Science, Technology, and the Imaginaries of Development in South Korea

By Kim, Sang-Hyun | Development and Society, September 2017 | Go to article overview

Science, Technology, and the Imaginaries of Development in South Korea


Kim, Sang-Hyun, Development and Society


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Introduction

Perhaps one of the most frequently recurring keywords in the literature on modern Korea is 'development.' Several strands of this literature-as illustrated in the debate on the 'developmental state'-have effectively contested the conventional wisdom of neoclassical political economy, paving the way for rethinking the multi-faceted and layered relationships between state, market, and society in South Korea (Woo-Cumings 1999). Likewise, studies using the concept of 'colonial modernity' have challenged modernization theory's assumption that modernization entails a universal, unidirectional path to development (Shin and Robinson 1999). However, even these studies have tended to approach development in a traditional way. Attention has been given to the specific historical, social, and political contexts in which development is facilitated, hindered or distorted, and also to the complex and varied impacts of development projects. As yet, development itself has been defined narrowly in technical terms. The idea, logic, forms and contents of development have rarely been problematized as historically and socially constructed assemblages of discourse, knowledge, and practices.1

This tendency is all the more pronounced regarding the relationship between science, technology, and development. The Korean studies literature consistently points out that science and technology have played an important role in the rapid socio-economic transformation of postcolonial South Korea (see, e.g., Branscomb and Choi 1996). The emphasis, on the other hand, is placed predominantly on the contributions of science and technology to the nation's economic and industrial performance. Questions are typically asked as to what type of policies and institutional reforms have been introduced to organize and promote the industrial application of science and technology and how successful they have been. The issues of who have actually benefited or lost out due to those initiatives, and of their broader social and political implications, are much less analyzed. More fundamentally, just as the notion of development is presupposed rather than interrogated, science and technology are generally conceived as value free and politically neutral and exempted from serious historical, social, and political analysis.

This is not to say that the political aspects of science and technology are simply ignored in the existing literature. Like in other parts of the world, science and technology have been regarded as one of the most potent symbols of national pride and prosperity in South Korea. It is thus well understood by many scholars that the South Korean state's persistent mobilization of science and technology for industrialization has been partly a political response to the popular yearning for an advanced industrial nation.

However, acknowledging the prestige and material benefits that accrue to the nation from its scientific and technological achievements alone cannot properly shed light on the complex interplay between science, technology, the nation, and development. Recent works in the history, sociology, and anthropology of science and technology have convincingly shown that supposedly universal and neutral science and technology are always interwoven with the construction of national self-understandings and purposes. Despite the transnational movements of people, ideas, and practices in science and technology across the globe, the framing and bounding of related issues and policies both embed and are embedded within projects of nation-building that reaffirm what the nation stands for (Jasanoff 2005; Harrison and Johnson 2009). National imaginations can also shape the very production of scientific knowledge-as well as of technological artifacts and systems-which in turn form integral parts of the technologies of power that produce and sustain particular political understandings of the nation's past, present, and future (Hecht 1998; Hogle 1999; El-Haj 2001). …

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