Transformation of Family Ideology in Upper-Middle-Class Families in Urban South Korea

By Kim, Myung-hye | Ethnology, Winter 1993 | Go to article overview

Transformation of Family Ideology in Upper-Middle-Class Families in Urban South Korea


Kim, Myung-hye, Ethnology


This article examines conventional views and assumptions about the family, and challenges the language often used to refer to the Korean family in a timeless, functional way. It reviews the positions and status of women in traditional Confucian families and compares them with their contemporary counterparts by taking gender and age as the two major categorizing principles. Considering the family as the workshop of social reproduction (Fortes 1958) and as the crucial social site of gender processes and class processes (Fraad, Resnick, and Wolff 1989), this study analyzes the historical development of the inter-relationships between two major social institutions (that is, the family and the state). It also investigates the ways in which the structure of the upper-middle-class family and women's experience of family life have been transformed as late-industrial capitalism has developed in South Korea.

The study is based on ethnographic research of 72 upper-middle-class families conducted in 1990 in Seoul, Korea. I established contacts with these families through personal networks, such as relatives and friends. Without these personal networks, this study would have been impossible due to the reluctance of the families in this social category toward any type of public examination. Throughout this article, the term, class, is used in the Weberian sense of status more than according to the Marxian conception of class. Upper-middle-class families in this study live in expensive condominium complexes that are recently established in the Kangnam (south of the Han river) area and share a variety of social status indicators, such as income and occupation of the male head of the family, ownership of family property, size of the condominium, monthly household budget, educational level of family members, and life-styles.

The majority of the male heads of the families I studied are white-collar workers, such as managers or executives of private companies (46.5 per cent), entrepreneurs (25.6 per cent), professionals (13.7 per cent), high-level government officials (6.8 per cent), and other (7.4 per cent). Every family in my sample has one or more kinds of family property, such as stocks, cash savings, land, second homes and condominiums, and office buildings. Seventy-five per cent of the families live in the condominiums that are valued at more than half a million U.S. dollars. They are spacious and roomy condominiums, relative to the South Korean standard; i.e., larger than 40 pyung (1,212 [m.sup.2]) up to 61 (1,848 [m.sup.2), ad have more than four bedrooms. Monthly household expenses of the families, which are primarily based on the income of male heads, is well above the average household budget of the nation, 2.6 million won (US$ 3,714) on average.(2) The educational level of the families is also higher than that of the national average: 992 per cent of the male heads and 76 per cent of the wives of the families have a college diploma or post-graduate education. Consumption patterns of the families and various shops of luxurious, often imported, items which are located in adjacent areas to their condominium complexes also create a Bourdieuian sense of "distinction" from other Seoulites (Bourdieu 1984).(3) I do not claim that the families in my sample are representatives of their class in any statistical sense, yet their stories do reveal their class positions, and their class-bound family ideology and family relationships.(4) Between 9 and 18 per cent of the national population belong to this class (EPB 1990; Soh 1984), and they are concentrated in Seoul.(5) Upper-middle-class families are highly visible in many ways: they are economically and culturally dominant, and are often identified as a symbol of the nation's economic progress.

PATRIARCHAL CONFUCIANISM AND THE KOREAN FAMILY

The family is considered the basic component of social life in Korea, and its perpetuation has been of paramount importance under partriarchal Confucianism.

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