An Interview with Alex Nelson
Anthropologist Discusses Korean Attitudes Towards Love and Relationships

Alex Nelson stands in front of buildings in Seoul. Photo courtesy of Alex Nelson.

Love, relationships, and marriage are parts of life that are universal to the human experience. Though they are routine, it doesn’t mean that people necessarily understand them. Alex Nelson has spent the better part of the last seven years studying love, dating, relationships, and marriage in a Korean context.  He is a Ph.D candidate in Anthropology at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas. Rooftop on the Hanok recently interviewed Nelson to get a closer look at his research.


Rooftop on the Hanok (RH): How did you choose love as the topic of your dissertation?


Alex Nelson (AN): I always had an innate interest in the topic of love and intimacy. One of the things that first got me interested in anthropology was a course on the anthropological aspects of love and romance. I read the work of my future adviser in that class, and in graduate school I came to recognize that ethnographies of sex, intimacy, and marriage were often those that I most enjoyed reading. We spend years on our dissertations and many years after graduating on related topics so I wanted to choose a topic that I wouldn’t get bored with in a decade and that my informants would want to discuss with me. One mistake some anthropologists make is to choose a topic that isn’t inherently interesting to discuss for the people they are studying, which makes it difficult to conduct interviews.


RH: What kind of research model did you use?


AN: I don’t think of it in terms of a specific research model. In anthropology, the general convention is to do ethnographic research. That requires living amongst a population for at least two years, ideally. The principal methodology is participant observation and that involves a combination of observing what others are doing and participating firsthand. For example, if you are watching farmers, you would not only observe but also participate in the activities that farmers do. In my research, its difficult to do participant observation with love, as it is more of an emotional and cognitive experience. Love mostly occurs in the subject’s head, and while it has social aspects, the researcher can’t really participate in it. An anthropologist could theoretically participate in the sense of dating a bunch of people, but being married that wasn’t an option for me and there are ethical concerns with doing that anyway. I did try to get as close to the phenomenon I was studying as possible. In my fieldwork I lived in Korean households so that I could see daily routines, chores, displays of affection, and the like. It was important to have that element, though my research project was more survey and interview based, so I could get at people’s ideologies and views of love. With love, a person’s entire history is involved. Dating and marriage routines are learned and not completely culturally proscribed. When two people marry, they negotiate their two family cultures to create a hybrid, although power dynamics may lead one natal, birth, culture to dominate. Observing could help understand this phenomenon but the best way was to have people summarize their experiences for me. The interviews were central and important because love is happening in dyads and over extended periods of time and in private spaces closed even to fellow family members. It’s idiosyncratic and not completely culturally determined. You can’t merely watch people all the time to learn about their romantic relationships. Or at least doing so will not give you a very complete picture.


RH: Since love is universal, how did you identify aspects that were relevant to South Korea?


AN:I conducted a survey and interviews that were an adaptation of one that was done in other countries, and added a few Korea specific questions to it. Once you have all that data, you have to interpret it and analyze it. I used an inductive approach called the “grounded theory approach.” It is a type of inductive qualitative analysis. It entails identifying the themes and building it into a structure of hierarchically ordered nodes of meaning from the more general to more specific. That structure then makes it easier to grasp the overall patterns in responses.


RH: How much influence does Korea’s Neo-Confucian past have on modern day South Korean attitudes towards love, relationships, and marriage?


AN:It has a pretty profound effect on Korean marital relationships. Not all of it is attributable to Neo-Confucianism. For example, if you were comparing South Korean marriages to American marital relationships you would see a greater role for the Korean extended family. Some of it is shaped by Neo-Confucianism, but if you looked back to the Goryeo era you might still see more involvement from extended family but in different forms. Primogeniture was adopted during the Chosun era.  That wasn’t practiced during the Goryeo dynasty. Women’s rights and relationship to their birth family were substantially changed during the Chosun era as they lost the right to inherit property from their parents, divorce became more stigmatized, incest taboos were strengthened, forcing women to marry farther field form their home villages, and patrilocal residence became a stronger norm. Basically, under the Neo-Confucian reforms of the Chosun era, women became more dependent on their in-laws and husbands and more isolated from their family of birth, potentially weakening their power in the family.


RH: Did the Japanese occupation and the American military presence have any influence on South Korean attitudes?


AN: One of the influences that the Japanese had was their forced opening up of the country to the rest of the world. Prior to that, Koreans were ignorant of foreign attitudes towards marriage and love. After intellectuals were exposed to them, some people developed an interest in free love and challenged traditions. However, these new views of love were also somewhat stymied and seen as of lesser importance in the face of the threat of colonial rule. Ideals of love, female empowerment, and feminism were seen as less important than national liberation and development. Protestant Christianity also affected Korean attitudes towards love. Love is a word commonly evoked in protestant discourse, and Korean Christians are used to using an altruistic love discourse when they discuss romantic love. Christians training to be pastors are familiar with different typologies of love, such as agape and eros.


I don’t think the American military had a big influence on attitudes towards love. I’m sure there were cases of romance between American servicemen and Korean women that resulted from the occupation, but I haven’t come upon any evidence that it played a huge role. On the other hand, American culture, through mass media like Hollywood films and popular music was more critical in disseminating American views and tropes of marriage, love and courtship than the military was.


RH: What did you learn about love and relationships in South Korea? What are the key takeaways?


AN: One of the ways I’m framing this project is that it might be able to tell us about Korea’s declining fertility rate and the sources of problems and anxieties for getting married and having children. For Korean women, a lot of those anxieties stem from the tradition of expecting them to sacrifice for the family unit, often times the extended family unit. Some ways they are supposed to do that is to end their careers to rear kids, take care of in-laws, which can mean submitting to their authority and sometimes living with them and caring for them, as well as raising their husbands as superior to themselves through acts of deference, particularly in front of in-laws. One example of this is wives using polite speech to communicate with their husbands while the husbands use intimate speech to address their wives. In Korean language this is primarily accomplished through the suffix one places at the end of an utterance. The differentiation of politeness level denotes and reinforces hierarchy. It raises up the man as superior. Outside of romantic relationships, impolite speech is used to address social inferiors, such as younger people or subordinates in the workplace. While this situation is changing, you still see couples reverting to the hierarchical form in some contexts, such as in public or around in-laws. That move towards egalitarian speech has a lot to do with the nuclearization of Korean families. Once a family is free of in- laws in their everyday interactions, the power dynamics can be more freely renegotiated. Whereas living with the spouse’s parents can pressure the couple to conform to the values of the older generation.


RH: Talk about the younger generation and their attitudes towards relationships, love, and marriage. Did age play any role in the survey and interview results?


AN: The younger generation is the engine of linguistic change. They are inventing new words and creating youth subcultures. As they get older, some of it goes away but some of it is retained. There is a bit of a trend towards less formality in Korean speech amongst the younger generation. They use intimate speech patterns with a wider range of people, without knowing them quite as well or as long as might have been the case in the past. I think that will be reflected in romantic relationships as well. In a survey a colleague conducted he asked about that and some people claimed they reverted to intimate speech almost immediately while dating. Another generational change is dating without the intention of getting married. Amongst my older interviewees they were dating as part of the marriage process. For a lot of young people today, dating is not for marriage and is engaged as a good within itself. For example, meetings, which are group blind dates that happen primarily in the first years of college, are seen as a frivolous and fun co-ed activity and not so much a way of meeting a prospective marital partner. Nowadays university students aren’t interested in getting married at twenty-two or twenty-three and want to experience their youth, go on to further schooling, live abroad, or gain experience in the workplace rather than immediately becoming parents. They also cannot really afford to marry right out of college because of astronomical housing prices and the costs of raising children with all the opportunities they desire for them.


RH: How do Korean attitudes towards love differ from the US?


AN: One difference I mentioned already is the role of extended family, but apart from that there is a greater recognition of the entwinement of love with practical considerations in South Korea than in the United States. In the U.S., love and pragmatism are seen as incompatible. Love is supposed to be seen as exclusively emotional. Whereas in most of the world there’s a recognition that love requires emotional and sexual support but also financial and pragmatic support. Sexual gratification, housework, and monetary support are all exchanged in romantic relationships. Because of that, couples recognize a good partner is going to need a range of qualities. Where men have greater access to financial resources than women, as in Korea, Women will on average place more emphasis on the financial capabilities of their partner since they are at least partly relying on their romantic partner to provide those resources they have limited access to on their own. Conversely, Women generally don’t emphasize physical appearance as much as men do. Men’s greater valuing of physical appearance, and by extension, erotic capital, likely derives from a society’s sexual double standard. because women are stigmatized more for having sex, and for having more partners, they are encouraged to guard their sexuality to avoid stigma, this creates a shortage and a demand for women’s sexuality, increasing its’ value over that of men’s. Thus, while financial support is valued more by Korean women than Korean men, because of shortages created by gender discrimination in the workplace, Korean men value sexual attractiveness and physical appearances more than Korean women, because the sexual double standard increases the value of women’s sexuality over men’s.


RH: What is behind the rising divorce rates?


AN: One thing is women are more financially independent. They can support themselves if they find their marriage is unsatisfying and leave the relationship. There is also less stigma. That makes it more palatable. I always wondered if the length of courtship contributed to divorce rates but I don’t have data to show that. But I suspect that those who rush into marriage will have a worse result.


RH: What are complaints Korean men have of Korean women? What about Korean women’s criticisms of Korean men?


AN: Korean men complain about women being too materialistic. Men complain because they don’t have an easy time meeting those financial needs that may be important to successfully obtaining the trappings of a middle-class lifestyle such as eating out, buying an apartment in a good school district and near one’s workplace, and maintaining stable employment. Korean men generally embrace the idea of paying more for dates than their partners, but they resent the idea that their partners love can be contingent on their ability to earn. They can resent that their partners love can be based on something external to them, like money, rather than something inherent to them, like personality.


Women’s complaints include their boyfriend or husband’s playing video games, drinking too much, and going out with friends too often. Some women I talked to found it childish for adult men to play video games. They see it, and excessive drinking, as a waste of time and resources. Second, it means they spend less time in child rearing and housework. Men’s drinking increases the burden on women in terms of domestic labor they have to perform. Korean men already have some of the lowest participation rates in domestic labor among OECD countries, despite the increasing number of dual income families in Korea.


RH: How do you think South Korean attitudes will evolve in ten years? Do you have any predictions?


AN: I’m guessing the fertility rate isn’t going to get much better. It will get worse. The fertility rate and marriage rate will keep declining. The age of first marriage will keep increasing. More and more people will opt to never marry. I think that a lot of Koreans perceive a greater sharing of the financial costs of dating between the younger generation. Its not clear it’s a generational change or a phenomenon of their life stage.  Young people have fewer financial resources and so may be egalitarian about sharing dating costs out of necessity rather than because of adoption of a more egalitarian ideal. I also think that once general economic prosperity, gender equality, and material wealth improve, Koreans might start to create a love ideology that denies materialism, ideologically separating material interest from love and romance like Americans currently do.


Rooftop on the Hanok hopes you enjoyed reading the interview with anthropologist Alex Nelson on the issues of love, romance, and relationships in South Korea. To learn more about Nelson, check out his profile on Research Gate.