Economic Sociology in Korea
Economic Sociology in Korea
by Jung Ji Wook
The complex relations between economy and society had long been a prominent topic among Korean sociologists given the country’s tumultuous path to postwar recovery and development. But the so-called “new economic sociology” was first introduced to South Korea in the early 1990s by a group of scholars who were trained in major North American universities, precisely when economic sociology emerged as one of the major subfields within sociology. Key members of the group included Gil-Sung Park (Korea University); Usic Kim (Ewha Womans University); Dukjin Chang, Jaeyeol Yee (Seoul National University); and, Yong-Hak Kim, Joon Han, Chan Woong Park (Yonsei University).
One unique aspect of economic sociology in South Korea, particularly during its early stage, was the strong emphasis given to social network analysis. As a result, for a long time, Korean sociologists in other fields perceived economic sociology as overlapping with social network analysis. One reason was that several pioneers of Korean economic sociology, including Yong-Hak Kim and Jaeyeol Yee, popularized social network analysis in South Korea and employed it successfully in answering empirical questions. More importantly, unique institutional features of the Korean economy and society, especially an economy dominated by family-owned business
groups (chaebol) and social norms based on interpersonal relations (inmaek) were conducive to social network analysis. Several studies on those two issues demonstrated not only positive aspects of network-based economic and social systems in Korea but also its dark side.
For instance, analyzing 30 major business groups in Korea before the Asian Financial Crisis, Jaeyeol Yee (2000) demonstrated how excessive reliance on network-based resources led to the bankruptcy of several business groups during the crisis. In another important study using large-scale opinion survey data, Usic Kim (2002) showed that a higher level of network activities was positively correlated with a higher level of bribery endorsement and rule-violation behavior among Korean respondents.
The tight alignment with social network analysis, although initially useful for promoting
economic sociology, prevented it from having a broad impact on other subfields in Korean sociology. Critics pointed out that Korean economic sociologists were mostly interested in introducing US-based theories and concepts without providing a deeper understanding of key socio-economic issues in South Korea. A new generation of economic sociologists in Korea, however, has begun to explore a broad array of important social and political issues in contemporary Korea society. Noticeable examples are Soohan Kim’s (Korea University) studies on workplace gender inequality, Hyunji Kwon’s (Seoul National University) work on nonstandard work arrangements and their effects on wage and work hours, and Joonkoo Lee’s
(Hanyang University) research on global value chains and labor rights.
Economic sociologists in South Korea are primarily employed in major sociology departments. A few sociologist are also hired at business schools, public policy schools or international studies programs, but the numbers are small.
Two major venues for Korean economic sociology are Korean Journal of Sociology (한국사회학), which is also an official journal of the Korean Sociological Association, and Economy and Society (경제와 사회). Some Korean economic sociologists also publish in management journals in Korea, such as Korean Management Review and Korean Journal of Management (인사조직연구).
Yee Jaeyeol. 2000. “기업의 구조와 변화: 재벌조직을 중심으로”, < 한국사회> 3집, 고려대
한국사회연구소. (“The Structure and Change of Firms: With Special Emphasis on Chaebol.” Han'guksahoe 3. Institute for Korean Society, Korea University).
Kim, Usic. 2002. “Structural Signal as a Link between Network Structure and Rule-Violation Behavior.” Korean Journal of Sociology 36(6): 57-82.