World Values Survey Data and the Resilience of Materialist Values in South Korea
For the social scientist, South Korea presents a fascinating profile for several reasons: The country experienced a sort of hyper-modernization, going from rice paddy backwater to export-producing economic powerhouse in the span of only a few generations; it reached, as of 2013, a GDP per capita more than five times the average for East Asia and the Pacific; made the transition from authoritarianism to democracy; and it is the only country to transition from ODA recipient to donor. Intuitively, one might expect these structural and material changes to produce changes in South Korean society somewhat similar to other advanced countries.
However, despite South Korea’s economic and political developments, there are significant structural differences between South Korea and other advanced western countries. Social welfare policies are still largely underdeveloped and volatile export markets leave Korean industries open to external shocks. South Korea also faces an existential threat in North Korea—a country that quite literally threatens to exterminate it. Given these conditions, one ought to expect some differences in values vis-à-vis other advanced nations. Using time series and comparative data from the World Values Survey’s (WVS) post-materialist index, some of these differences are brought to light.
Inglehart’s Theory of Post-materialism | Based on extensive survey research in the latter half of the 20th century, scholar Ronald Inglehart hypothesized that the populations of the advanced industrial countries were undergoing transformation of individual values, moving from “materialist values” to a fundamentally new set of “post-material” values. Drawing from psychological needs and socialization theories, Inglehart purported to explain how political values are a function of individual needs and life experiences (particularly the experiences during an individual’s early character formation period).
Materialists, having experienced economic uncertainty and physical insecurity, give priority to order and stability and thus to economic and military strength. Post-materialists, having experienced greater economic and physical security, prioritize individual well-being, social bonds, and tolerance towards diversity. Inglehart’s theory has thus been largely validated, although he is not without his critics.
Core to the validation of the thesis is the post-material index, constructed on the basis of responses to a series of survey questions that have been continually administered cross-nationally for more than 30 years, thanks to the efforts of the World Values Survey (WVS). The post-material index is computed using a 4-item battery (see below) relating to national priorities or policy preferences as perceived by the respondent. Respondents are asked to rank issues by what is most important for the nation. Those selecting both “maintaining order in the nation” (1a) and “fighting rising prices” (2a) are classified as materialists. Those selecting both “giving people more say in decisions on the government” (1b) and “protecting freedom of speech” (2b) are classified as post-materialists. Respondents selecting both a “materialist” and a “post-materialist” item are classified as mixed.
The amount of data upon which to draw has increased substantially since Inglehart originally proposed the post-materialism thesis in the 1970s. With the release of the sixth wave of data, students, scholars, and analysts can make meaningful cross-national and time series comparisons using data collected between 2010-2014. Fortunately, South Korea has been included in all six waves (the sixth wave was conducted in 2010).
South Korea’s Partial Post-material Shift | Data over the last 30 years suggest that, despite a temporary spike in the number of “mixed-types” following the democratic transition at the end of the 1980s (see Wave 2), South Korea has only made a partial post-material transition; the number of materialists remains consistently high, across all age cohorts. A simple explanation, indicated above, might be the best: although it has reached a high level of sustained economic prosperity, South Korea continually remains susceptible to exogenous shocks. The 1997 Asian Financial Crisis (better know as the IMF Crisis to Koreans) and the 2010 sinking of the ROKS Cheonan navy corvette and shelling of Yeonpyeong Island are two prominent examples. In fact, Wave 5, which shows a significant increase in the number of materialists (across all age cohorts, but especially amongst the youngest cohort), suggests that the financial crisis precipitated a significant change in values orientation amongst those who were in the vital character formation stage (secondary school students) when the crisis hit.
Using cross-national comparison, South Korea’s partial post-material shift is better shown. As comparative chart below indicates, the number of materialists in the United States and Japan is significantly lower, and, for the US, the number of post-materialists significantly higher (until 9/11, this number sustained an averaged well above 20%). Given Japan’s long-lasting economic woes, it should come as no surprise that the number of post-materialists is as low as it is. Even so, economic woes troubling Japan have not caused a total post-material reversal. Interestingly, the numbers for Taiwan closely approximate South Korea’s. This should also be expected, given that Taiwan, like Korea, faces an existential threat to its national sovereignty and is also heavily volatile to external shock due to its export-oriented economic structure.
A Bird’s-eye View of Social Change | Society is a dynamic, multifaceted web of people, places, and ideas. As with any large-scale dataset, scholars should be cautious in making substantive claims using WVS data. Nevertheless, the survey data presented herein provides a meaningful, broad overview of social change that can help researchers and analysts identify social trends over time and in comparison. For those tracking contemporary developments in South Korea and phenomenon such as the rise of “national security conservatives” among younger age cohorts, explaining the high number of materialists in their 20s will be of some heuristic value, as will measuring the broader social response to critical events like the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis. As research into South Korea’s new nationalism proceeds, readers should expect to see more use of WVS data.
Source: World Values Survey, data for waves 2-6. Data-tables generated by Steven Denney using WVS “Online Analysis” tool and SPSS (Statistical Package for the Social Sciences).
 Conducted in 2010, it is possible that the two North Korean provocations that took place then did, in some way, affect the results. However, given that there are not any drastic changes in a materialist direction, the effect of these events, if any at all, seems insignificant.