Oppositional binaries: “Bruce”-“not Bruce”

What’s the use of oppositional binaries? Don’t they just over simplify things to the extent that they become meaningless? Perhaps. But perhaps they just help to keep things manageable until we can get our heads around the nuances of a situation. That is, they have a certain personal utility.

In my own little world I use an oppositional binary to summarise my view of music. Very simply, for me music is either ‘Bruce’ or ‘not Bruce’.  ‘Bruce’ is generally superb, whilst ‘not Bruce’ can be anything from good to appalling. I appreciate that this binary doesn’t work for some people – usually because they just haven’t listened to enough Bruce yet.



Bruce Springsteen with Steve Van Zandt & Patti Scialfa at Wembley stadium June 2016


Within education, people use oppositional binaries all the time:

Quantitative vs. Qualitative

Deep vs. Surface

Holists vs. Serialist

Arts vs. Sciences 

Engaged vs. Disengaged.

and so on.  There are times when such simplifications may be helpful and other times when they are just annoying or simply used in unhelpful ways. Just as in music, if I was having a discussion about opera, the overuse of the ‘not Bruce’ category here would not shed any light onto proceedings.

So should we discourage colleagues who are just venturing into the education literature from using these binaries? Do they encourage bad habits and a surface approach to learning about teaching – or by asking this question have I just fallen into my own trap by using one of the binaries listed above? They do have a use as a shorthand, but we need to be careful if they are used for research design or policy development. Unless its a policy on music.







One thought on “Oppositional binaries: “Bruce”-“not Bruce”

  1. Rob Cuthbert

    Often there is a third category – “not sure/it depends”. Bruce? Not sure. Are UK universities public or private? It depends. Thinking about the third category can be a good way to understand things differently. In music only Mozart/not Mozart works, obviously.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s