Academic journal article Journal of Comparative Family Studies

Shame in Korean Families

Academic journal article Journal of Comparative Family Studies

Shame in Korean Families

Article excerpt

It could be argued that shame is a common feeling and concept across cultures so that knowing how shame is expressed, understanding the meanings of shame, understanding its sociocultural context, and knowing how it is dealt with in one culture would be of great help in understanding shame in any other culture. But it can also be argued that "shame" is different to some extent from language to language and culture to culture. This perspective is consistent with a large body of literature that focuses on how shame and other emotions are shaped, modified, experienced, and interpreted culturally (e.g., Keeler, 1983; Kitayama, Markus, & Matsumoto, 1995; Kressel, 1992; Rosaldo, 1983).

Some writers who take a universalistic view, that shame is very much the same across cultures, try to take into account the literature on culture and emotion (e.g., Lewis, 1992). But it is still common in the U.S. for scholarly and clinical accounts of shame to ignore the literature on cultural differences. For example, in those accounts the focus in on the isolated individual feeling shame, and often shame is seen, in its extreme forms, as undesirable because it blocks optimum individual functioning.

In the discussion that follows, we argue that in Korea shame is familiar as well as individual and in many ways is valued and encouraged in Korean society. In Korea, shame is shaped, defined, and dealt with in ways that make it of central importance in the functioning of individuals and families. Thus, to frame shame in Korea in terms of a universalizing literature based on studies of people in other societies could obscure or discount some of what is central about shame in Korea.

We do not argue that knowing about shame in one part of the world is unhelpful in knowing about shame elsewhere. For example, to cite a useful overview by Barrett (1995), a common core of understanding about shame across cultures might include that it is social, serves important functions, is associated with withdrawal from social contact, and is based on socialization to care about the opinion of others. But from our perspective it is of utmost importance to understand culturally-based shame in its own terms. We hope what follows makes that case, that the reader will see that understanding the Korean context for "shame" takes us far beyond where we are if we simply apply universalistic western individual psychology views of "shame" to the Korean context.


This article is based on intensive interviewing of the first author by the second. It could be framed as an ethnographic interview with a single knowledgeable informant, as a collaborative discussion leading to a theory of shame in Korean families, or as a qualitative study of one person's construction of aspects of her own society. As a native of Korea, her lifelong experience informs the paper's characterizing of Korean family, culture, language, sociology, and psychology. Like many traditional ethnographic informants she is marginal to her culture in that she can function in the realities of another culture. She is a Korean cultural insider but has lived in the U. S. for several years while working on her Ph. d. Thus, she has learned to see her society through the lens of a second language and culture.

This paper was developed out of a series of intensive interviews with the second author as interviewer and the first as informant. We have tried to make this paper as reflexive as possible in that the first author developed the first draft of this paper and was a full collaborator in the revisions leading up to the current version. The intensive interviews, which were in English, totaled roughly 20 hours, and the discussions of writing issues and of how to relate to possibly relevant scholarly literature have totaled roughly another 25 hours.

The interviews rested in part on a shared background arising from the two of us translating a family novel from Korean to English (The Most Beautiful Farewell in the World, by Hee Gyoung Noh). …

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