10 Dichotomy Examples

10 Dichotomy ExamplesReviewed by Chris Drew (PhD)

This article was peer-reviewed and edited by Chris Drew (PhD). The review process on Helpful Professor involves having a PhD level expert fact check, edit, and contribute to articles. Reviewers ensure all content reflects expert academic consensus and is backed up with reference to academic studies. Dr. Drew has published over 20 academic articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education and holds a PhD in Education from ACU.

dichotomy examples definition explanation

A dichotomy occurs when we construct two mutually exclusive categories that are opposites, lacking in overlap, and do not fit along a sliding scale.

It divides a certain variable into two distinct, binary opposite parts. For example, “male” and “female” are two opposing parts of the variable “sex”. Our worldview is significantly shaped through the construction of various dichotomies, such as rich/poor, urban/rural, white/black, etc.

These dichotomies reflect and reinforce the power structures of a given society. Studying them is a significant part of cultural studies as they give us insights into social institutions, relationships, and norms.

Dichotomy Definition

John Scott, in the Oxford Dictionary of Sociology, defines the concept as:

“Any variable which has only two categories. In theory, these categories are meant to be mutually exclusive.” (2014)

Dichotomies allow us to categorize and compare different things. They are fundamental to the way we look at and understand the world, not just in any academic discipline, but in our everyday life as well.

However, dichotomies can often be overly simplistic and reductionist. They cannot capture the complexities of social reality and can sometimes be misleading. So, while they serve as a significant tool of knowledge, it is necessary to understand their limitations.

In sociology, many thinkers have developed concepts based on dichotomies, such as mechanical & organic solidarity, Gemeinschaft & Gesellschaft, etc. We will discuss these in a later section. Before that, let us look at some examples of dichotomy.

Dichotomy Examples

  1. Individual/Society: This dichotomy represents the conflict between the needs/wants of an individual and the demands of the larger society. In Civilization and Its Discontents, Freud discussed how human beings have desires (for sex, power, etc.), but civilization places restrictions (laws & morals) on these to maintain order. This, Freud argued, leads to frustration and a true civilization must find a way to balance the two.
  2. Objective/Subjective: In sociology, this dichotomy represents the conflict between those who view the subject as a science and those who do not. Objective refers to the attitude of a scientific investigator: “detached, unprejudiced, open to whatever the evidence may reveal” (Scott). The opponents argue that such objectivity is unattainable or inappropriate for sociology. Recent scholars have rejected this dichotomy, arguing that impartial knowledge and an awareness of one’s social position can coexist.
  3. Tradition/Modernity: There is a tension between the values & practices of traditional societies and those of modern societies. In traditional societies, values & practices are based on cultural traditions associated with religious beliefs. On the other hand, modern societies are based on technology and science. The former emphasizes the group (family, community, etc.) while the latter prioritizes the individual. This tension makes it difficult for people to reconcile their cultural heritage with their modern lives. 
  4. Formal/Informal: This refers to the differences between official (formal) and unofficial (informal) behavior. The former involves behavior that is based on official rules and procedures. It includes the behavior in government institutions, workplaces, schools, etc. In contrast, unofficial behavior is much more relaxed and is not structured by explicit rules. Examples include how one acts in social networks, casual groups, etc.
  5. Micro/Macro: These two categories, prevalent in sociology & economics, refer to two levels of study: small-scale & large-scale. Micro studies small-scale elements, such as individual decision-making, small group dynamics, etc., and discusses how these are influenced by the social context. In contrast, macro studies large-scale things like economies, political systems, etc., and figures the relations among its components. 
  6. Public/Private: Public refers to things that are open to everyone and private refers to things that are intended for a specific individual(s). The former includes parks, libraries, etc., while the latter includes homes, corporations, etc. This dichotomy is fundamental to social sciences. For example, one might debate how far the government can interfere in the private space of the home, say in issues like same-sex marriage. 
  7. Normative/Positive: Normative is what with “what ought to be” while positive is concerned with “what is”. The former is based on value judgments and discusses what people/society should do, say use tax money for social welfare. The latter is based on empirical data, showing the world as it is; for example, the unemployment rate is X%.
  8. Nature/Nurture: Prevalent in both biology and sociology, this dichotomy involves two things that determine fate. Nature refers to genetic inheritance while nurture refers to external factors (experience, learning, etc.). In the 17th century, John Locke argued the mind was a tabula rasa (“blank slate”) and that humans acquire all traits from nurture, a view held by many in the 20th century. However, such theories became outdated by the 21st century, as both nature & nurture were understood to contribute.
  9. Global/Local: This dichotomy refers to the differences between things operating at the global scale and those at the local scale. Global involves worldwide issues, such as international trade, climate change, the spread of infectious diseases like Covid, etc. These usually require cooperation among various nations. Local refers to things operating at regional scales, such as neighborhood development, public commute, etc.
  10. Democracy/Authoritarianism: This dichotomy pits two different types of governments against each other. In a democracy, power is held by the people’s elected representatives, individual rights are protected, and political participation is encouraged. Examples include the US, UK, and India. In contrast, authoritarianism is characterized by a single person/group holding all the power, restricted rights, and political suppression. These include North Korea, Saudi Arabia, and Iran.

Key Dichtomies in Sociological Analysis

Mechanical & Organic Solidarity – Durkheim

Mechanical & organic solidarity constitute a dichotomy that describes how a given society is integrated.

The concepts were developed by Émile Durkheim in his book Division of Labour in Society (1893). Durkheim argued that in a society having mechanical solidarity, social unity comes from the homogeneity of individuals and institutions.

People acquire similar education and religious training, do similar work, and have similar lifestyles, all of which make them feel connected to each other. This usually occurs in traditional and small societies like tribes, where kinship ties form the basis of solidarity.

On the other hand, in a society having organic solidarity, social unity arises because of the specialization of work (individuals have special capabilities) and complementarianism (men and women have different roles). 

These two phenomena are features of modern, industrial societies, and they lead to a kind of social interdependence. Individuals and institutions may have different values & goals, but they rely on each other to perform specific tasks and the unity of society depends on this.

For example, in our world, people specialize in different roles like agriculture, manufacturing, healthcare, etc. We all depend on each other to get the goods and services we need. 

Differences Between Mechanical & Organic Solidarity

Durkheim distinguished the two categories on the following basis:

  • Morphological (Structural): Mechanical solidarity is based on resemblances, has a relatively low population, and has little interdependence. Organic solidarity is based on the division of labor, has a greater population, and higher interdependence.
  • Norms: Mechanical solidarity rules with repressive sanctions and penal law is prevalent. In organic solidarity, restitutive sanctions and cooperative law are predominant.
  • Form of conscience collective: There is a high volume of shared beliefs & values, leading to absolute collective authority. On the other hand, organic solidarity gives much greater room to individuality.
  • Content of conscience collective: The shared values are highly religious and prioritize society in mechanical solidarity. In contrast, organic solidarity has secular conscience collective and individual dignity is prioritized.

Gemeinschaft & Gesellschaft – Tönnies

Gemeinschaft (“community”) & Gesellschaft (“society”) are categories that distinguish social relationships into two types. 

This dichotomy was developed by the German sociologist Ferdinand Tönnies (1887), and it differentiates between two types of social ties. 

Gemeinschaft (community) refers to social ties based on personal social interactions.

As John Scott writes, it is “the world of close, emotional, face-to-face ties, attachment to place, ascribed social status, and a homogeneous and regulated community.” (2014). 

On the other hand, Gesellschaft (society) is a world based on indirect social interactions, which are characterized by impersonal roles & formal values. Scott adds that it is linked to “urbanism, industrial life, mobility, heterogeneity, and impersonality.”

Tönnies argued that modernization involved a movement from the former to the latter through a rationalization process. As societies become more advanced, there is a shift from relationships based on family/guild to those based on reason. 

Responses to Tönnies – Contemporary & Modern

The concepts of Gemeinschaft & Gesellschaft were highly influential among sociology theorists in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Max Weber was one such thinker who discussed the subject, writing in direct response to Tönnies.

Weber argued that Gemeinschaft is based on “subjective feeling” based on tradition or affection (Waters, 2015). Gesellschaft, in contrast, is characterized by relationships built on “rational agreement by mutual consent”, say a contract. 

Modern thinkers have reinterpreted these concepts in new ways. Eric Hobsbawm, for example, suggests that globalization has turned the whole world into a remote Gesellschaft (society). He sees identity politics as an attempt to recreate the qualities of Gemeinschaft through artificially created group bonds and identities.

It is important to note that both these concepts are ideal types. In reality, elements of both Gemeinschaft & Gesellschaft are found in societies. 

Conclusion

A dichotomy divides a variable (sex, wealth, etc.)  into two mutually exclusive categories. It can be a cause of the either-or fallacy.

Dichotomies allow us to categorize things into groups, and they are fundamental to the way we understand the world. In sociology, they help us learn about social relationships, institutions, and norms.

Various thinkers, such as Ferdinand Tönnies and Émile Durkheim have developed dichotomous concepts, which have played a key role in shaping sociology. However, it is also important to recognize the limitations of dichotomies as they cannot capture the complexities of reality.

References

Durkheim, Émile (1997) {1893}. Division of Labour in Society. Trans. W. D. Halls. Free Press.

Freud, S. (1930). Civilization and its discontents. Imago.

Scott, John (2014). A Dictionary of Sociology. Oxford.

Tönnies, Ferdinand (1940) {1887}. Gemeinschaft und Gesellschaft/Fundamental Concepts of Sociology. Trans. Charles P. Loomis. American Book Co.

Weber, Max (2015). Weber’s Rationalism and Modern Society, Tony Waters and Dagmar Waters eds. Palsgrave MacMillan.

Sourabh Yadav is a freelance writer & filmmaker. He studied English literature at the University of Delhi and Jawaharlal Nehru University. You can find his work on The Print, Live Wire, and YouTube.

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This article was peer-reviewed and edited by Chris Drew (PhD). The review process on Helpful Professor involves having a PhD level expert fact check, edit, and contribute to articles. Reviewers ensure all content reflects expert academic consensus and is backed up with reference to academic studies. Dr. Drew has published over 20 academic articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education and holds a PhD in Education from ACU.

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