Binary opposition is a theory of how we attribute meaning to things. The ideas were developed in the later twentieth century by thinkers like Claude Levi-Strauss, Roland Barthes and Jacques Derrida. These theorists came to be called "Structuralists" because they proposed that meaning is developed within mental structures that require "opposites" in order to create meaning.
It is a fairly easy theory to grasp and put to use - and it matters because it allows you to analyse almost any text in an unusually close way, one pretty much guaranteed to gain high marks.The method offers a way to explain how the many deep-seated beliefs in our society called dominant ideologies exist and continue to exist - and to show how texts work to reinforce and maintain a particular world-view or mind-set, one that can be argued supports and maintains the traditional power structures of society.
Structuralist thinkers recognised that the meaning we create from the language we use is not at all straightforward and has important implications for society as a whole. The meaning of many words is created by a subconscious awareness of a 'culturally opposing’ idea – a binary opposite. The important aspect of this is that one half of each binary is dominant or favoured. For example, for young people, the words that form the binary pair ‘cool’ / ‘geek’ are well known and commonly used. If you think about these words, the force of their meaning relies on the favoured half of the binary pair, that is, the expression, 'cool'. If you were called a ‘geek’ , then the implication that you are not 'cool' does not just stop there - it carries with it a range of other implications all of which to some degree you will likely 'feel'. What this means is that more binaries follow in its wake and these bring with them a range of other judgmental ideas, even ones seemingly quite unconnected to the original word, 'geek': the word carries important traces of other meanings that are related to important cultural binary pairs such as 'strength' / 'weakness' and 'masculinity' / 'femininity'. In this way, one word acts to reinforce other ideas - analysed like this, the word 'geek' can be reasonably argued to reinforce stereotypical and sexist ideas linked to femininty.
The effect of these binary oppositions or pairs can be
argued to help create and reinforce the norms of thinking in our society -
and language is at the heart of how these ideas are maintained. The ways in
which our thought processes rely upon binary opposites helps to explain how
difficult it is to shift from, for example, the ‘male is norm’ aspect of
modern patriarchal society. Other common binaries are ‘youth’ / ‘age’,
‘health’ / ‘disease’; ‘dirty’ / ‘clean’ - but there are thousands.
These cultural ‘norms’ are deep-seated ideas that are more properly called
society’s prevailing or dominant
At the heart of this idea is the realisation that we are not born with any meaning already planted in our mind - what we are born with is a nervous or sensory system that responds to the external environment and seems to need contrasts to help make meaning - 'opposites'. Children are fascinated by such contrasts and often have fun thinking about opposites, 'up', 'down', etc. As we grow up and mature, however, this sense of "opposites" becomes more refined yet still has a grip on our conception of the world, as if it is somehow "hard wired" into the mind. A moment's thought will show, however, that ideas do not have "opposites", only if the ideas are considered superficially.
Language is especially interesting because the words we use to help us communicate meaning and feeling to others have absolutely no essential relationship with the things or ideas they represent. The word "cat" is, for example, "pisică" in Romanian and you can see that there is no "essence" of cat there at all - it's just a mark on a page, pixels on a screen or a sound in the air. It exists as physical form but only to symbolise or signify other form, in this case, a fur covered animal with whiskers.