GEOG 128
Geography of International Affairs

Deconstructing Binaries


What is a binary (or binary opposition)?

A light switch is either on or off; in a sports match, a team either wins or loses; water is either hot or cold; something in relation to something else can be left or right, up or down, or in or out. These are opposites - concepts that can't exist together.

Binary opposition is a key concept in structuralism, a theory of sociology, anthropology, and linguistics that states that all elements of human culture can only be understood in relation to one another and how they function within a larger system or the overall environment. We often encounter binary oppositions in cultural studies when exploring the relationships between different groups of people, for instance: upper-class and lower-class, male and female, or developed and under-developed, and so on. On the surface, these seem merely like identifying labels, but what makes them binary opposites is the notion that they cannot coexist.

The problem with a system of binary opposites is that it creates boundaries between groups of people and leads to prejudice and discrimination. One group may fear or consider a threat the 'opposite' group, referred to as the other. The use of binary opposition in literature is a system that authors use to explore differences between groups of individuals, such as cultural, class, or gender differences. Authors may explore the gray area between the two groups and what can result from those perceived differences.

Source: Education Portal

As Flint states,

(T)he construction of national myths has been essential in representing geopolitical codes in a way that makes them believable or readily accepted. Such representation requires the construction of us/them and inside/outside categories…. In other words, the nation requires an understanding (of us) that is tidily bounded both physically and socially. The geographic extent of the nation is understood to be clear, it simply follows the lines on the map, and we are led to an understanding of who ‘belongs’ or is a member of the nation and who is a foreigner, alien, or whatever term is used to describe ‘other’. (2016, p. 128)

Flint goes on to discuss the effects that contributions of feminist geopolitical theorizing have had on better understanding our contemporary globalized geopolitical landscape. To be sure, the world we live in and negotiate is much more diverse, complex, and messy than how it is represented to be. Thus, alternative representations encourage us to think outside of the nation-state framework. Indeed, in subsequent chapters/lessons that discuss territory and borders, networks, and environmental geopolitics, we will come to understand how the flow between places (of natural resources, people, commerce, and trade, etc.) has become increasingly integrated into our everyday lives. And so, processes of globalization (which describes the intensification of global interconnections and flows), underscore the tensions between the concept of nationalism and neatly bounded, homogenous identity; transnationalism is a social phenomenon and scholarly research agenda that has grown out of the heightened interconnectivity between people and the receding economic and social significance of boundaries among nation states. This tension has been hotly debated in the geopolitical community—as some have subsequently predicted that the rise of the “network society” may lead to the “end of the nation-state”. Others are skeptical of this thesis. Certainly, states are still very powerful geopolitical actors. Flint goes further in a discussion of the ways in which states are crucially important and relevant in facilitating the transnational flow of people, ideas, commodities, and so forth. Further, Flint highlights Agnew’s (1994) work that explores the ways in which sovereignty is “‘unbundled’ through the operation of networks that cut across national boundaries” (2016, p. 130).

One of the reasons Flint pushes us to think about the ways in which binaries have underpinned geopolitics is to see how their construction and application have been a part of nationalist myths and geopolitical codes. Instead, he compels us to think about the importance of human security (in contrast to a national security) within our interconnected transnational global framework.