Yongusil 26: Culture Changes in Post-Industrial South Korea

By | February 21, 2014 | No Comments

HEAS Conference, Feb.

Harvard East Asia Society | Image : Harvard University

Public opinion data collected over the last five years suggests a significant shift in national identity, the way South Koreans identify themselves in relation to North Korea, and the way South Koreans see South Korea vis-à-vis other countries in the region. Whereas in times past ethno-nationalism held sway over national identity, data suggests ethnic-based identity is on the decline. A new national identity places less emphasis on race and more emphasis on civicness. Further to this, North Korea is seen less as a part of the Korean nation and more as “just another country,” and South Korean is perceived to be a country as or more influential than other major regional powers. These changes are seen most drastically amongst the youngest voting-cohort, giving reason to suspect that a new national identity may indeed be taking shape in South Korea.

Further to the findings revealed by recent public opinion data, Professor Auh Soo Young, WVS principal investigator for South Korea until 2005, has traced variation in values among South Koreans for three waves of surveys (out of five) in South Korea. Auh’s research reveals that, despite the persistence of “survival values,” relative to other countries, there has been a significant change in values within South Korea consistent with global trends. Previous generations placed a higher importance on political stability, economic growth, and exhibited a higher level of deference to and trust in political institutions—“materialist” values. However, more recent generations, Auh contends, demonstrate a shift away from materialist values towards “post-material” values. Post-materialists emphasize subjective well-being and self-expression over deference to authority, show higher tolerance of outgroups, more emphasis on imagination, and support careers for women, among other things.

Drawing on inspiration from political socialization theory, Auh attributes this shift to changes in the environment, especially during the character formation stage. Indeed, Auh finds that “the noticeable distribution difference of value types in relation to age cohort in South Korea is due to the different environment experienced during the character formation period (generation difference).” Auh concludes, tentatively, that the data supports the generational effects theory over the life cycle theory, that is: what happens in the character formation stage has an enduring, arguably life-long effect on social and political values. This theory runs contrary to the age-old adage that one becomes more conservative with age. Auh’s findings accord with cross-national, large-N studies conducted by Ronald Inglehart and other WVS investigators.

Steven Denney’s presentation at 17th Annual Harvard East Asia Conference, hosted by the Havard East Asia Society, on Saturday, February 22 will recap some of the findings summarized above and present to the audience his mixed-methods approach to tracing value change. He will also briefly discuss the application of revised modernization theory in a South Korean context and consider the implications that a new national identity and political attitudes have for policymaking using findings from a project conducted last summer on the Refugee Act.

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