Re: Mathematics and anthropology

Marc W.D. Tyrrell (mwtyrrel@CCS.CARLETON.CA)
Sat, 24 Dec 1994 07:54:53 GMT

In article <> Danny Yee <danny@STAFF.CS.SU.OZ.AU> writes:

>Mathematics and anthropology... how can I resist such a topic?

>Most of the mathematics I know has no conceivable application to
>anthropology (at least directly; the physicists use some weird stuff,
>and the chemists use some of that, and...). Does anyone know of any
>work in the social sciences which uses algebraic topology, functional
>analysis, or category theory? (The question of why mathematics is
>any use at all for understanding the universe crops up frequently in
>philosophy and physics.)

Well, I'm starting to use topology to study rites of passage and their
relationship to social structure. Does that count <grin>?

>Despite this, I believe that the most valuable thing mathematicical
>training can contribute to students of anthropology is not knowledge
>of a small range of methods of practical use (such as how to carry out
>chi-squared tests or plot logistic growth curves), but the perspective
>which mathematical intution and a training in abstract thinking can
>bring. I'm not sure how easy this is to teach, however -- certainly
>the lower undergraduate mathematics courses I have experience of
>don't even start on it.

Unfortunate, but true <grin>.

Marc Tyrrell