[KS] KSR 2002-16: _From Tradition to Consumption: Construction of a Capitalist Culture in South Korea_, by Dennis Hart

Stephen Epstein Stephen.Epstein at vuw.ac.nz
Fri Nov 8 12:33:07 EST 2002

_From Tradition to Consumption: Construction of a Capitalist Culture in
South Korea_, by Dennis Hart. Korean Studies Dissertation Series No. 2.
Seoul: Jimoondang Publishing Company, 2001, 202 pp. (ISBN 89-88095-44-8;
cloth, 20,000 won).

Reviewed by Robert Hassink
University of Bonn

Hardly any country in the world has industrialised as quickly as South
Korea.  Its combination of spectacular economic performance and shared
growth therefore has attracted ample attention from international scholars
and policy-makers.  Since the 1970s Korea's success story has become a main
subject of research in development economics.  Countless books and articles
have been published on the Han River Miracle and, more recently and fewer
in number, on the causes of the economic crisis at the end of the 1990s.
Very few publications, however, deal with the decline of pre-industrial
society and the emergence of a new culture characterised by mass
consumption as a consequence of South Korea's fast economic development.
Dennis Hart's _From Tradition to Consumption: Construction of a Capitalist
Culture in South Korea_ fills this gap.

_From Tradition to Consumption_ portrays the shift to cultural modernity as
the product of state policies on industrialisation as well as the reasoned
response of people to rapidly shifting forms of labour and everyday life.
Keys to this transformation from agrarianism to modernity have been the
drastic alteration of the family from a unit of production to a unit of
consumption and the redefinition of gender roles in Korea.  The pressing
need for production and consumption to bolster economic development have
resulted in the creation of a middle-class family marked by the
white-collar male and the urban housewife.  These new social roles make the
process of consumption central to the family and promote the act of
consumption as the basis for modern identity.

The book starts with a relatively long preface in which Hart sets out the
main aims, methods and structure of the book, explaining his choice of
Korea as a case study to focus on cultural change as a companion of
capitalist industrialisation and his emphasis on empirical data from the
1980s.   He points out the emergence of a middle class during that time and
the disturbing effects of the economic crisis at the end of the 1990s.  The
author's theoretical approach is informed by cultural Marxism.

Chapter One, "Materialist Culture and Korea," explains the main theoretical
concepts and terms used in the book.  Hart accepts the definition of
culture as a set of inherited beliefs and perceptions used by people under
similar circumstances to live with one another and that capitalism both
forces people to dismantle traditional sociocultural forms and provides a
recipe for their recreation, especially through consumption.  Hart
justifies the focus on a single country as a case study by noting that
although relations between culture, capitalist society and consumption may
be theorised in general, "the final form, the speed with which this
remaking proceeds, its exact magnitude and the levels of resistance all
vary depending upon the specific culture, history and legacies of a
society" (p. 9).

Chapter Two sets out Korea's historical legacies, discussing yangban, the
patriarchal family system, and the Confucian basis for correct social
relations.   Hart emphasises the differences between yangban and commoner
families and the roles played by women in these families.  Chapters Three,
Four and Five describe and analyse industrialisation and modernisation in
Korean society.  These chapters discuss migration patterns from the
countryside to large cities, emerging urbanisation induced by
industrialisation, and the consequent shift from home production in
villages to domestic consumption in large cities.  The author also
elaborates here upon the rise of the middle class and role of men and women
in modern Korean society.  Hart's main argument here is that the middle
class is defined by consumption and material possession and that men and
women have a different relationship to the market, as producers and
consumers, respectively.  The male realm is now located outside the
household metaphorically instead of outside the house physically as in
pre-industrial days. According to most South Koreans, the proper place for
married women remains the home, which causes much frustration among
housewives. Chapter Six examines the impact of advertising on mass
consumption.  Hart argues that advertisement makes the behaviour of mass
consumption "appear normal while educating people in the rituals and
purchases which are appropriate to their material existence" (p. 156).  The
concluding Chapter Seven contains both a summary of the study as a whole,
but oddly, a detailed section on South Korean politics.

In 2002 this volume was recognised as a "Distinguished Academic Book" by
South Korea's National Academy of Sciences, the country's most prestigious
scholarly organisation.  One might therefore expect the book's strengths to
exceed its weaknesses.  However, I do not find this to be the case.   The
book undoubtedly fills an important gap in academic work on South Korea,
but its mixture of quantitative and qualitative evidence is not presented
in a robust and convincing way.  First, much of the empirical material is
outdated, as it stems from the 1980s. Although the author attempts to
justify his selection of this time period, South Korea's culture and
society change so rapidly that empirical evidence rapidly becomes outdated
as well. Secondly, at some points, particularly in Chapters Three, Four and
Five, this empirical base is itself at times thin and presented in a
partial and disordered way. For example, pages 61-62 present figures and a
table about the middle class, but without defining how the term is to be
understood; page 98 offers two overlapping tables on divorce rates that
contain contradictory data; page 99 presents research results based solely
on discussions with six women.  Thirdly, a random check of about half the
references turned up many errors of citation: some sources mentioned in the
footnotes are not listed in the bibliography; at other times the year of
publication in the footnote does not correspond with the one in the
bibliography.  Occasionally, footnote citations refer without a date to an
author with several publications in the bibliography, leaving the reader to
guess which reference is meant.  In addition, tables appear without any
citation of source.  Such deficits are not acceptable in a published PhD
thesis, let alone a work that has been recognised as a distinguished
academic book.

Nonetheless, despite its shortcomings, the book succeeds in presenting
interesting and creative ideas on the relationship between economic
development and culture in South Korea.  Hart's ideas will also encourage
readers to think further about factors that might have facilitated or
hindered the shift from traditional to mass consumption culture, but which
have not been dealt with in the book, such as the role of religion, the
concept of compressed modernity (Chang 1999), and the lack of indigenous
social revolutions in South Korea.


Chang, K-S. (1999) "Compressed modernity and its discontents: South Korean
society in transition, _Economy and Society_ 28, 30-55.

Hassink, Robert 2002
Review of __From Tradition to Consumption: Construction of a Capitalist
Culture in South Korea_, by Dennis Hart. (2001)
Korean Studies Review 2002, no. 16
Electronic file: http://koreaweb.ws/ks/ksr/ksr02-16.htm

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