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String Figures as Mathematics?

An Anthropological Approach to String Figure-making in Oral Tradition Societies

  • Book
  • © 2015


  • Shows how string figures appear to be the products of a mathematical activity
  • Is relevant for researchers in anthropology, history and philosophy of science, mathematics, and ethnomathematics
  • Includes a website giving the details of all procedures referred to in the book
  • Includes supplementary material:

Part of the book series: Studies in History and Philosophy of Science (AUST, volume 36)

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About this book

This book addresses the mathematical rationality contained in the making of string figures. It does so by using interdisciplinary methods borrowed from anthropology, mathematics, history and philosophy of mathematics. The practice of string figure-making has long been carried out in many societies, and particularly in those of oral tradition. It consists in applying a succession of operations to a string (knotted into a loop), mostly using the fingers and sometimes the feet, the wrists or the mouth. This succession of operations is intended to generate a final figure. The book explores different modes of conceptualization of the practice of string figure-making and analyses various source material through these conceptual tools: it looks at research by mathematicians, as well as ethnographical publications, and personal fieldwork findings in the Chaco, Paraguay, and in the Trobriand Islands, Papua New Guinea, which all give evidence of the rationality that underlies this activity. It concludes that the creation of string figures may be seen as the result of intellectual processes, involving the elaboration of algorithms, and concepts such as operation, sub-procedure, iteration, and transformation.

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Table of contents (10 chapters)

  1. How to Study String Figure-Making

  2. Mathematics and String Figures

  3. Analysing String Figure Algorithms

  4. String Figures in the Field


“Vandenessche (Paris Diderot Univ., France) divides the volume—which is really many books in one—into four parts: ‘How to Study String Figure-Making,’ ‘Mathematics and String Figures,’ ‘Analysing String Figure Algorithms,’ and ‘String Figures in the Field.’ … Summing Up: Highly recommended. Upper-division undergraduates through faculty and professionals.” (D. V. Feldman, Choice, Vol. 53 (3), November, 2015)

“Vandendriessche gives a mathematical analysis of string figure-making. … The author does recommend that every reader try following his instructions to create some of the string figures. I found his instructions clear and the multicolored pictures helpful. … Anthropologists and ethnomathematicians will benefit from the richness of Vandendriessche’s discussion.” (Joel Haack, MAA Reviews, March, 2015)

Authors and Affiliations

  • Sciences-Philosophie-Histoire, UMR 7219, CNRS, Université Paris Diderot, Sorbonne Paris Cité, Paris, France

    Eric Vandendriessche

About the author

Eric Vandendriessche has obtained the French "Agrégation" of mathematics (1992). In 2010, he received his Ph.D. in History and Philosophy of Sciences from Paris Diderot University. Eric Vandendriessche is a member of the Sciences–Philosophy–History French laboratory (UMR SPHERE 7219 – CNRS & Paris Diderot University). He is currently carrying out research in ethnomathematics, doing fieldwork in Papua New Guinea and Vanuatu (Melanesia, South Pacific). The aim of his work is to study the mathematical rationality that underlies activities involving geometrical and algorithmic practices (such as string figure-making or sand-drawing in Oceania), while attempting to analyze how the practitioners of these activities conceive - or have conceived - them in societies of oral tradition. Eric vandendriessche is in charge of the "String figures: cultural and cognitive aspects of a mathematical practice" research program (2012–2015), financially supported by the city of Paris (program "Emergences" 2011).

Bibliographic Information

  • Book Title: String Figures as Mathematics?

  • Book Subtitle: An Anthropological Approach to String Figure-making in Oral Tradition Societies

  • Authors: Eric Vandendriessche

  • Series Title: Studies in History and Philosophy of Science

  • DOI:

  • Publisher: Springer Cham

  • eBook Packages: Mathematics and Statistics, Mathematics and Statistics (R0)

  • Copyright Information: Springer International Publishing Switzerland 2015

  • Hardcover ISBN: 978-3-319-11993-9Published: 19 January 2015

  • Softcover ISBN: 978-3-319-38394-1Published: 13 October 2016

  • eBook ISBN: 978-3-319-11994-6Published: 02 January 2015

  • Series ISSN: 1871-7381

  • Series E-ISSN: 2215-1958

  • Edition Number: 1

  • Number of Pages: XIX, 392

  • Number of Illustrations: 1100 b/w illustrations, 134 illustrations in colour

  • Topics: History of Mathematical Sciences, Philosophy of Science

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