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Laura C. Nelson, Measured Excess: Status, Gender and Consumer Nationalism in South Korea. New York: Columbia University Press, 2000. 224 pp. ISBN: 0-2311-1617-9. $18.50 (paper).

Reviewed by Dennis Hart
Kent State University


Measured Excess is one of a recent group of books aimed at explaining, at least in part, the cultural transformations and accommodations flowing from industrialization in South Korea. Her work ranges from a very careful analysis of consumption in everyday Korean life to a brief overview of the larger economic and geo-political issues that prompted Korea's capitalist growth. By viewing consumption as an economic, social and cultural process that binds people, she examines "how South Koreans' sense of national identity motivated much of the hard work of development beginning in the 1960s and continuing through the early 1990s and how the intersections between international economic processes, the flow of time, and the mundane experience of life shape and strain the sense of national mission" (2). Nelson also explains that the book is an "attempt to capture a slice of this transformation, and its ambivalent effects, by focusing on one of the most direct and material connections people in one place make with those elsewhere: consumption" (viii).

The book has six chapters, the first five of which are followed by vignettes that run two to three pages each. Overall the book is very well written and a reader can move through the many details and ideas easily. Nelson's descriptions of modern Seoul are particularly well done, rich in detail, and accompanied by informative insights. As a general examination of modern urban life, this is an excellent work. The vignettes provide anecdotal evidence relevant to the theme and allow for a deeper glimpse at how everyday life is lived in Korea today. Sprinkled throughout this volume are tables and graphs of such varied aspects of modern life as Seoul's population, car ownership, driver licenses, ownership rates of home appliances, household budgets, expenditures on food and the like. There is also a small map of Seoul as well as personal sketches of the city.

First and foremost, the choice for consumption as a device to grasp modern Korean life, society, identity and gender is an excellent one. Clearly, the act of consumption forms the nexus between modern life as it is lived by South Koreans and the larger social and economic processes that have given rise to the phenomenon of consumption taken in its entirety. Nelson joins those others who are helping to open a new avenue of inquiry into modern South Korea and avoids the limitations rooted in much of the literature on "the economic miracle," democratization, or "modern Korea as an extension of the past."

Next, when dealing with everyday life, Nelson argues, among other points, that consumption is a modern and varied discourse that reifies "social coherence and homogeneity" (6), "identification with the nation" (25), pride (ix), status, class, gender, and is also "a key source" for expression and communication (24-25). The evidence includes accounts from the mass media, personal observations, interviews, and statistical data. Using her training as an anthropologist, she demonstrates how an ideology of consumption has become woven into the very fabric of life in such apparently mundane activities as shopping in western-style convenience stores, buying stationary items, selecting clothing and owning a car. As such, Koreans become agents who use the realm of consumption as a site for creating identity, both personal and national, in a capitalist society.

For example, in chapter five, "Endangering the Nation: Consuming the Future," she notes how consumption is gendered and is used differently by various groups. Specifically, for middle class housewives, consumption is shown at one level as a source of status or prestige. However, Nelson pushes her analysis and notes how acts of consumption also help housewives draw a moral distinction between responsible behavior and personal indulgence. In the case of the former, they act as "managers" of the family home and engage in consumption necessary to maintain the modern family. Conversely, in the latter case, public discourse promotes the "imagined inability of women, as a class, to restrain their desires" which eventually leads to social disharmony (144).

While this is a book rich in detail concerning contemporary life, some deeper points on the origins of Korea's consumer culture and nationalism are either overlooked or understudied. Nelson looks at the "frameworks within which people define themselves" (29). However, her arguments on the "intersections" between the larger social, economic, and historical narratives and modern daily life are unpersuasive since she does not always draw a clear and compelling picture of larger structural forces or their connection to the agency exhibited by people in their immediate daily activities. For example, the book does not present detailed explanation of the larger systemic sources and reasons for why consumption is so central to modern life. Do all nations who industrialize necessarily make consumption a central "cultural connection" among people? Or is Korea simply a rare case? Why have Koreans turned so strongly towards consumption and not other rituals and processes?

Her book focuses heavily upon consumption as a form of national identity. Korean purchases of domestically produced items on one hand and conspicuous consumption as a source of national disunity on the other are two opposing manifestations of this phenomenon. These are good points that could have been explored more in detail. She also might have provided the reader with a deeper analysis of how Korean national identity is linked to issues on history, reunification, national growth, and class: first, little discussion is offered of how these are all logically linked; secondly, Nelson could have addressed more carefully the question of how the process of nationalism is being redefined in the face of its conflict with "traditional Korea."

As one example, she posits that through modern consumption Koreans assert their identity as Koreans. Perhaps, but she leaves unanswered the obvious questions of how are we to define "Korean-ness"? And, how can we resolve the obvious paradox of Koreans defining themselves as Korean by capitalist consumption when capitalist consumption is a "modern process" that invalidates, erodes and replaces traditional, pre-capitalist Korean ways of life and identity?

Not withstanding these omissions, this is certainly a very good book that is well worth reading by scholars and students interested in modern Korea. As a teacher, I would say that the book's theoretical constraints would limit its value at the graduate level. However, since it is well written, accessible, and rich in descriptions it would work very well as a supplementary text in an undergraduate class on either modern Korea or modern culture.


Hart, Dennis 2002
Review of Measured Excess: Status, Gender and Consumer Nationalism in South Korea, by Laura C. Nelson (2000)
Korean Studies Review 2002, no. 4
Electronic file: http://koreanstudies.com/ks/ksr/ksr02-04.htm

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