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The role of dichotomies in social theory

I spent much of the recent Accelerated Academy talking about the limitations of the fast/slow dichotomy and my concern that the framing of our series entrenches it. To talk of the ‘accelerated academy’ implies there was once a slow(er) academy and hints that the pathologies we currently face could be overcome by reclaiming what has been lost. It is an account which invites us towards nostalgia, imagining a past which we seek to recover rather than analysing the potential for change we can find latent within our present circumstances. In fact, between myself and Filip, it seemed the fast/slow dichotomy was trashed so much that a few people seemed apologetic when they mentioned it with anything other than condemnation.

So should we dispense with them entirely? Barbara Adam offered a qualified defence of dichotomies, recognising their limitations but insisting on their value as tools to think with. This resonated with me a lot, as someone prone to finding dichotomies in my own thinking yet continually struggling against them. Dichotomies anchor a terrain, laying out a space in a way which help us locate ourselves within it. But they only provide a rough sketch of that space, leaving us disorientated if we retain them as our sole reference points rather than elucidating the territory and exploring its topography.

The problem with dichotomies is not so much their appearance as their persistence, their tendency to prove sticky and our ensuing difficulty in dispensing with them once they have served their original purpose. We shouldn’t banish dichotomies, as much as refuse to take them seriously past a certain point. They can be useful conversation starters and sharpening blocks for our conceptual tools. But if we mistakenly take them as a primary focus then they can fatally undermine our capacity to make sense of a world inevitably more complex than a simplistic opposition can possibly capture.

Categories: social ontology social theory Thinking

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Mark

2 replies

  1. I think there are well defined dichotomies and not so much well defined dichotomies. For example, some things are in our control while others are not is basically a law. It was found by Epictetus in around 100AD. And, it is still applicable today. You are right in that it is useful for some things and not for others. For example, you can’t capture class relations with a dichotomy.

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