Bringing Generational Analysis Back In? An Interview with Shelley Rigger

By | January 18, 2016 | No Comments

As someone researching North Korea, rigorous generational analysis is an impossible dream. The authoritarian government of the DPRK just does not open the state up to that kind of thing, and shows no sign of doing so any time soon.

Yet it is common to hear about the “jangmadang generation” in relation to the country. This term, which is taken to mean the generation raised during the collapse of the North Korean state-society social contract and concomitant famine, in a state of grave insecurity and without supplies of food and other necessities via the Public Distribution System (PDS), has acquired currency in recent years. The jangmadang generation is, we are told with authority, comprised of people who grew up trading to survive.

However, there is no empirical data to support detailed statements about the nature of this putative jangmadang generation, and its analytical foundations remain exceedingly weak. Given that the critical formative years — the time when a young person’s political views are formed — are from age 18 to 25, the true first members of the jangmadang generation were people who are now, in 2016, in their late 30s and early 40s. Yet these people are not represented in discussion of the phenomenon; instead, the symbols of the jangmadang generation are young people like Yeonmi Park, who was born in 1993 and didn’t even enter her politically formative years until after her escape from North Korea in 2007!

As such, the “jangmadang generation” is a tool of advocacy rather than a robust and academically coherent concept. This is not to say that lots of North Korean youngsters did not trade to survive (many of them did and plenty more still do), or that this didn’t have an effect on them (it surely did and will continue to do so). But it does make an utter nonsense of the idea of a conceptually robust “generation.”  

In South Korea, scholarly life is far easier. Though polling is not as advanced as in the United States, there is a wealth of societal data to draw on in pursuit of answers to the many questions that arise in any study of the country and its complex society. Nearby Taiwan is a similar case both in terms of its developmental trajectory and the body of evidence available to those who wish to study its society. In both instances, real generational analysis is a hot and pressing topic of inquiry. In an exclusive interview for Sino-NK, Steven Denney and Shelley Rigger discuss the two cases and what we can learn from them. — Christopher Green, Co-editor

Bringing Generational Analysis Back In? An Interview with Shelley Rigger

by Steven Denney

Conceptually, a generation is commonly understood as a function of biology and the inexorable progress of humanity; so long as there is birth there will be new generations. Every 25 years or so a new generation takes shape, and anyone born between the years specified is part of it. In the U.S. context, for example, the three most recent generations are: Baby Boomers (post WWII generation, born 1946-1964), Generation X (born between the mid-1960s until the late 1970s), and Generation Y (“Millennials,” or those born from the early 1980s to the early 2000s). General characteristics are typically identified with each generation (this generation is politically active; that one is self-absorbed, etc.), but there is often little to no systematic explanation or theoretical justification provided for why, say, Baby Boomers are those Americans born between the mid-1940s and mid-1960s. This period in American history was certainly unique in many ways, and thus we can expect the people who were born and came of age during this period to reflect the conditions of their existence — but so what? Why does that matter?

“Generational analysis,” ever popular among marketing firms and proponents of the Creative Class, seems, at times, as theoretically and analytical underdeveloped now as it was in 1928, when the sociologist Karl Mannheim wrote “The Problems of Generations,” a critique of the use of generation as a unit of analysis. And, as it stands, there is still much to learn.

For Mannheim, a generation is more than a community of people born around the same time and in the same place. Sharing a “historical and social region” does not a generation make. It is necessary, but not sufficient. In addition to being born around the same time and in the same place, Mannheim groups people having “common experiences and historical memories due to the fact that they were born in the same period and lived through the same social and economic environment” as constituting a generation “in actuality.” In short, those who live through and experience similar social, political, and economic environments are part of the same generation.

Crucially, not all people of a given population participate in the historical process in the same way. When someone comes of age matters. To quote Mannheim: “Some older generation groups experience certain historical processes together with the young generation and yet we cannot say that they have the same generation location.” Those further along in life, that is, those outside their critical formative years (generally acknowledged to be between the ages of 18 and 25), do not experience events in the same way as those in their youth. The knowledge acquired and experiences made in youth shape for a lifetime one’s worldview, political attitudes, and social identities (e.g., national identity). Of course, not all values, attitudes, and identities are resilient over the life course (see, for example, values that vary according to “period effects” or “lifecycle effects”). Once outside of the formative years, events that otherwise make generations do not have the same effect on one’s view of things.

There are no strict rules to delineating the temporal boundaries of a generation; it is as much a work of art as it is a science. But developments in the social sciences have sought to more narrowly define what kind of events create the conditions that define new generations. Defining generations by historical periods is popular among those doing generational analysis. For countries like South Korea or Taiwan, this translates into four generations: older authoritarian, authoritarian, transitional, and democratic.

Inspirational to Sino-NK’s ongoing project “Reproducing Contested Identities and Social Structures on the Korean Peninsula,” recent studies of changes and variations in Taiwanese national identity and political attitudes underscore the methodological value of generational analysis for the study of social identities. In particular, G. Andy Chang and T.Y. Wang’s 2005 piece in the Journal of Asian and African Studies and Shelley Rigger’s 2006 East-West Centre monograph, “Taiwan’s Rising Rationalism: Generations, Politics, and ‘Taiwanese Nationalism,’” look explicitly at the relationship between generations and identity. The authors, who share a Mannheim-inspired definition of generation, find a relationship between generation and the kind of identity held by Taiwanese. More specifically, they find that the two older generations tend to choose either a specifically Taiwanese identity or a (mainland) Chinese one; the younger generations, having come of age (i.e., gone through their development years) under conditions fundamentally different from that of those older than them, are more open to a dual Taiwanese-Chinese identity.

To further explore the methodological value of (proper) generational analysis, Shelley Rigger, professor of political science at Davidson College, agreed to an interview with Sino-NK. The interview, conducted via email in December 2015, is reproduced below.

Steven Denney [SD]: Methodologically, what is it about looking within and across generations that can help us better understanding attitudes, identities, and values?

Shelley Rigger [SR]: Mainly, it’s the differing patterns. We tend to want to divide respondents either horizontally (by age) or vertically (by class, ethnicity, etc.). Good generational analysis –informed by the fullness of Mannheim’s theory – can allow you to do both at once, which gives you a much richer picture. Also, there are certain puzzles (mostly having to do with non-linearity) that drive people crazy, and are often either washed out in the data (for mathematical reasons) or abandoned on the Island of Misfit Findings. Generational analysis may be helpful here, too. On the whole, I think there is just such rapid change in the contemporary world – technology is changing ultra-fast, systems are changing, values are changing — that it is incredibly difficult to discern any pattern that applies across age groups. Our statistical tools are not enough to get us through this — the fact that a pattern may be statistically significant does not necessarily mean it is the whole picture, but it’s easy to stop at statistical significance.

I got in trouble one time for saying a finding wasn’t “meaningful.” It was statistically significant, but it didn’t mean anything — the question the people were answering was just nonsensical. It was the kind of question you can answer (would you rather burn to death or drown?) but – really – after the age of 12, does anyone really think that’s a question worth answering? But a colleague who’s very invested in quantitative work singled that comment out and implied it was unhelpful and naïve. Statistical significance made the finding meaningful.

All of that aside, I’d be the first to say that work in “Rising Rationalism” is out of date. There is a fifth generation coming up in politics (I have a piece coming out about this in a book edited by Gunter Schubert called Taiwan and the “China Impact”: Challenges and Opportunities) that is much more Sinoskeptical than the fourth generation that I talk about in Rising Rationalism.

SD: What led you to do generational analysis in Taiwan?

SR: My interest in the topic came from my (inductive) observation that young people were categorically different in their thinking about politics than older people. That grew out of a study that was aimed at trying to understand the effects of cross-Strait economic interactions on Taiwanese political attitudes. I just couldn’t get away from the finding that the relationship differed in systematic ways across generations. Although, to be honest, my statistical skills are not adequate to show that as unequivocally as I wish I could, using data.

SD: How do you interview someone about their national identity? Certainly you cannot simply ask them, “What are you?” Or can you? Several public opinion centers and social survey organizations (e.g., International Social Survey Programme, World Values Survey, etc.) like to operationalize something like “national identity” and then ask a host of relevant questions. Do you find this method desirable, or lacking?

SR: One of the most interesting things I’ve ever done was to hand out a survey at a lecture attended by about 1800 students at an engineering university in Taipei. So, clearly not a random survey at all, and therefore utterly useless as a research tool. But still… I asked them the standard question — are you Chinese, Taiwanese, or both? — then I asked, when you answered that question, what were you thinking of: where you were born and raised (出生長大), where you’re a citizen (公民), your ethnicity/nationality (民族), or your cultural background (文化背景). And what I found was this tight correlation between how they identified and how they understood the question. Those who chose “Taiwanese” also chose “born and raised” (出生長大), while those who said “Chinese” said they were thinking about culture and ancestry.

That’s led me to be very skeptical about the way(s) this question gets asked. There have been many attempts to adjust the question, but the main survey outfits we rely on for trend data are loathe to change the wording (for good reason). But I think the meaning of the question has been changing, both because more people are looking at it from the born and raised angle, and also because the meaning of “China” is changing in Taiwan. I wrote about that in Why Taiwan Matters and a chapter in a book edited by Wen-hsin Yeh called Mobile Horizons: Dynamics Across the Taiwan Strait. So that’s a big problem: if the meaning of the question is changing, that really means you’re asking a different question, even though you’ve kept the wording the same. I don’t know how to deal with that kind of reactivity, except to acknowledge that it exists.

This is why my research for the “Rising Rationalism” monograph used focus groups. But it was a risky method, and much of that research ended up being published in a venue that has limited circulation. It’s in a chapter called “Strawberry Jam” in a volume edited by Cal Clark called The Changing Dynamics of the Relations among China, Taiwan and the United States. It’s a fine book, but the publisher doesn’t do a lot of promotion. My paper ended up there because journals wouldn’t accept it. It was based on a research method the reviewers didn’t trust; there were flaws in the methods (see #4); and the finding was not consistent with what the reviewers believed to be true about Taiwan politics. I was so frustrated that I couldn’t get it published that I let it get buried, even though I still think it was among the best things I’ve written, in terms of telling people something they didn’t already know and giving a voice to people who are rarely heard.

SD: How did you find your interviewees and assemble your focus groups? You write that all participants “responded to a standard set of questions.” Were these questions from a previously written survey? A survey you wrote for the task? And did you make room/time for unstructured interaction? How did you manage that?

The main problem with my focus group research was that I used a snowball method to recruit participants. I asked a lot of friends who were professors to help me recruit their students, and I had two research assistants who drummed up participants on various campuses. I did focus groups in Taipei, Hsinchu, Kaohsiung (a couple of different places), and Hualien, so there was regional diversity. But it wasn’t a randomly-selected population, that’s for sure. The main reason for that was that I didn’t have any money; what the students got for their participation was (at most) a Starbucks coffee and the chance to talk about their feelings about these issues. Interestingly, they really appreciated the latter. Several said that although they came with friends, they had never actually talked about these issues together before, and they learned a lot.

There’s another interesting text that shows this same phenomenon, an independent film called “Sisyphus Formosa.” It’s hard to find, but if you can find a copy, you’ll enjoy it.

I had a standard questionnaire. We started each session by going around the room to get basic demographic info. Apropos of your next question, one thing that was interesting was that being in different cities didn’t matter that much: The people in the groups tended to be from all over the island. In Kaohsiung I had participants from Taipei, and in Taipei I had participants from Kaohsiung, etc. The bulk of the focus group conversation, though, was unstructured, tipped off by three broad questions (follow-ups as needed) on my three broad topics: what do you think about Taiwan identity, what do you think of Taiwan politics, and what do you think of the mainland?

The “Strawberry Jam” paper in the Clark book has a lot more of the qualitative data from those conversations than “Rising Rationalism.”

SD: You interviewed across multiple cities. Was this in order to control for regional effects? Did you identify variation regarding identity across or within city-regions?

Yes, and no, for the reason that Taiwanese youth live all over the place. Taiwan is a very small country (although I’ve gotten grief for saying so), and extremely well-connected with transportation infrastructure. So it turns out mobility is high, especially among young people, those in school or just out of school.

SD: You admit that “nearly all [participants] were either university students or university graduates” but add that because “the proportion of Taiwanese youth who attend universities is very high and political participation is closely correlated with education attainment… the policy implications… are not affected significantly by this bias.” (p. 17, “Rising Rationalism”) The argument, “Basically everyone goes to university” and therefore I can interview university students or university-educated peoples, gets used often, I think. But isn’t this problematic? There are a great many young people going to university who probably should not be — at least this is the nature of education in South Korea, the U.S., and the U.K. Thus, the variation in standards (outside of the country’s elite schools) is bound to be great and thus the logic of this assumption seems a bit shaky. How would you respond to this critique?

SR: First of all, obviously I think it’s a problem, or I wouldn’t have thought to mention it. But the fact that kids who shouldn’t be in college are in college actually helps, because it suggests that you can access working class youth by interviewing university students, which wouldn’t be the case in Europe, for example, and wouldn’t have been the case in Taiwan in the past. So the justification I was giving was really a response to the claim that there was systematic bias in the participant selection. And I think there was, but it was probably less problematic than some readers would assume.

Systematic bias is a problem in all large-scale social science research, though. We kid ourselves if we think our surveys reach everyone, and we kid ourselves if we think the responses given across different demographic categories are consistent in their meaning. But we do the best we can.

That said, I think I could have done better. At moments like that I wish I had the support of a university behind me. With graduate assistants, more money, consulting help from a methodologist, etc., I think I could have done better. But I am a one-woman show from a small, liberal arts college, so a lot of my work falls short on the methodological front. If that sounds like an excuse, I suppose it is, but access to resources matters a lot in our business. Plenty of people have it worse than I do, and the times I wish I were at a university are few and far between. I’ve had great support from my institution, Davidson College, and without the two grants I’ve received from the Smith Richardson Foundation my career as a researcher and writer would never have gotten off the ground. But even with their help, there are limits to what I can do.

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