- Measured Excess: Status, Gender, and Consumer Nationalism in South Korea
In Measured Excess, Laura Nelson makes two persuasive arguments. First, she argues that public discourse about kwasobi, excessive consumption, was a way for South Koreans to express their patriotism through what she calls "consumer nationalism." Consumer nationalism is a trend that emerged in the 1990s, allowing the construction of national identity by denying the present through frugality in order to have a brighter, collectively imagined future. In other words, national identity is [End Page 158] based on the future, not the past. Second, Nelson contends that women as housewives are perceived as the main consumers and are torn between duty to family and nation when making household consumption choices. By making choices that threaten the nation through "overspending" on their families and themselves, South Korean women are seen as potentially dangerous to the national agenda.
Nelson's assertion that women became "dangerous" as consumers adds another dimension to scholarly work that has suggested that South Korean women interacting with the world outside of Korea are perceived as threatening the nation's patriarchal Confucian order or national pride. This theme of danger is present in studies of comfort women, prostitutes, factory workers, and activists and is the focus of Elaine Kim and Chungmoo Choi's edited volume on Korean women, Dangerous Women: Gender and Korean Nationalism.
In examining the gendered aspects of consumer nationalism, Nelson builds on gender studies, which have mainly focused on the gender division of labor in Korea, on women workers in agricultural and industrial sectors, as housewives, in the legal profession, in politics and women's movements, and as brides-to-be. Nelson's is one of few ethnographies that situate women at the center of a newly transformed public discourse. Like the work of Laurel Kendall and Nancy Abelmann, Nelson's study links morality to nationalist expressions but emphasizes discourse on consumption rather than modernity. Much of the good work in English on Korean women has been in edited volumes, so this ethnography is a welcome addition. Nelson's ethnography also presents a unique twist to the study of the Korean political economy, which has ranged from political analyses by journalists such as Mark Clifford to in-depth studies of chaebŏl such as that by Roger Janelli. Nelson's work stands out for her integration of politics, economics, and gender and her combination of historical and anthropological perspectives.
Nelson does several things exceptionally well in this volume. First, she clearly and comprehensibly traces the historical roots of the kwasobi ch'ubang campaign to antecedents in the scornful attitudes of yangban (nobility) toward money making and in the South Korean resistance to the Japanese occupation and the postwar American military presence.
Second, she supports her contentions with salient details from personal observations over a seven-year span, from 1985 to 1992. Her self-reflective interspersion of personal vignettes and interviewees' perspectives gleaned from one hundred short interviews, twenty-five daily itineraries and maps, and daily participant observations provides a powerful and interesting firsthand account of an important phenomenon that affected virtually every aspect of Korean culture in the 1990s. Her methodological [End Page 159] approach of asking women to map important places in Seoul and write down their daily itineraries provided a clear and convincing picture of the differences between the groups of women she interviewed. By comparing women interviewed in Yoido, the first newly developed section of Seoul and the seat of political and financial power, to women living in "Talgoljjagi," a working-class neighborhood on a mountaintop settlement, Nelson shows that the idea and experience of the kwasobi discourse differ greatly, thus dismissing the idea of a homogenous experience of gendered nationalism. In Yoido, for example, one woman, Suk Hi, agonizes over whether to take her children to Disneyland despite her son's principal's orders to the students not to travel abroad. In Talgoljjagi, a woman's daughter-in-law bought her three dresses. She said wryly: "When I was young...