Binary Opposition



Binary oppositions are words and concepts that a community of people generally regards as being 'opposed' to each other. Oppositional thinking represents a 'black and white' view of the world, a tendency to see everything in terms of simple contradictions. This is not a natural or innocent way of thinking. It has clear consequences for the way power is distributed among groups of people in a society. For example, the phrase 'black and white', as used here, is not merely a convenient expression. It is also tied to divisive ideas about race which operate in our societies.


The binary opposition is an organising principle for many texts and readings. The elements of a text are often structured around a pair of concepts such as nature/culture, masculine / feminine, mind / body. Through such oppositions, texts, and our ways of reading them, can embody and reproduce certain patterns of thinking.


One element in a binary opposition is often privileged over the other. This means that binary oppositions are also hierarchies, with one half dominating the other. The second term often comes to represent merely the absence of the first. This has the effect of devaluing the second element. Thus 'emotion' is often degraded as merely the absence of reason'.


Binary patterns of thinking often mask the differences between things in this way, even though they seem to stress differences. This can be seen in the tendency to transfer concepts between binary pairs. For example, in the following list of oppositions, each column of terms may be read as belonging together in some way.











It is common, for example, for people to think of particular groups of people (such as men) as being rational, and of other groups (such as women) as being emotional. Through such connections, established patterns of thinking are supported, for it becomes difficult to change one set of terms without challenging an entire set of beliefs and practices. A study of binary oppositions in a text can reveal networks of links like those outlined above. Once identified, these can be traced to cultural assumptions which have been coded into the text.


For example:


Here is the opening chapter of Charles Dickens' novel, A Tale of Two Cities.



It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going the other way - in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.



At first glance, this extract seems to compress many 'opposites' into a short space. But by examining the pattern of oppositions we can show that the extract actually denies differences.


Here are some of the binary oppositions encoded in the text:















‘the other way’


From these we can make some interesting suggestions:


·         Terms such as light, hope, belief, and Heaven suggest that this passage operates within the category of religious language (specifically, the Christian religion). Far from being diverse, the terms are all drawn from a common discourse, which implies a very specific way of thinking about the world.


·         This is confirmed when we read the columns vertically. The relationship that is established between wisdom, belief, and Heaven, for example, implies a rather narrow definition of 'wisdom'. (Can non-Christians be wise, according to this system?)



Reading the contrasts in this way it becomes clear that these groups of binary oppositions are structural features encoded in the text that work to reproduce a set of beliefs or values, often the beliefs or interests of the most influential members of society.