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Ethnography in South Korea in the New Millennium, 2000-2011

From: Journal of Korean Studies
Volume 17, Number 2, Fall 2012
pp. 407-414 | 10.1353/jks.2012.0021

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Any Koreanist who has visited South Korea since its democratic transition in the 1980s will comment on the rapid pace of social change. In the East Asia region, only the dramatic rise of China can overshadow the transformation of South Korea, and when I was conducting fieldwork in South Korea, Koreans often told me in 2011-12 that "South Korea developed in fifty years, while Japan took one hundred." Recent academic research across disciplines highlights these changes, with a large volume of work devoted to South Korea's recent "neoliberal" turn and uneasy "multicultural" demographic shifts. This review essay is intended to provide an introduction to three manuscripts with significant ethnographic elements, one an under-reviewed ethnography from 2005 (Prendergast) and two published in the last year (Kim and Song, both 2011). These three works are valuable resources for the student of contemporary South Korea, presenting accessible introductions to topics of current concern. Prendergast provides rich ethnographic context for national anxiety over the South Korean transition to "graying society" status, Kim discusses the evolving multiculturalism of South Korea, and Song's edited volume guides the reader through various iterations of neoliberalism in South Korea since the early 2000s.

David Prendergast's From Elder to Ancestor joins a small number of other English-language book-length ethnographic works of the last decade to focus on the lives of Koreans outside of the megacity of Seoul. These works include Robert Oppenheim's Kyŏngju Things (2008) and parts of Choong Soon Kim's Voices of Foreign Brides (2011). Prendergast conducted his fieldwork in the rural county of Puan in North Chŏlla Province in 1999-2000, collecting material through forty case studies of elderly residents and their families, using interviews and participant-observation in life events, as well as drawing upon census and other official data. Thus in the selection of a field site, Prendergast's ethnography appears at first glance to resemble more "classic" ethnographies of rural South Korea in the 1980s and into the 1990s rather than the often multi-sited, urban ethnographies produced since the turn of the millennium. However, like Oppenheim, Prendergast skillfully relates processes taking place in a specific locale to those of South Korea as a whole, simultaneously reminding readers that Seoul does not represent all of South Korea, and that processes that seem locally bound affect the national body. Although several studies have addressed the emptying of the South Korean countryside during postwar industrialization, as young men and women left rural areas for cities, few have sufficiently addressed those that remained in the countryside and the migration chains and kinship networks between countryside, provincial cities, and Seoul.

In his first two chapters Prendergast aligns his theoretical and methodological framework with the "new kinship/family studies" literature and the turn from "official kinship" (mapping and delineating family structure) to "practical kinship" (the way kinship networks operate "on the ground," p. 6). The first chapter includes a review not only of the literature that informs his theoretical argument but also of previous scholarship on the Korean family specifically. Prendergast rejects the "developmental progression" or "binary categories" approaches to family in South Korea, and East Asia more broadly, stating that "[t]he core questions of this book have been forged from a dissatisfaction with how kinship relations are represented in the heated, enduring arguments about individualization and family change in East Asia, Europe and America" (p. 12). He provides more concrete examples of his approach in chapter 2, which lays out background information on the field site of Puan and the strengths and limitations of the study.

Three early chapters of the book provide an introduction to the structural considerations of kinship that guide care of the elderly in South Korea, consider retirement and residence, and gender dynamics within marriage and its bearing on elder care. Prendergast notes an important structural difference between South Korea and most other societies with which readers will be familiar, namely, that "children in Korea have not only a moral duty but also a legal duty to provide for their aged parents should there be a need" (p. 45). Although the South Korean government has established a more extensive national welfare program in...

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