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The Melodrama of Mobility

The Melodrama of Mobility: Women, Talk, and Class in Contemporary South Korea

Copyright Date: 2003
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  • Book Info
    The Melodrama of Mobility
    Book Description:

    How do people make sense of their world in the face of the breakneck speed of contemporary social change? Through the lives and narratives of eight women, The Melodrama of Mobility chronicles South Korea's experience of just such dizzyingly rapid development. Abelmann captures the mood, feeling, and language of a generation and an era while providing a rare window on the personal and social struggles of South Korean modernity. Drawing also from television soap operas and films, she argues that a melodramatic sensibility speaks to South Korea's transformation because it preserves the tension and ambivalence of daily life in unsettled times. The melodramatic mode helps people to wonder: Can individuals be blamed for their social fates? How should we live? Who can say who is good or bad? By combining the ethnographic tools of anthropology, an engagement with prevailing sociological questions, and a literary approach to personal narratives, The Melodrama of Mobility offers a rich portrait of the experience of compressed modernity in the non-West.

    eISBN: 978-0-8248-6485-9
    Subjects: Anthropology, History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-viii)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. ix-x)
    (pp. xi-xiv)
    (pp. xv-xviii)
  5. 1 INTRODUCTION: The Melodrama of Mobility
    (pp. 1-32)

    Although they necessarily fall at the beginnings of books, introductions strike me as foremost betwixt and between. With one arm they coax the readers, imploring them to read on, promising treasures in the pages that stretch ahead. With the other arm, they pull back, warning that the offerings are frail, that they falter here or there. Hubris makes her claims, just as humility softens, or even retracts, them. And ethnography, with its often resolutely local lens—focused, in the case of this book, on the talk of not even a dozen middle-aged South Korean women—similarly straddles diverse claims: at...

    (pp. 33-58)

    This chapter introduces the eight women who figure in this book, as well as the paths that led me to them. Reflection on these paths begins this book’s consideration of South Korean class maps. My stories toward these women are dispersed over space and time, critical coordinates for thinking about class. At the close of this chapter, I discuss these women in a shared social field in order to begin my foray into the complexity of class location and identities for women of this generation.

    That the stories of how I met the women in this book are my stories...

  7. 3 KEY WORDS
    (pp. 59-99)

    During my conversations with the eight South Korean women I introduced in chapter 1, a particular world of words emerged, demanding that I take note of them. Over time I began to underline these words in my field notes, to anticipate them in my conversations, and to use them myself as prompts in conversations. In the earlier days of this project, I imagined that I would write a book with some sort of a glossary to serve as a guide to the women’s stories. Over the course of the research, however, it became clear to me that the hardest words...

  8. 4 CLASS WORK: Education Stories
    (pp. 100-131)

    There is little that is more vulnerable or more volatile in the South Korean social imagination than education. That is, as education has so long captured the aspirations and dreams of South Koreans, even slight changes in its meanings are felt in seismic proportions—ripe for a melodramatic sensibility, as discussed in chapter 1.

    Perhaps the most sensitive of social registers in South Korea, education is shorthand, a Rorschach for, dare I say, almost everything else. The education stories that follow take us into the early through middle years of the 1990s, in which this project is anchored, and extend...

  9. 5 SOCIAL MOBILITY: “Facts” and “Fictions”
    (pp. 132-163)

    In chapters 3 and 4 we observed the complexity of South Korean class and class mobility. The women’s class locations and identifications, told obliquely through the stories of the networks through which I came to meet them, are, we learned, never static, and are inextricable from gender and from gendered stories. The education stories tutored us in the complexity of class work; it is there that people set out to effect their own or others’ class mobility. In these stories, we also saw that gender—ideas about gendered ways of being and becoming—is always already part of the picture....

    (pp. 164-186)

    In chapter 5 we left off on the difficulties of assessing social mobility—on the Laundress’s various accounts of educating her three sons: various for the extent to which she appreciates her extended family’s contributions, and various for her account of the meaning of that education in South Korea. In both senses, we observed how her view of her own role, or agency, varied. I argued in chapter 5 that the tension between structural constraints and her own contribution to things reflects larger social debates on the course and character of South Korea’s rapid social change or “development.” Similarly, in...

  11. 7 GENDERING DISPLACEMENT: Men, Masculinity, and the Nation
    (pp. 187-213)

    This chapter focuses on a prevailing national and historical narrative: that of male subjectivity (chuch’esŏng). I consider how male subjectivity—particularly its loss or displacement—works as an actor in the narratives of the women in this book, and in South Korea more generally (see Em 1995; Jager 1996a; and Schmid 1997 on Korean gendered narratives of nation and history). Beginning with a discussion of male displacement, I then introduce three films in order to elaborate and illustrate the popular and public narration of the loss or displacement of male subjectivity. Next, we will consider gender in national narratives more...

  12. 8 ALL IN THE FAMILY: Class Distances and Divides
    (pp. 214-239)

    In this chapter we follow kinship lines in and out of the nuclear family: to women’s siblings, siblings-in-law, and cousins of various distances. Increasingly in anthropology, kinship is understood not as a static map of all blood relations fanning out from “ego”—the center of the traditional kinship chart—but rather as a map, however lopsided and quixotic, that traces the odd assembly of persons who matter (Carsten 2000; Stone 2000). The kinship charts in this chapter, then, aim to trace the ties across which things, ideas, and images are exchanged, and through which meaning is made. The chapter focuses...

    (pp. 240-280)

    This chapter focuses on Mi-yŏn’s Mother, on the complicated fabric of her reflections on life—her own, and the life project generally. This chapter’s title includes ellipses at the end because all talk is, as noted in earlier chapters, unfinished—the dialogue and reflection go on—and because the particular circumstances of these women’s South Korean lives have made it so difficult for anyone to speak definitively. Thus the ellipses follow “when it’s all said and done” to underscore how very hard it has been for many of the women in this book to enjoy a seamless, easy relationship to...

  14. 10 CONCLUSION: Living Through Compressed Modernity
    (pp. 281-290)

    This conclusion will, I hope, answer the simplest and hardest question of all: What have this book’s social mobility stories and analyses taught us about the South Korean experience of modernity? It also addresses how this book contributes more specifically to our understanding of women and class in contemporary South Korea. After braving these queries, I return to Mi-yŏn’s Mother, to her thoughts on the written word, in a coda.

    Compressed Modernity If there is any consensus among scholars about South Korea’s experience of modernity, it is about its compressed pace. Sociologist Hagen Koo writes of South Korea’s modernization as...

  15. CODA
    (pp. 291-294)

    From their very start to their final finish, all books are a collection of words—a prosaic thought indeed. This one has also paid attention to the work of words themselves. As I have written earlier, all of the women in this book considered their lives worthy of the written word. We could ask of them, “Worthy in what sense?” Although I do not presume that all of their answers would be the same, I think there would be common themes: among them their lives having been hard and their having been witness to earth-shattering transformations in the world about...

    (pp. 295-312)
  17. INDEX
    (pp. 313-325)
  18. Back Matter
    (pp. 326-326)