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Book Reviews The Melodrama ofMobility: Women, Talk, and Class in Contemporary South Korea by Nancy Abelmann. Honolulu; University of Hawai'i Press, 2003. xviii, 325 pp. $27.00 (paper) There are many books in the field of development studies about Korea. Generalized statements abound, supported by any number of statistics, which document the startling social and economic changes that have occurred in the Republic ofKorea (South Korea). And much has been made of structural changes in Korean society in the aggregate. We know about the enormous rural exodus to the cities, the rise of a large laboring sector and new middle class and the massive expansion of education, not to mention the wholesale transformation of material life in South Korea. Yet qualitative issues about what these changes mean in terms of daily life—of how people plan their lives, how material prosperity has changed self-conceptions of class and social identity, what values from the past persist in family mobility strategies, etc.—have yet to be appreciated. This work begins at least to address these issues and provokes us to pause and think about facile judgments about the meaning ofeconomic development in South Korea over the last four decades. In stepping up to address the emotive experience of change, Abelmann challenges our general understanding ofthe social consequences of South Korean economic development itself. Moreover, she has crafted this study in such a way that the reader cannot help but reexamine his/her preconceptions about the meaning of class in general and the rich and changing vocabulary people use to define their socioeconomic position in society. Indeed, as the title suggests, class mobility, however objectively or subjectively realized, is a melodrama—one with a rich, revolving cast ofcharacters, many plot twists, and seemingly endless episodes. The dramatis personae of this melodrama are eight South Korean women interviewed in depth by Abelmann over a decade. Abelmann analyzes their stories for what they reveal about attitudes toward and sensibilities about class, gender, mobility, and family. There is no intention to abstract from these stories a history of class mobility in contemporary South Korea; rather, she examines these stories to problematize our understanding of class movement and identity within a society undergoing sustained and rapid social change. What emerges is a texThe Journal ofKorean Studies 9, no. I (Fall 2004): 185 208 185 1 86The Journal ofKorean Studies tured sense of how the rapidly changing socio/economic structures in South Korea have affected the sensibility of these women, about where they reside within the class and status structure of their society over time. Concurrently, her discussion shows us how markers of class and social status shift as these structures change, or are perceived to change. Theoretically, Abelmann has employed the concept of narrative in order to foreground the relational settings of her women and their families. In terms oftheir class positions, Abelmann attempts to play offboth a subjective sense ofclass based on her women's perceptions of where they might fit in society, and a structural definition of where more objective criteria might place them. This is done deliberately to blur class boundaries. Abelmann asserts that such blurring is necessary if we are to understand the experience of these women and their families within the compressed development drive over the last generation . I found particularly interesting Abelmann's focus on the relationship between her interlocutors' narratives and power itself. Here, she is sensitive to where personal interpretations ofmobility conflict with official narratives, producing conflict in turn with our perceptions of change and continuity in the midst of social change. Social scientists are fond of generalized explanations of cause and effect, and journalists in turn freeze their pronouncements in time, creating a broader narrative ofa new fixed reality. Abelmann's stories complicate both postures by showing how families track change and alter strategies ofmobility while also being mindful ofsocial continuities of hierarchy that only modulate over time, in spite of change. Ifthere is a fault to this study, it is a fault of including too much theory centered on a discrete set of, admittedly in-depth, interviews. While she warns us to not generalize from her individual cases, it is hard to not search for...

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Additional Information

ISSN
2158-1665
Print ISSN
0731-1613
Pages
pp. 185-187
Launched on MUSE
2011-03-30
Open Access
No
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