Sociocultural Aspects of Korea Research Paper

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1. Political And Institutional Contexts Of The Anthropology Of Korea

The development of the English-language anthropology of Korea, a post-liberation (from Japanese colonialism in 1945) venture, must be understood in its political and institutional contexts.

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In the cold war context of the ideological division of the Koreas, the representation of ‘Korean’ culture has been necessarily political. The anthropology of ‘Korea’ has been overwhelmingly the anthropology of South Korea. While the South Korean developmentalist state has depicted Koreanness to its own ends, decades of oppositional movements have contested official representations.

The recent and simultaneous academic institutionalization of the anthropology of Korea in and beyond South Korea constitutes another critical context. Importantly, sustained Western anthropological discourse on Korea does not predate the emergence of South Korean anthropological scholarship on Korea. Hence the English language anthropological portrayal of Korea reflects considerable scholarly exchange between South Korean, Korean emigre, and non-Korean anthropologists. Also, the vast majority of US anthropological dissertations on South Korea are the works of South Korean or recent emigre (South) Korean American scholars. This history aside, however, much of South Korea’s anthropological history squarely reflects the Western-centered development of social cultural anthropology. Indeed, the vast majority of anthropologists in South Korea have received their Ph.D. abroad, primarily in the United States.

2. Village Ethnography: Korean Culture Korean Development

In keeping with anthropological history, the early ethnography of South Korea turned to villages as exemplary of Korean culture. Many early works sought to distinguish ‘Korean’ culture from Chinese and Japanese culture. Indeed, anthropology and folklore in Korea often wrote against colonial discourses which denied the historical legitimacy and cultural autonomy of ‘Koreanness’ (Janelli 1986). In a different vein, an interest in Korean distinctiveness outside of Korea in part reflects the marginalization of Korean studies in the Western study of East Asia.

The early portrayal of Korean culture centered on several related dichotomies: elite ( yangban, referring loosely to membership in a genealogy with officeholding ancestors) vs. popular/non-elite culture; Confucianism vs. shamanism/popular religion; and male vs. female. These dichotomies turn on understandings of the (Chinese) Confucianization of Korea (both ideologically and institutionally) over the last four centuries. The cornerstones of Confucian practice and ideology include patrilineal descent and primogeniture, structural separation and subordination of women, and text-based ritual observance, including particularly the veneration of patrilineal ancestry. It is critical to note that the early anthropology of Korea was most comfortable locating ‘Korean culture’ in villages organized as yangban patrilineages.

In the consideration of the dichotomies above there are points of considerable disagreement reflecting theoretical developments in anthropology. While some anthropologists have been comfortable in contrasting elite hegemonic Confucian culture with popular indigenous culture (e.g., Brandt 1990 (1971), Osgood 1951), others have insisted that lived reality obscures or even obviates these scholarly constructs (e.g., Chun 1984, Kendall 1985, Janelli and Janelli 1982). Nonetheless, anthropology has continued to lend considerable attention to the persistent presence of these very categories in Korean public and private discourse (see, for example, the Korean-language writings of Kwang-Kyu Lee). These discussions echo longstanding debates in anthropology: on culture (norm/prescription/ideology vs. practice/reality), social structure (organization vs. cognitive models), gender (isolated vs. integrated worlds), and history (cultural continuity vs. the invention of tradition).

A number of early post-liberation anthropological and sociological works on Korea consider village variation, foremost the distinction between yangbandominated vs. non-dominated villages (or consanguineous vs. non-consanguineous villages) (see, for example, the writings of prominent Korean ethnographer Taik-Kyoo Kim). For many investigators these distinctions took on interest in relation to the apparent collapse of the old status system under the influences of land reform (1950), the Korean War, modern education, technological transformation, changes in economic organization, and burgeoning rural exodus. This literature, however, asks very different questions of villages, looking less for cultural essences, and more to village ‘development’ or ‘modernization’ in a rapidly changing South Korea.

2.1 Korean Cultural Patterns And Tensions

Cornelius Osgood’s (1951; fieldwork, 1947) brief fieldwork in occupied South Korea becomes the first post-liberation village ethnography. In an attempt to distinguish the uniqueness of Korea, Osgood examines the culture and personality of the Korean ‘man’. He writes of an ‘innately emotional’ Korean personality strained under the strictures of Chinese Confucian formalism. Vincent Brandt’s (1990 (1971); fieldwork, 1966) village ethnography seeks to reconcile village communalism and egalitarian social relations with Korea’s dominant ideological system with its rigid lineage, age, and occupational hierarchies. Like Osgood, Brandt is thus interested in cultural tensions in Korea. Prescient of later works, Brandt struggles over how to portray these tensions: an ‘other’ ideological system that competes alongside the Chinese, Confucian elite system; practices and values that comprise a ‘different level of consciousness’; the ideational vs. the behavioral; a lower-class tradition vs. the dominant one; or in terms of ideological and cultural village variance (e.g., in accordance with yangban concentration, and village mode of subsistence).

2.2 Questioning Dichotomies

Roger and Dawnhee Yim Janelli’s (1982; fieldwork, 1973–7) ethnography of ancestor worship rejects the facile equation of Korean ancestor worship, social organization (including gender organization), and filial piety with Confucianism. Rather, the Janellis analyze ritual ideas and practice in relation to Korean social organization—reflective of, but never reducible to, Confucianism. The Janellis are particularly interested in how the dependent, passive ancestor of prestigious formal ancestor worship can be reconciled with the active and potentially hostile ancestor of domestic ancestral rites and shamanism. They correlate women’s much greater interest in ancestral malevolence with their structural vulnerability in Korean patrilocal, patrilineal, and patriarchal social organization. Shamanism and ancestor worship emerge as separate and internally coherent systems, neither wholly Confucian nor anti-Confucian.

Kyung-soo Chun (1984; fieldwork, 1975–6) was similarly interested in social practice, considering reciprocity as an organizing principle in a Korean island village. He scrutinized ‘community’ boundaries by considering social relationships beyond kinship, thus examining ‘practical’ rather than ideal patterns. Laurel Kendall’s (1985; fieldwork, 1977–8) ethnography of village shamanism and women’s domestic ritual employs the insights of feminist anthropology to challenge similarly the dichotomies in question here. Writing against classical anthropological portrayals of women’s ritual as revenge or resistance, Kendall argues that women’s ritual domains contrast with, but by no means subvert, men’s practices and objectives. Kendall nonetheless analyzes women’s ritual roles and practices as a window through which Korean society as a whole can be reconsidered. She highlights social features that challenge the limits of formal patrilineal organization and ideology: the house and household (chip) as women’s space and ritual domain; women’s power as matrons of autonomous households; and women’s roles as the link between bilateral kinship groups.

2.3 Village Variation And ‘Development’

Village variation took on two meanings in the early anthropology of Korea. First, variation allowed some anthropologists to explore gaps between ‘ideal’ structures and social realities; important here are writings on villages that do not feature the dominant cultural pattern or ideology of patrilineal kinship organization. Second, village variation allowed for controlled comparison of developmental outcomes. Sang-Bok Han (1977; fieldwork, 1968–9), for example, examines ecological adaptation in three fishing communities distinguished for not having permanent patrilineal kinship organization (see also the writings of rural sociologists Man-Gap Lee and Ki-hyuk Pak). Building on this legacy, Clark W. Sorensen (1988; fieldwork, 1976–7, 1983) examines peasant households’ adaptation to rapid industrialization, considering transformations of farm labor, village economy, land tenure, and out-migration.

3. The Discursive Turn: The Ethnography Of Social-Cultural Contests And Class Gender

As anthropology has followed the vast majority of South Koreans out of the village to urban and modern organizational venues, ‘traditional’ or ‘Korean’ culture has been revisited. In keeping with their anthropological times, this next generation of Korean ethnographies is less interested in characterizing Korean culture or considering Korean development: it is committed instead to portraying the various discursive contexts and contests in which South Koreans live and make sense of their lives. Important to this endeavor is attention to the state—particularly its nationalist and development rhetorics—as constitutive of personal subjectivities and social life. It is perhaps because of South Korea’s decades of political authoritarianism that Korean anthropology features the state to an extent that many other anthropologies do not. These works challenge the facile portrayal of cultural continuity (from the village to the city or modern organization), considering instead the constructed character of cultural discourses. Persistent parameters of cultural and value difference in the contemporary anthropology of Korea have been class and gender.

3.1 The Politics Of Culture

The new generation of works pays scrupulous attention to the political-economic context of social practice and cultural life. Exemplary is Chungmoo Choi’s (1995) examination of competing appropriations of shamanism and other cultural performances by both the state and oppositional groups. In a similar vein, Roger Janelli (with Dawnhee Yim) (1993; fieldwork, 1987) portrays daily company life in a major corporation in the context of corporate and state representations of ‘Korean culture’. Highlighted are the ways in which company discourses distort the reality of Korean family, lineage, and village life.

A number of works situate contemporary practice in the longue duree of anthropologically informed cultural history. Kendall (1996), for example, sets her ethnography of marriage in South Korea in the context of the twentieth-century sweep of Korean cultural discourses of tradition and modernity, especially apt because wedding styles are often so easily labeled one or the other.

In the 1980s, a number of anthropologists turned their attention to the cultural and historical coordinates of social movements. Abelmann (1996; fieldwork, 1987–8), for example, examines the range of urban and rural actors in a farmers’ movement in order to consider struggles over history and memory (see also H. M. Kim 1997 and S. K. Kim 1997 on the women’s labor movement). Also noteworthy are new ways of reading cultural practices: exemplary is Seong Nae Kim’s (1995) reading of the history of ideological strife in Cheju Island through the dreams of a shaman.

3.2 Class And Gender

Drawing on the theory and methods of anthropology’s discursive turn, anthropologists of Korea have theorized the contingent, complex character of class, and its articulation with gender.

A central debate has considered how to conceptualize the hegemony of middle- /upper-class norms and values, and the counter-hegemony of working-class life and culture. Many works portray the lived reality of class in such a way that it is impossible either to romanticize unbridled class struggle on the one hand, or to consider all Koreans as dupes of hegemonic culture, on the other hand. Exemplary is Seung Kyung Kim’s (1997; fieldwork, 1986–8) examination of the lives of women factory workers in an export industrial zone. This work details women’s contribution to the labor movement and recognizes prevailing views that obscure these women’s powerful desires for social mobility.

Understanding that class and gender are inextricable from one another, a number of anthropological studies examine the workings of class in women’s lives, and women’s roles in the making and social reproduction of class, asserting particularly the importance of women’s work beyond the formal economy (Myung Hye Kim 1992). Anthropologists have also wrestled with how to understand the persistence of hegemonic patriarchal ideologies and social organization. In her examination of women’s reproductive ideologies across class, for example, Eun Shil Kim (2001) considers the complex and subtle play of patriarchy, class dominance, and resistance (see also H. M. Kim 1997). Also important have been analyses of the discursive production of femininity and motherhood over time and across class (see also the Korean language writings of Oakla Cho and Taek-Lim Yoon). Particularly influential have been the prolific Korean language writings of anthropologist Haejoang Cho (2001), who has argued for the multivocality of ‘traditional’ cultural legacies for women (see also Soh 1991).

4. ‘Korean’ Ethnography Into The Future

As anthropology has come increasingly to question its objects of study, many have begun to look beyond South Korea to reconceptualize ‘Korea’. Richard Grinker (1998), for example, considers South Korean cultural and political identity through South Korean state and popular representations of North Korea (see also the prescient work of Choong Soon Kim (1988) on divided families). Also noteworthy are burgeoning transnationally focused studies of Korean diasporic communities that demand reconceptualization of South Korea and the Koreas, including studies of Koreans in China and their ‘return’ to Korea as migrant laborers; the Korean American transnation; North Koreans in Japan; South Korean multinational corporations abroad; and global social activism concerning ‘comfort women’. Given the escalating interest in the transnational production of Korean modernity, still surprisingly unexplored is Japanese colonial ethnography of Korea, as a window on both the Japanese colonial project and post-liberation anthropological knowledge. Similarly, the missionary encounter in Korea remains little studied in and beyond anthropology.

The above horizons aside, it is important to note that for the anthropology of Korea there remain many domains almost entirely unexplored ethnographically (in English), including all levels of schooling; childhood and adolescence; Christianity and Buddhism; the military (with its universal conscription for men); sexuality; leisure (including tourism); the media; and medical systems.

Finally, it is important to note that the anthropology of Korea has become increasingly bold in asserting its contributions to general anthropological debate. The field is ever more keenly aware of the multiplicity of global processes that converge in the Koreas, and of the important anthropological issues presented by the Koreas’ postcoloniality and national division.


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