Binary opposition

A binary opposition (also binary system) is a pair of related terms or concepts that are opposite in meaning. Binary opposition is the system by which, in language and thought, two theoretical opposites are strictly defined and set off against one another.[1] It is the contrast between two mutually exclusive terms, such as on and off, up and down, left and right.[2] Binary opposition is an important concept of structuralism, which sees such distinctions as fundamental to all language and thought.[2] In structuralism, a binary opposition is seen as a fundamental organizer of human philosophy, culture, and language.

Binary opposition originated in Saussurean structuralist theory.[3] According to Ferdinand de Saussure, the binary opposition is the means by which the units of language have value or meaning; each unit is defined in reciprocal determination with another term, as in binary code. It is not a contradictory relation but a structural, complementary one.[3] Saussure demonstrated that a sign's meaning is derived from its context (syntagmatic dimension) and the group (paradigm) to which it belongs.[4] An example of this is that one cannot conceive of 'good' if we do not understand 'evil'.[5]

Typically, one of the two opposites assumes a role of dominance over the other. The categorization of binary oppositions is "often value-laden and ethnocentric", with an illusory order and superficial meaning.[6] Furthermore, Pieter Fourie discovered that binary oppositions have a deeper or second level of binaries that help to reinforce meaning. As an example, the concepts hero and villain involve secondary binaries: good/bad, handsome/ugly, liked/disliked, and so on.[7]

Theory of binaries in Western thought

A classic example of a binary opposition is the presence-absence dichotomy. In much of Western thought, including structuralism, distinguishing between presence and absence, viewed as polar opposites, is a fundamental element of thought in many cultures. In addition, according to post-structuralist criticisms, presence occupies a position of dominance in Western thought over absence, because absence is traditionally seen as what you get when you take away presence. (Had absence been dominant, presence might have most naturally been seen as what you get when you take away an absence.) [8]

According to Nasser Maleki, there is another example of this phenomenon whereby people value one part of a binary opposition over another; “we, as living in a certain culture, think and act similarly in situations when we want to pick out one of the concepts in the binary oppositions or while seeking truth or a center. For example, we give superiority to life rather than death.” [9] This suggests that the cultural setting a reader is a part of may influence their interpretation of a work of literature; “only one concept, from the binary opposition, is ready, in our mind, to be privileged and the other one is usually put aside as having the second priority.” [10] He reached this conclusion by giving a name to the shared western unconsciousness for a preferred binary concept- logocentrism. This is the belief that “an ultimate reality or centre of truth exists and that can serve as the basis for all our thought and actions. This might imply that readers might unconsciously take side with one concept of binary opposition, and Derrida traces this reaction as a cultural phenomenon.” [11]

An example of a binary opposition is the male-female dichotomy. A post-structuralist view is that male can be seen, according to traditional Western thought, as dominant over female because male is the presence of a phallus, while the vagina is an absence or loss. John Searle has suggested that the concept of binary oppositions—as taught and practiced by postmodernists and poststructuralist—is specious and lacking in rigor.[12]

Deconstruction of Western binaries

The political (rather than analytic or conceptual) critique of binary oppositions is an important part of third wave feminism, post-colonialism, post-anarchism, and critical race theory, which argue that the perceived binary dichotomy between man/woman, civilized/uncivilised, and white/black have perpetuated and legitimized Western power structures favoring "civilized white men." In the last fifteen years it has become routine for many social and/or historical analyses to address the variables of gender, class, sexuality, race and ethnicity.[13] Within each of these categories there is usually an unequal binary opposition: bourgeoisie/working class man; white/people of colour; men/women; heterosexual/homosexual.[13]

Post-structural criticism of binary oppositions is not simply the reversal of the opposition, but its deconstruction, which is described as apoliticalthat is, not intrinsically favoring one arm of a binary opposition over the other. Deconstruction is the "event" or "moment" at which a binary opposition is thought to contradict itself, and undermine its own authority.[14]

Deconstruction assumes all binary oppositions need to be analyzed and criticized in all their manifestations; the function of both logical and axiological oppositions must be studied in all discourses provide meaning and values. But deconstruction does not only expose how oppositions work and how meaning and values are produced in a nihilistic or cynic position, "thereby preventing any means of intervening in the field effectively". To be effective, and simply as its mode of practice, deconstruction creates new notions or concepts, not to synthesize the terms in opposition but to mark their difference, undecidability, and eternal interplay.[15]

In relation to logocentrism

Logocentrism is an idea related to binary opposition that suggests certain audiences will favour one part of a binary opposition pair over the other. This favouritism is often most strongly influenced by a readers' cultural background. The strong patriarchal themes in 'The Women and the Pot', an Amharic folktale, would be one such example of logocentrism. This tells the story of two women who are upset at their diminished role in society, and who consequently go to their King for help. He effectively conveys the message that women cannot be relied upon to take on a greater role in society, which becomes the moral of the tale. Prasad explains this idea; “The logocentric value is seen through the 'Eternal Knowledge' – the naturalness of male superiority – that is conveyed through the folktale. The hidden a priori binary opposition is 'Man over Woman'.” [16] In relation to the cultural heritage of an audience having an influence on their unconscious preference for one part of a binary opposition, Prasad says; “By way of studying a selection of Ethiopian folktales, the paper uncovers the presence of logocentrism and a priori binary opposition being at work in Ethiopian folktales. These two elements attempt to endorse and validate the 'given' subservient position of women in society”.[17]

In literature

Binary opposition is deeply embedded within literature as language, and paired opposites, rely upon a relation with adjoining words inside a paradigmatic chain. If one of the paired opposites were removed the other’s precise meaning would be altered.[18] Binary opposites, therefore, are at the foundation of all literature. Two examples will explore this.


In Harry Potter there is the magical and non-magical community, but there are exceptions to these categories in which there is no existing category, half-bloods and muggle (human) born (paradigm). Voldemort seeks to eradicate these that do not fit within these categories as he believes there should only be fully-fledged magical and non-magical community. This leads to a binary system in which what Voldemort is insisting on creating is a world where the fully-fledged pure-blooded wizards are the favoured of the binary opposites (pure-bloods as opposed to half-bloods and muggle-born) and the muggle-born and half-blood are the disfavoured of the two. With the ideology of the pure bloods being pursued it would leave to the bias and cultural change that there is only one distinction between classes, the categories are only pure blooded members of the magical community or non magical.

Vampire Academy, a series of novels by Richelle Mead, draws upon the conventional binary ideologies of Western culture, whether intentional or not. There are Strigoi – inherently evil vampires confined to the night – and Moroi and dhampir, weaker vampires who can venture into daylight. The novels play upon the binary opposition theory and its secondary levels; night and day are: evil/good, other/normal, disliked/liked, ugly or handsome. The evil Strigoi vampires attempt to vanquish the Moroi throughout the novels, signifying a binary system in which the strong would dominate and exploit the weak. Mead’s use of the binary system presents readers with an example of how dangerous it is for one group to possess such power, and how it may result in evil deeds.

On the contrary, Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird disrupts this conventional twofold hierarchy by utilizing the second level of binaries. Lee has broken the illusion that ‘black’ is ‘bad’ and white is ultimately ‘good’. The plot focuses on a case involving a black man – Tom Robinson – who is accused of raping a white woman, Mayella. Mayella, with her bruises and ethnicity as a defence, is believed by the townspeople instantly. The novel explores concepts of racism and stereotyping with the help of the binary system. In the end it is revealed that Mayella lied and her father was the one who beat her. In the context of the story, however, racism still prevails. The binary system, however, highlights the injustice of preconceived connotations attached to race and colour.

In addition, binary opposition was explored in children’s literature and it was found that authors were reinforcing Westernized images and philosophies of feminism via the binary hierarchy.[19] Western authors were creating a representation of non-Western countries based on colonial discourse, using binary oppositions to categorize human behaviour into one term or another – not both. The non-Western woman, therefore, was “the opposite or ‘other’ to women and girls from the West”.[19] Thus, Western authors are establishing imperialist binaries between cultures, with the us/other binary opposition alongside that of the men/women. Doing so is not only undermining the entire ideology of feminism, but is also revealing of how societies work: in binaries.

See also


  1. Smith, G. (1996). "Binary opposition and sexual power in Paradise Lost". Midwest Quarterly. 27 (4): 383.
  2. 1 2 Baldick, C 2004. The concise Oxford Dictionary of literary terms, viewed 8 March 2011,
  3. 1 2 Fogarty, S 2005, The literary encyclopedia, viewed 6 March 2011,
  4. Lacey, N 2000, Narrative and Genre, p.64, Palgrave, New York.
  5. Lacey, N 2000, Narrative and Genre, p. 65, Palgrave, New York
  6. Goody 1977, p. 36
  7. Fourie, Pieter (2001). Media Studies Volume 2: Content, Audiences and Production. Lansdowne: Juta Education.
  8. Britannica 2011, Binary opposition, viewed 9 March 2011,
  9. Maleki, Nasser. "Contextualising Kathleen Raine's selected poems in the light of Derridean midel of deconstruction". Journal of Language and Literature. 5 (2): 67.
  10. Maleki, Nesser. "Contextualising Kathleen Raine's selected poems in the light of Derridean model of deconstruction". Journal of Language and Literature. 5 (2): 68.
  11. Maleki, Nesser. "5. Contextualising Kathleen Raine's selected poems in the light of Derridean model of deconstruction". Journal of Language and Literature. 5 (2): 68.
  12. In 1983, American philosopher John Searle reviewed Johnathan Culler's On Deconstruction: Theory and Criticism after Structuralism for the New York Review of Books, writing,
    "In Culler's book, we get the following examples of knowledge and mastery [attained from analysis of binary opposites and deconstruction]: speech is a form of writing (passim), presence is a certain type of absence (p. 106), the marginal is in fact central (p. 140), the literal is metaphorical (p. 148), truth is a kind of fiction (p. 181), reading is a form of misreading (p. 176), understanding is a form of misunderstanding (p. 176), sanity is a kind of neurosis (p. 160), and man is a form of woman (p. 171). Some readers may feel that such a list generates not so much feelings of mastery as of monotony. There is in deconstructive writing a constant straining of the prose to attain something that sounds profound by giving it the air of a paradox, e.g., "truths are fictions whose fictionality has been forgotten" (p. 181).
  13. 1 2 Dunk, T 1997, 'White guys: studies in post-modern domination and difference', Labour, vol. 40, p. 306, (online Infotrac).
  14. "One sometimes gets the impression that deconstruction is a kind of game that anyone can play. One could, for example, invent a deconstruction of deconstructionism as follows: In the hierarchical opposition, deconstruction/logocentrism (phono-phallo-logocentrism), the privileged term "deconstruction" is in fact subordinate to the devalued term "logocentrism," for, in order to establish the hierarchical superiority of deconstruction, the deconstructionist is forced to attempt to represent its superiority, its axiological primacy, by argument and persuasion, by appealing to the logocentric values he tries to devalue. But his efforts to do this are doomed to failure because of the internal inconsistency in the concept of deconstructionism itself, because of its very self-referential dependence on the authority of a prior logic. By an aporetical Aufhebung, deconstruction deconstructs itself." Searle, ibid.
  15. Cf., Jacques Derrida, “Positions” (The University of Chicago Press, 1981), pp. 41-43
  16. Prasad, A. "8. Logocentrism and a priori Binary Opposition vis-a-vis Women. Politics in Ethiopia Folktales- A Study of Selected Ethiopian Folktales". Fabula. 48 (1-2): 108.
  17. Prasad, A. "8. Logocentrism and a priori Binary Opposition vis-a-vis Women. Politics in Ethiopia Folktales- A Study of Selected Ethiopian Folktales". Fabula. 48 (1-2): 108.
  18. Barry, P., 2009. Beginning Theory: An Introduction to Literary and Cultural Theory. 3rd ed. New York, USA: Manchester University Press.
  19. 1 2 Varga-Dobai, K., 2013. Gender Issues in Multicultural Children's Literature - Black and Third-World Feminist Critiques of Appropriation, Essentialism, and Us/Other Binary Oppositions. Multicultural Perspectives, 15(3), pp. 141–147.


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