Measured Excess

Measured Excess: Status, Gender, and Consumer Nationalism in South Korea

Laura C. Nelson
Copyright Date: 2000
Pages: 224
https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.7312/nels11616
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    Measured Excess
    Book Description:

    This insightful analysis of the ways in which South Korean economic development strategies have reshaped the country's national identity gives specific attention to the manner in which women, as the primary agents of consumption, have been affected by this transformation. Past scholarship on the culture of nationalism has largely focused on the ways in which institutions utilize memory and "history" to construct national identity. In a provocative departure, Laura C. Nelson challenges these assumptions with regard to South Korea, arguing that its identity has been as much tied to notions of the future as rooted in a recollection of the past.

    Following a backlash against consumerism in the late 1980s, the government spearheaded a program of frugality that eschewed imported goods and foreign travel in order to strengthen South Korea's national identity. Consumption -- with its focus on immediate gratification -- threatened the state's future-oriented discourse of national unity. In response to this perceived danger, Nelson asserts, the government cast women as the group whose "excessive desires" for material goods were endangering the nation.

    eISBN: 978-0-231-50587-1
    Subjects: Economics, Marketing & Advertising, Sociology, History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. PREFACE: NOTES ON METHODS AND WRITING
    (pp. vii-xvi)
  4. ACKNOWLEDGMENTS
    (pp. xvii-xx)
  5. CHAPTER 1 CONSUMER NATIONALISM
    (pp. 1-32)

    In 1997 the economies of eastern Asia stumbled. Even before the summer devaluation of the Thai baht, industrialists, international financiers, and global money traders were signaling their shaken faith in what had seemed to be the world’s most vigorous economic region. As investors pulled out of Asia, currencies and stock markets from Thailand to Seoul tumbled toward disaster. By the end of the year, the South Korean government was forced to admit that the nation had insufficient foreign currency reserves to make upcoming payments on its external debts. The International Monetary Fund proposed a “rescue package” of U.S.$57 billion in...

  6. CHAPTER 2 “SEOUL TO THE WORLD, THE WORLD TO SEOUL”
    (pp. 33-70)

    In the early 1990s about one of every four South Koreans lived in Seoul. Nearly one-half the population lived within commuting distance of the capital. Seoul is simultaneously unique—it is unlike other cities in South Korea—and representative—whereas a generation ago South Koreans imagined their nation as a nation of farmers, now Seoul stands for the nation to the outside world and to South Koreans themselves. The city has played an important role both in the material establishment—literally, the construction—of South Korea’s modernity as well as in its image making. The story of the development of...

  7. CHAPTER 3 PRODUCING NEW CONSUMPTION
    (pp. 71-106)

    Until quite recently, hunger was a common season of the year for many people in South Korea. In his ethnography of a coastal village in the mid-1960s, Vincent Brandt reported that

    the village normally has a net grain deficit. In the past this has meant that the fifteen or twenty poorest families with almost no rice land at all have had to restrict their consumption to the barest minimum necessary for survival. In the spring, after winter food stocks are exhausted and before the barley harvest in late May and June, such people usually suffer from severe malnutrition for a...

  8. CHAPTER 4 KWASOBI CH’UBANG: MEASURING EXCESS
    (pp. 107-138)

    During the late 1980s and early 1990s public critique of the pace and scale of consumer expansiveness intensified. Kwasobi,¹ a Sino-Korean word meaning excessive consumption, was the term applied to the phenomenon of consuming beyond what was appropriate. Measuring this appropriateness, however, was a complex and murky matter, and the terms of propriety shifted with changing national economic and social circumstances. Appropriateness might vary with social categories such as age or class, or it might adhere to crude nationalistic interest in supporting domestic producers. More subtly, consumer responsibility might involve participating in the cosmopolitan world of imported goods, or it...

  9. CHAPTER 5 ENDANGERING THE NATION, CONSUMING THE FUTURE
    (pp. 139-172)

    In early November 1991 the edition of Newsweek magazine distributed in East Asia featured an article entitled, “Too Rich, Too Soon.”¹ The article opened with the question: “South Koreans are celebrating their economic success—by going shopping. But now times are tough. Are they living beyond their means?” In the first paragraph, the article reported on the government’s campaign to reduce conspicuous consumption. “Officials of President Roh Tae-woo’s government recently called in the wives of a number of army generals and delivered a stern lecture: stop spending so much money. Stay out of fancy hotel restaurants. Don’t frequent luxury stores....

  10. CODA
    (pp. 173-190)

    Arjun Appadurai has suggested that “we treat demand, hence consumption, as an aspect of the overall political economy of societies. Demand, that is, emerges as a function of a variety of social practices and classifications, rather than as a mysterious emanation of human needs, [or] a mechanical response to social manipulation” (Appadurai 1986a:29). In South Korea throughout the period we have been examining, there was, in fact, significant social manipulation of demand emanating from the government and from its key partners in development, the chaebŏl. South Korean consumers responded, but by no means mechanically. Expanded consumer options brought new tools...

  11. APPENDIX
    (pp. 191-192)
  12. NOTES
    (pp. 193-214)
  13. REFERENCES
    (pp. 215-234)
  14. INDEX
    (pp. 235-246)