Korean Culture

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“Home is a Place to Rest”:
Constructing the Meaning of Work, Family and Gender in the Korean Middle Class* Yi Eunhee Kim

I. Introduction Feminist scholarship since the eighties (e.g. Yanagisako 1979; Yanagisako and Collier 1987; Rapp 1987; Scott 1988; Yi E. K. 1986; Ginsburg and Tsing 1990; Peletz 1994; 1995; Thorne 1992; Weston 1990) has widely criticized the conceptual oppositions of family and work, production and reproduction, domestic and public, as long used in Western social science. According to the feminist critique of “androcentric” Western social theory, the analytic dichotomies of work/ family or production/reproduction have led to a lack of attention to women’s political and productive activities in Western social science. As Scott points out, women have not been treated as historical subjects because of these conceptual oppositions. Because gender is seen as relevant only to the private sphere of family, the discussion of labor or work in industrial society has been “production-centered,” overlooking the workers’ family and gender identities (Joyce 1987, 9; Bielby 1992, 283; Scott 1988; Yanagisako and Collier 1987, 24). Family or “domestic” life also has been treated as if it is set apart from the wider social, economic and political spheres. Insulated from the wider society, it has been viewed as the hold of tradition, “the focal point of all sorts of reproduction” (Yanagisako and Collier 1987, 22). In this analytic division, “universal” gender inequality has been ultimately explained in terms of the woman’s reproductive role in the family. * Part of the present analysis was published in Korean in 1993. See Yi E. K. (1993b).

“Home is a Place to Rest”

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The feminist critique of male-centered Western social theory further points out that the conceptual dichotomies of domestic and public, family and work, production and reproduction are cultural and historical constructs of Western industrial society. It has emphasized that work, family and gender are culturally and historically constructed and inseparable from each other (Scott 1988; Ginsburg and Tsing 1990). Work, for example, is not just an economic activity but also a cultural one, and its meanings are constructed within the social milieu. Therefore, in order to understand the nature of work in the economic sphere, we need to overcome the production-centered approach by looking beyond it (Joyce 1987, 9; Ong 1991, 280; Calagione and Nugent 1992, 5). In the same vein, family is not an unchanging biological entity but a cultural and ideological construct, which cannot be adequately understood in isolation from wider social, economic and political systems (Collier, Rosaldo and Yanagisako 1992; Peletz 1994; 1995). Utilizing this feminist insight, the present article will examine how in the Korean middle class the cultural construct of home as “a place to rest” is articulated by the work ideology in the public sphere of “production,” and how this interface between work and family is shaped by gender.1 The decades of rapid industrial growth in South Korea brought with it the rise of an affluent urban white-collar middle class who works for large industrial and bureaucratic organizations. Along with the rise of this middle class, everyday family life has undergone profound changes. Ancestral rituals and parental authority has declined, leading to the nuclearization of families. The ideals of equality, freedom and democracy are now well established not only as political ideals, but also as part of a new family ideology. This ideological change is most evident in the emergence of a new conception of home as a place to rest. Gender roles are no longer constructed in terms of a traditional hierarchy where man is viewed

1. The term “ideology” here is used in the widest sense to refer to the cultural symbols, meanings, and “common sense” understanding which order our everyday life.

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KOREA JOURNAL / SUMMER 1998

as “heaven” or “outside,” and...
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