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The Melodrama of Mobility

Women, Talk, and Class in Contemporary South Korea

Nancy Abelmann

Publication Year: 2003

How do people make sense of their world in the face of the breakneck speed of contemporary social change? Through the lives and narratives of eight women, The Melodrama of Mobility chronicles South Korea's experience of just such dizzyingly rapid development. Abelmann captures the mood, feeling, and language of a generation and an era while providing a rare window on the personal and social struggles of South Korean modernity. Drawing also from television soap operas and films, she argues that a melodramatic sensibility speaks to South Korea's transformation because it preserves the tension and ambivalence of daily life in unsettled times. The melodramatic mode helps people to wonder: Can individuals be blamed for their social fates? How should we live? Who can say who is good or bad? By combining the ethnographic tools of anthropology, an engagement with prevailing sociological questions, and a literary approach to personal narratives, The Melodrama of Mobility offers a rich portrait of the experience of compressed modernity in the non-West.

Published by: University of Hawai'i Press


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p. ix

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pp. xi-xiv

An embarrassing number of people helped me with this book. How absurd to reduce their generosity, work, and kindness to fleeting reference here. More absurd, really, is that neither here nor in the body of the book do I name the eight women featured in it. To call...

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pp. xv-xviii

Readers cannot help but pick up on the accents and the obsessions of a work, even a short work. What follows in this preface can thus be taken as hints for the reader. The seeds of this project can be found...

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1 Introduction: The Melodrama of Mobility

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pp. 1-32

Although they necessarily fall at the beginnings of books, introductions strike me as foremost betwixt and between. With one arm they coax the readers, imploring them to read on, promising treasures in the pages that stretch ahead. With the other arm,....

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2 The Eight Women

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pp. 33-58

This chapter introduces the eight women who figure in this book, as well as the paths that led me to them. Reflection on these paths begins this book’s consideration of South Korean class maps. My stories toward...

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3 Key Words

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pp. 59-99

During my conversations with the eight South Korean women I introduced in chapter 1, a particular world of words emerged, demanding that I take note of them. Over time I began to underline these words in my field notes, to anticipate them in my conversations, and to use them myself as prompts in conversations. In the earlier days...

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4 Class Work: Education Stories

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pp. 100-131

There is little that is more vulnerable or more volatile in the South Korean social imagination than education. That is, as education has so long captured the aspirations and dreams of South Koreans, even slight changes in its meanings are felt in seismic proportions—ripe for a melodramatic sensibility, as discussed in chapter 1. Perhaps the...

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5 Social Mobility: "Fact" and "Fiction"

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pp. 132-163

In chapters 3 and 4 we observed the complexity of South Korean class and class mobility. The women’s class locations and identifications, told obliquely through the stories of the networks through which I came to meet them, are, we learned, never static, and are inextricable from gender and from gendered stories. The education...

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6 Personality Speaking

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pp. 164-186

In chapter 5 we left off on the difficulties of assessing social mobility—on the Laundress’s various accounts of educating her three sons: various for the extent to which she appreciates her extended family’s contributions, and various for her account of the meaning of that education in South Korea. In both senses,...

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7 Gendering Displacement: Men, Masculinity, and the Nation

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pp. 187-213

This chapter focuses on a prevailing national and historical narrative: that of male subjectivity (chuch’esŭng). I consider how male subjectivity—particularly its loss or displacement—works as an actor in the narratives of the women in this book, and in South Korea more generally...

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8 All in the Family: Class Distances and Divides

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pp. 214-239

In this chapter we follow kinship lines in and out of the nuclear family: to women’s siblings, siblings-in-law, and cousins of various distances. Increasingly in anthropology, kinship is understood not as a static map of all blood relations fanning out from “ego”—the center of the traditional kinship chart—but rather as a map, however lopsided and quixotic, that traces the odd assembly of persons who matter (Carsten 2000; Stone 2000). The...

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9 When It's All Said and Done ...

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pp. 240-280

This chapter focuses on Mi-yŭn’s Mother, on the complicated fabric of her reflections on life—her own, and the life project generally. This chapter’s title includes ellipses at the end because all talk is, as noted in earlier chapters, unfinished—the dialogue and reflection go on—and because the particular circumstances of these women’s South Korean lives have made it so difficult for anyone to speak definitively. Thus...

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10 Conclusion: Living Through Compressed Modernity

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pp. 281-290

This conclusion will, I hope, answer the simplest and hardest question of all: What have this book’s social mobility stories and analyses taught us about the South Korean experience of modernity? It also addresses how this book contributes more specifically to our understanding of women and class in contemporary South Korea. After braving...

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pp. 291-293

From their very start to their final finish, all books are a collection of words—a prosaic thought indeed. This one has also paid attention to the work of words themselves. As I have written earlier, all of the women in this book considered their lives worthy of the written word. We...


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pp. 295-311


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pp. 313-325

E-ISBN-13: 9780824864859
Print-ISBN-13: 9780824825966

Publication Year: 2003

OCLC Number: 651971455
MUSE Marc Record: Download for The Melodrama of Mobility

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Middle-aged women -- Korea (South) -- Social conditions.
  • Social classes -- Korea (South).
  • Social mobility -- Korea (South).
  • Korea (South) -- History -- 1948-1960.
  • Korea (South) -- History -- 1960-1988.
  • Korea -- Social conditions -- 1945-.
  • Middle-aged women -- Employment -- Korea (South).
  • Middle-aged women -- Korea (South) -- Economic conditions.
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