who educate broadly?

CONCLUSION

I have outlined a number of useful concepts and tools we can (re)use from

critical theories and post-structuralist thought. I have suggested that these concep-

tual tools offer a different perspective on issues of identity and power than are

traditionally embraced by the mathematics education community at large. While

these concepts and tools are not necessarily new, it is the purposeful collection of

them (by way of this special issue) and the analysis of their contributions that offers

promise to mathematics education.

It is time to apply these sociopolitical tools in strategic ways so as to move

beyond binary positions, make transparent that current realities are only one of

many possible, and more effectively subvert the power dynamics at play in math-

ematics education. To be sure, the articles in this issue will expand on the theo-

retical concepts I have presented in this article. Moreover, they will highlight the

usefulness of such tools through specific mathematical practices so that we might

better understand our potential for different arrangements in school mathematics

and how to improve mathematics education overall.

If the field of mathematics education is to support practitioners to engage in

issues of identity and power, it must provide incentives for them to see that learning

and teaching mathematics are not neutral activities. In fact, because teachers are

knowledge brokers, they need support in recognizing the extra/hidden work that

learners do around mathematics as it relates to their identities. Only then can

teachers become experts at supporting learners to maintain a sense of wholeness

while doing mathematics, a key aspect of equity. At a basic level, this requires

teacher education and ongoing professional development that helps educators (and

their learners) see mathematics classrooms as part of larger social and political

histories. The field of mathematics education must also be prepared to support

educators to position themselves in their work (e.g., tying their fate to the fate of

their students) thereby broadening their goals to include student actualization.

62 The Sociopolitical Turn in Mathematics Education

Moreover, educators need support to identify and challenge discourses that further

ingrain inequities and/or privilege test scores as sole measures for learning. This

means helping teachers develop not just knowledge of mathematics, pedagogy,

and learners, but also the political knowledge and experiences necessary to nego-

tiate the system (e.g., learning how to use creative insubordination to buffer

themselves from mandates that are not in the best interest of their students) and

develop working networks with other educators who share their emancipatory

visions. Developing a language for this broadened version of professionalism

would be of utmost concern.

Similarly, if mathematics education is to clearly benefit from the untapped

potential of researchers who have embraced the sociopolitical turn, the field needs

to recognize that all research projects are political. To engage with the political,

the field needs to value and encourage researchers to position themselves within

their work (e.g., articulating those aspects of their identities and ideologies that

inform their choice of research projects, the design of such projects, the kinds of

questions asked, and findings produced), as seen in this special issue. The field

also needs to expose oppressions and revive the histories of marginalized peoples

(e.g., students, families, scholars who have not published in mainstream mathe-

matics education research). Moreover, mathematics education must recognize and

challenge discourses that equate “science” with doing quantitative work while also

learning from other disciplines that have longer histories of exploring identity and

power issues. As part of our everyday work, mathematics education researchers

need to resist becoming pawns in the current climate of universities seeking to

make more money. More specifically, the field of mathematics education needs

to challenge the ideology of academia that privileges knowledge production for

other academics and encourages researchers to make themselves marketable.

Current options for publishing mathematics education research offer little room

for researchers to position themselves in their work, to focus on research for the

public good, or to explain other disciplinary fields. We must change these trends.

I stated in the opening of this article that it is both very easy and very hard to

attend to identity and power issues in today’s society. Yet I believe we are up for

the challenge. Many mathematics education researchers recognize the benefits we

have gained from including sociocultural perspectives in our work. The sociopo-

litical turn offers an additional layer that highlights issues of power at play in these

interactions, thereby helping us better reflect and contribute to the complexity in

our society. Today, we have various theoretical tools that lend themselves to the

analysis of teaching and learning as it is related to the relationship between knowl-

edge and power. Without an explicit focus on issues of identity and power, we are

unlikely to do more than tinker with the arrangements in school that contribute to

theproduction of inequities in the lived experiences of learners and educators. We

must be willing and able to embrace the sociopolitical turn. Such embracing will

help us better understand the current situation in its moment in history as it has

been constructed so we can open the door for other possible arrangements. If, as

a field, we are not willing to recognize the political nature of mathematics educa-

63

Rochelle Gutiérrez

tion or the fact that teaching and learning are negotiated practices that implicate

our identities, we might as well give up on all of this “talk” about equity.

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Author

Rochelle Gutiérrez, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Department of Curriculum and

Instruction, 1310 South Sixth Street, Champaign, IL 61820; rg1@illinois.edu