While the origin of technological and mechanical knowledge in important societal practices appears obvious, it is less so in the case of mathematics. The apparent theoretical character of mathematics is also a consequence of a traditional focus on theoretical texts in the history of mathematics. In the case of South Asian historiography, this goes along with a linguistic bias: the history of mathematics in India has thus far primarily been an engagement with a corpus of texts recorded in Sanskrit. The dominant view of precolonial science in India placed Sanskrit texts in the foreground as canonical, effectively making Sanskrit the core medium of knowledge creation and transmission. But in the Indian or South Asian context, the study of knowledge transmission is particularly complex and offers promising insights because of its diverse regions, languages, and landscapes, along with deeply entrenched structures of oppression and social hierarchies marked by caste.
The project, launched by the French Institute of Pondicherry, the ETH Zurich, and the MPIWG, aims at a social history of mathematical practices situating the transmission of knowledge between the realms of learning and work through the activities of different practitioners like school teachers, students, revenue accountants, scribes, artisans, and craftsmen. Texts are studied as records of their practice and as products of the traffic between institutions of learning and working, often bringing in a “measuring public,” which participated in the making of a computational culture.
An important aspect of the project is the identification and preservation of the huge corpus of relevant extant vernacular sources spread all over India, and the creation of an online archive of these sources to enable further research. A pilot digitization project, supported by the Endangered Archives Programme of the British Library and a seed grant from the ETH Zurich, is underway. A first study on mathematical practices and its practitioners in the early modern and colonial Tamil speaking region of South India will be published in 2018 with Oxford University Press.
Besides the use of written sources and physical artifacts, ethnographic studies of today’s practitioners are carried out within the project to understand the transmission of mathematics as work. Mathematical practices are considered to be power-laden activities in the operational context of state building through bureaucratic work, through the mapping of metrological standards (using epigraphic methods), while also taking a comparative perspective with other historical and geographical areas in the rest of the world.