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.