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Why a Single Phenomenon Shouldn’t Be Used to Label a Culture

February 3, 2009

I just saw this slide show, which was presented as an example showing how Korea is not a conservative country:

This is incontrivertable proof, right? I mean, look at those pictures. Look at the dancing girls, see how they’re dressed? How can you call that a conservative culture?

I’ll tell you how.  Would you call 1930’s America conservative? Remember, this was a time of tongueless on-screen movie kisses, girls taking home economics while boys took shop, interracial dating behing almost unheard of, “restricted” hotels that didn’t board Jews, and women had just won the right to vote three elections ago. So we can agree that 1930 America was conservative, right?

Now watch this:

By the logic I presented in the beginning of this article, how on earth can you call 1930 American culture conservative? Did you see the positions some of those women were in? Did you see that some were NAKED? This is obviously not a conservative culture.

Okay, that said, the take-home message is that one phenomenon is not often definitive when describing a culture. In my opinion, if you stack up all the “liberal” things you can find, and weight them by the number of people in the country that do/believe these things, and I stack up all the “conservative” things and weight them the same way, I’ll have the bigger pile. To address variance by locale (i.e. farmers are more conservative than norebang owners), I’ll say that I even think I’d win in Seoul.

Do I think Korea is conservative? I think “conservative” is relative and best viewed against itself (in the past) or other cultures. I would say Korea is decidedly less conservative than it was even five years ago, but definitely more conservative than the USA.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. Gomushin Girl permalink
    February 4, 2009 12:35 pm

    Interesting case comparison . . .
    that said, I don’t think the slide shows necessarily work in tandem, weakening your argument. Of course the first slide show isn’t incontrovertible proof that Korea is not conservative, but cheesecake isn’t a perfect analogy: the first set of pictures was meant for a much broader audience than the second.
    You seem to be heading towards deciding that without working definitions of what conservative and liberal mean, no substantive comparison can be made, a point I would heartily agree with. What then would be your definition of these terms?
    While I understand that temporal and cross-cultural examinations are fascinating, I *do* feel that the endlessly repeated trope “Korea is a conservative society” is used inappropriately and without really examining the issues at hand.
    I don’t want to make this an overly academic or boring comment, but just to give a single pertinent example of how cross-cultural examinations of conservative are problematic, let’s examine fashion. In Korea, young women (high school and college, let’s say) frequently wear mini and micro-mini skirts, even in inclement weather. This is considered normative and acceptable by a broad swath of Korean society. On the other hand, shirts are generally cut high, and most women will keep blouses buttoned to the neck because shows of bosom or chest are considered lascivious. The same outfit in the states would be reversed – shows of chest are (except in some formal and business settings) considered acceptable publicly, while extremely short skits are viewed in a much more sexualized way and few women wear them regularly as normal day attire. Now, which is “conservative” and which is “liberal”? And we should also recognize that there are gaps between public image, public behavior, individual attitudes, and private behaviors. I suppose in essence what I’m really arguing is that these ideas are ultimately not useful in cross-cultural comparisons, something I think you might too be leaning towards?
    Also, that the 1930’s weren’t as conservative as we’d like to think^^ Keep posting, enjoying the analysis!

    • February 4, 2009 1:12 pm

      I agree that working definitions are important, but my thrust was more that you can’t cherry-pick one phenomenon and then apply a broad label based on it.

      Personally, I think cultures are like people: multifaceted. I did much of my grad school research in identity development. I think you can apply some of the same principles to societies. Identity development is multi-axial. You’ve got moral identity development, gender identity development, ethnic identity development, and on and on. I think it is fair to say that a culture may be conservative in some areas and less in others, rather than to broadly say the culture is or is not conservative/liberal.

  2. February 4, 2009 2:15 pm

    Thanks for engaging with my original post; feel free to link the source, if you like.

    It might be that we are approaching the same conclusion, that the conservative/liberal binary is a lot more complex than simple labels, from opposite sides: I have heard many times that Korea is a conservative country, and put together the slideshow basically as a way to throw a wrench in that over-simplification ; you responded to that slideshow saying, “that’s an oversimplification of a complex issue” — the point I’d initially been trying to make. I wrote that post in a bit of a rush, so I didn’t take the time to put in any qualifiers, but it wasn’t really my attempt to deliver the final word on the debate.

    In poking around, I found a post Expat Jane wrote a while back that might be of interest, if you want to expand on this line of thought. I’m sure it would not take much work to find that this topic has been discussed at length, and at varying levels of depth, seriousness, or snarkiness, around the Korea expat blogs.

    btw: I put you on my links sidebar

  3. February 4, 2009 2:25 pm

    I certainly can agree with what you’re saying here. On your blog, it looked kind of like “See this cheesecake? That shows Korea is not conservative!” But the reason I decided to do a post on it wasn’t so much because I want protect Korea from labels only to use my own, better labels; but instead to show my readers that when trying to understand a culture, one shouldn’t latch on to one phenomenon as definitive.

    I just took a look at that Expat Jane article. Yeah, reading over her post, I found myself wanting to take her assertions apart one-by-one, because a lot of the things she’s touting as showing that Korea isn’t conservative are things that you saw in more conservative times in the USA (like “prostitutes on display near train stations”), and in other countries. I may do that later. Also the “Korea hasn’t been conservative for hundreds of years” comment sort of freaks me out.

    Yeah, thanks for putting me on your sidebar. I currently get about a third of my traffic from you!

  4. March 8, 2009 5:37 pm

    I think what’s going on in Korea is a certain level of denial about the issue. There probably was that same level of denial in the era you’re bringing up to argue that Korea is conservative. But the fact that they had pin-ups in the 1930s really doesn’t have much bearing on the discussion of whether South Korea in 2009 is conservative. I don’t think it is. At best, I’ll take a term you threw out there and say it’s multifaceted. However, it’s certainly not conservative. It might be in some circles, but even people in those circles have some stuff that, if broadly know, would catapult them right out of the conservative category.

    I have Korean friends who have gone through the same drama that friends I know back home have. I was very surprised to find out a Korean friend of mine was cheating on her husband. The spin we hear most of the time is Korean men are horrible cheats, but the women are very capable of it too. She’s not a bad person. She seriously thought she was in love, but, the fact remains she cheated on the man who was her husband.

    Granted, that’s one example and your premise is you can’t use one single phenomenon to label a culture. The fact is there isn’t just one single phenomenon. There are many that happen over and over and over again. That eventually leads a foreigner in Korea to realize it’s one thing to claim to be conservative and carry on the pretense of being conservative. However, it’s another to act in a way that conforms with conservative values. I think what most people are doing is pointing out the hypocrisy. Now there is hypocrisy in both conservative and liberal circles, but with prostitution pretty much out in the open, a booming sex trade in other ways whether that be the girls you see being driven around on scooters in the countryside or the juicy girls in Itaewon, it’s there. There is also common knowledge that women from other countries are brought in as “entertainers” when more likely than not the entertaining they’re doing is prostitution. That’s NOT conservative. That’s just one issue but there are more. So while there certain are subsets of conservatism in South Korea, I think there are more hypocrites than not. It’s simply that Korea hasn’t reached a development level and/or cultural level where admitting the darker aspects of life is okay. It’s simply not okay to not play the game and to not conform, so, when people choose not to, they keep it a secret and others just ignore the obvious.

    After 8 years of living there (I just moved back to the States), I can’t agree that South Korea is conservative. That doesn’t make it Sodom and Gomorrah by any stretch. I just think it’s disingenuous to claim it’s something that, when you dig deeper, you can see it’s not.

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