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Introduction: Korea through Ethnography

From: Journal of Korean Studies
Volume 17, Number 2, Fall 2012
pp. 245-251 | 10.1353/jks.2012.0022

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All of the articles in this special issue, as our title promises, draw from ethnographic data. Each article takes us "there," although variously, to particular scenes, spaces, bodies, places, people, media landscapes, and so on. The ethnographic methods across these articles are diverse, as are their modes of presentation; for example, in some of the articles we are more palpably introduced to the ways in which the ethnographer acts and is acted upon. While each of the studies in this issue focuses on particular kinds of people—from breast cancer survivors to Korean adoptees residing in Seoul—the reader will find these studies quite different from the village or community studies of classical ethnography. Nonetheless, the writers assembled here exhibit the best of the ethnographic tradition with carefully chosen vignettes that evoke not only particular social and cultural scenes but also mobilize important arguments and scholarly interventions. Indeed, these pieces demonstrate beautifully the ability of ethnography to surprise, and the ways in which the "field" teaches us about the complexity of lived experience. We begin here with examples of these evocative vignettes that both take us there and contribute to an argument. We then introduce themes that cut across the articles and demonstrate the powerful way in which ethnographic evidence can speak to the most important contemporary developments in South Korea—globalization, the changing family, and transforming cultures of democracy and capitalism among them.

With Laura Nelson we are surprised that "among the happiest women [Nelson had] met in South Korea" (p. 261) were breast cancer survivors. We learn of the ways in which their postcancer lives had been transformed—from one woman deciding to learn how to ride a bicycle, to another letting herself take a daily walk and to pause to listen to musicians, to yet another "[giving] up on perfectionism" and "[aiming only] to put out 70 percent of her energy [vs. 150 percent before]" (pp. 260-61). These changes spoke to their shared social-cultural diagnosis that stress had been critical to their cancer etiology. It is against this ethnographic portrait that Nelson introduces the paradox that when these women acted publicly as cancer educators they neglected to ever mention stress.

We join Yoonhee Kang at Mr. Choi's house in Singapore, where he is taking care of his children who are "early study abroad students" (pre-college), when his wife calls from South Korea, where she works as the family breadwinner. We listen in as he ironically, chuckling all along, coaches his daughter to tell her mother that she is indeed busy studying (although she wasn't)—"Tell her you are now studying very hard. So hard your brain hurts [laughing]" (p. 287). This vignette goes directly to the heart of Kang's argument about the ways in which study abroad fathers think of their parenting as broad-minded and superior to their wives' narrow, academically focused parenting.

With Eleana Kim, we meet adoptees who have returned to South Korea and listen in on various cultural representations of these returns. With her we encounter, for example, the South Korean volunteer at an adoptee service NGO who says, "Most Koreans can't understand why adoptees would give up a good job and a comfortable life to come to Korea to teach at a cram school" (p. 300). This is a comment that captures Kim's argument about the dominant way in which South Korean society frames returnee adoptees as enviable neoliberal subjects able to capitalize on their cosmopolitan capital, such as Olympic skier Toby Dawson. Elided are those returnee adoptees whose job prospects abroad are not so rosy (and hence are willing to teach at a cram school in Seoul).

Jiyeon Kang's research interlocutors are twenty-something youth who, in 2006, recall the 2002 candlelight vigils to protest the US military "vehicular accident" that killed two young South Korean girls. These young people share with Kang, a communications scholar, their "corporeal memories," namely, their embodied experience of the vigils. Further, for some of the youth the candles themselves rekindled memories of school field trips in which they lit similar candles in honor of their parents. One woman who had been in eleventh grade in 2002...

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