Thursday, 20 October 2011

Levi-Strauss - Binary Oppositions Theory

This is a sophisticated but important idea that will help you understand how ideas and meanings are being shaped, created or reinforced in a text. It is 'a theory of meaning' and an idea that can be applied to all texts; it is especially useful when analysing poetry where meaning has been 'compressed' into a very few words.
In the mid-20th century, two major European academic thinkers, Claude Levi Strauss and Roland Barthes, had the important insight that the way we understand certain words depends not so much on any meaning they themselves directly contain, but much more by our understanding of the difference between the word and its 'opposite' or, as they called it 'binary opposite'. They realised that words merely act as symbols for society's ideas and that the meaning of words, therefore, was a relationship rather than a fixed thing: a relationship between opposing ideas.
For example, our understanding of the word 'coward' surely depends on the difference between that word and its opposing idea, that of a 'hero'.

Other oppositions that should help you understand the idea are the youth/age binary, the masculinity/femininity, the good/evil binary, and so on. Barthes and Levi-Strauss noticed another important feature of these 'binary opposites': that one side of the binary pair is always seen by a particular society or culture as more valued over the other.

When studying any kind of text, it is worth looking for the ways in which layers of meaning are being created, shaped or reinforced by this sense of 'binary opposition'.

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