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Department of Sociology


The Cultural Logic of Compressed Modernity: South Korea’s (Non)transition from Neotraditionalism to Multiculturalism

Tue 28 May, Room B, 17 Mill Lane. Refreshments from 12:00, Lecture from 12:30.

Since the mid-2000s, as an unprecedented cultural paradox, foreign brides from across Asia have been mobilized as substitutive labor for Korean rural families’ social reproduction that is still very (neo)traditional in terms of familial role divisions, gender/generation hierarchies, behavioral normativities, and so forth. In a sense, modern Korean families, particularly in rural areas, may be more traditional (or Confucian) on average than their ancestral counterparts because postcolonial modernization rendered them to universally appropriate the traditionally aristocratic sociocultural system of Confucianism despite, or in conjunction with, their universalized socioeconomic status as smallholding peasant after land reform.

Such neotraditionalized attributes of rural families, besides the chronic economic depression and infrastructural backwardness of rural areas, have widely been rejected by local Korean women in their long-term preferences and decisions in life. Unable to find willing Korean women, “forced bachelors” in rural areas, frequently in their middle ages, have desperately sought for foreign spouses who would help mend the badly destabilized conditions of social reproduction in neotraditional rural families. The loudly publicized notion of multicultural citizenship, as touted in South Korea’s latest all-front globalization, more hides than reveals most foreign brides’ everyday conditions of life and work.

Nevertheless, the mass arrival and permanent presence of foreign brides (and the increase of their mixed-blood children) have triggered not only a paternalistic social atmosphere for helping relieve their difficulties in Korean life but also a cultural and political aspiration of South Koreans for reinventing themselves as a multicultural or cosmopolitan subject – multicultural in terms of their coexistence with foreign bodies with permanently frozen and repeatedly staged cultural differences. Under a sort of Baumanian“cloakroom” multiculturalism, South Korean society remains oblivious of, if not indifferent to, the simple fact that what has been mobilized from poor Asian countries is not so much the cultural attributes of foreign brides as the material instrumentalities of their gender as women.

About the Presenter:

Chang Kyung-Sup is a professor of sociology at Seoul National University, South Korea and a visiting fellow of Clare Hall, University of Cambridge. His work covers the particular workings of socioeconomic institutions and cultural/political practices in Korean/Asian development and modernization, focusing on the interfaces (1) between national and global dynamics of social change (“compressed modernity”, “Asianization of Asia”), (2) between economic development and social policy (“developmental liberalism”), (3) between socioeconomic reality and political modernity (“transformative citizenship”), and (4) between macro and micro institutions of social reproduction (“familial liberalism”). His recent books include: Developmental Liberalism in South Korea: Formation, Degeneration, and Transnationalization (Palgrave Macmillan, 2019), South Korea under Compressed Modernity: Familial Political Economy in Transition (Routledge, 2010), The Logic of Compressed Modernity: The Transformative Structure of Korean Society (under revision for University of California Press), and The Wiley Blackwell Encyclopedia of Social Theory, 5 volumes (coedited with Bryan S. Turner, et al., 2017), etc. His related articles have appeared in British Journal of Sociology, Economy and Society, Rationality and Society, World Development, Journal of Development Studies, etc.