“Korea moving toward a multicultural society”

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I first mentioned this concept casually on a post about a month ago here:


Published in the Korea Herald on 2007.11.14:

1. Introduction

In a 1997 panel that focused on the development of a new history curriculum for high school students in the United States, the well-known Harvard social scientist Nathan Glazer declared that “we are all multicultural now.” He highlighted the changing “culture-scape” which many Americans have come to experience in their everyday lives. Does this truth also apply to other parts of the world? Are multicultural ways of life pervasive in contemporary Korea, as well?

Recently, the Republic of Korea, an ethnically homogeneous country with a total population of 47,254,000, has been experiencing a rapid growth in its foreign population, especially regarding migrant workers. As of October 2005, the total number of resident foreign nationals in Korea stood at 711,869 (more than 1.5 per cent of the total population). By nationality, Chinese are the most numerous (36.9 per cent of the total), followed by Americans (14.8 per cent), Filipinos (5.1 per cent) and Japanese (4.2 per cent).

The idea of “multicultural Korea” seems to be more credible as we witness the growing number of restaurants selling international food. This multicultural thesis looks rather convincing if we consider the increasing number of interracial marriages. According to Korean Department of Foreign Affairs and Trades, among newly married couples in Korea, approximately one out of ten is interracial. Despite this fact, many Koreans were not aware of the seriousness of the multicultural phenomenon arising from interracial marriages until they heard about the UN CERD (Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination) Report released in August 2007. This report indicated that the notion of the “pure-blooded” people, rooted in Koreans’ pride in the nation’s ethnic homogeneity, has produced various forms of discrimination against so called “mixed-bloods” in employment, marriage, housing, education and ordinary relations. The findings were a kind of shock to most ordinary Koreans who had been so proud of their ethnic identity, due to our indoctrination into ethnic monotheism. Around that time, many Koreans began to doubt the validity of their nationalistic ideology of pure blood, and asked themselves: “Are we qualified to be a member of the globalizing world?”

2. Cosmopolitanism — the Road to Multiculturalism

Multiculturalism represents cultural heterogeneity, as opposed to homogeneity. According to the conventional unilateral perspective, multiculturalism is seen as the opposite of cultural assimilation. Common responses to multiculturalism have been negative because the coexistence of different racial or ethnic groups is taken to be harmful to national unity. The metaphor of national unity is frequently invoked by those who stick to the idea of “the melting pot.” However, as is easily recognized in the case of music, harmony is not based on homogeneity. Rather, harmony requires a variety of natures coming together. That is why contemporary defenders of multiculturalism regard cultural diversity as the precondition of social advancement.

Drawing upon classical and recent arguments concerning multiculturalism, Douglas Hartmann and Joseph Gerteis propose an alternative perspective that combines the social and cultural dimensions of multiculturalism. Combining two different elements of multiculturalism — the social dimension referring to the interactions between and among individuals, groups and the nation; and the moral dimension representing the normative aspects of the social order — they specify four distinct types of cultural cohabitation (Table 1).

The Two-Dimensional Framework of Multiculturalism

” Source: D. Hartmann and J. Gerteis, “Dealing with Diversity: Mapping Multiculturalism in Sociological Terms,” Sociological Theory 23-2, 2005: 224.

This four-fold classificatory scheme highlights particular characteristics relating to the kind of social order they indicate. Most important is the cosmopolitanism cell, which implies the state of different kinds of social cohesion, wherein the current zeitgeist — “Thinking Globally, Acting Locally, Living Personally” — prevails. In contrast to the assimilationist vision, the most striking features of cosmopolitanism are its lack of cultural specificity.

This suggests that the cosmopolitan vision is more inclusive than the assimilationist one, in that it does not insist that all members share the same core traits. It also means that nationality is only one of many sources of personal identity, and that that is not necessarily the most salient feature. In short, multiculturalism is a largely individualized, voluntaristic vision. It is individualized, insofar as members are internally differentiated by multiple and cross-cutting boundaries. It is voluntaristic, in that the emphasis is on individual choice rather than mutual obligations.

It is likely that the lack of concrete constraints within multiculturalism makes it problematic for some people who wish for a stronger vision of community. Yet the lack of constraints in the multicultural model has made it attractive to others because of its emphasis on choice and freedom. More than anything else, it seems to be more relevant in the globalizing world where cross-cultural dialogue, understanding and emotional bonds become the salient features and values of the age.

3. Globalism and Cosmopolitanism

Currently the conditio humana cannot be understood either nationally or locally, but only globally. The process of globalization involves not only growing interconnections across national boundaries, but transformations in the quality of social life within nation-states. This is how Ulrich Beck defines “cosmopolitanization:” as internal globalization or globalization from within the nation-state. This idea of cosmopolitanism is associated with elite Western individuals who were the fullest expression of European bourgeois capitalism and colonial empires. To them, cosmopolitanism meant “being a citizen of two worlds” — the “cosmos” and the “polis.”

In contrast to the concept of globalism, cosmopolitanism means rooted globalism. It rejects the opposition between the cosmopolitan and the local, since there is no cosmopolitanism without localism. If we focus on cosmopolitanism, i.e., globalism within, the distinctions between local-national, national-national or local-global are all imploded. Accordingly, borders of any kinds no longer predominate, but instead become things that can be chosen. There is both an increase in viable ways of drawing new borders, and a growing tendency to question existing borders in any spheres.

When political, economic, cultural, and legal borders become no longer congruous with each other, contradictions open up between the various principles of exclusion, and produce a series of disputes regarding the limit or distribution of responsibilities. Therefore, the legitimate crisis due to declining national sovereignty sets off an avalanche of cosmopolitan dilemmas which lead to calls for “world citizenry.”

4. Toward a Post-universalistic conception of cosmopolitanism

With the separation of the social and the political that has been a feature of modern thought, cosmopolitanism has long been seen as part of the political. The main tradition of such a political thrust derived from Immanuel Kant’s trying to extend the republican political philosophy into a wider legal framework, beyond the limited modern republic, in order to achieve a state of perpetual peace. With this came the vision of a world political community extending beyond the community, into which one is born or lives. Cosmopolitanism thus became linked with Western universalism and with political designs aimed at world governance.

However, this Enlightenment notion of cosmopolitanism began to weaken with the rise of the nationalism. The current development of social theory implies a post-universalistic cosmopolitanism which takes into account multiple modernities of diversified societal transformations and that does not presuppose the separation of the social from the political. Here, cosmopolitanism is regarded as the multiplicity of ways in which the social world is constructed in different modernities. Rather than seeing cosmopolitanism as a singular condition, it is instead seen as a cultural medium of societal transformation that is based on the principle of global openness. Given the right conditions, the idea of post-universalistic cosmopolitanism can be established.

5. Types of cosmopolitanism

Cosmopolitanism has a long tradition, and takes many forms. But it is possible to classify them into three broad strands: moral cosmopolitanism, social cosmopolitanism and cultural cosmopolitanism.

The classical version of cosmopolitanism can be termed moral cosmopolitanism, due to the everlasting emphasis of the cosmopolitan ethic throughout human history. The idea of moral cosmopolitanism is based on a notion of universal morality, which can be seen as reflecting the decline of the closed world of polis, and the rise of the universal empire of Alexander the Great.

Social cosmopolitanism, which can be identified in terms of the citizenship, is directly associated with the civil rights of the welfare society. Social cosmopolitanism is the product of reconciliation between the human rights of individuals and the protection of the civil rights of minorities. The most conspicuous trait of social cosmopolitanism is the decreased importance of territory — as measured by the place of birth — in the definition of citizen’s rights. Such a development has arisen from international migration, ethnic prejudice or discrimination, and interracial conflicts which have stimulated the demand for greater social welfare or social recognition.

The third and most important type of cosmopolitanism is cultural cosmopolitanism. Although some social theorists have attempted to conceptualize this, it has not been explicitly articulated yet. The key to all such attempts is the notion of societal pluralization. Examples of cultural cosmopolitanism are best found in the ideas of contemporary social analysts such as Manuel Castells, John Urry and Bruno Latour.

Castells’ notion of a network society having open and flexible structures is often taken to be a road to cultural cosmopolitanism because his society exists in the form of networks rather than territorial spaces. Also, Urry aligns his position explicitly with cultural cosmopolitanism by saying that the key feature of current society is mobility. For Urry, mobility becomes our ontological condition and is expressed in processes as different as global complexity and reflexive modernity. But it is Bruno Latour who contributes the most advanced the idea: hybridity. In his view, the central issue of our social life involves associations; these are the social- concern relations of the living and the dead, rather than something that constitutes a social reality or that lies behind it.

In particular, the idea of hybrid associations seems most promising, in terms of fostering cultural cosmopolitanism because, in the process of cultural globalization, the key significance resides in the notion of hybridity. Jan Nederveen Pieterse defines cultural globalization as a creation of hybrid cultures arising out of the transnational movements of people and cultures. Cultural globalization is conceived as the creolization of diverse cultures, which entails not just contacts, networks or associations, but also confrontation, conflict or modification.

6. Closing

Some scholars who share the idea of multiple modernities have continued to develop a culturally nuanced notion of cosmopolitanism. For example, Zygmunt Bauman, who suggests the concept of “liquid modernity” — which is characterized by social transience, uncertainty, anxieties and insecurity — stresses the interactions of different modernities, and suggests a plural and post-universalistic notion of cosmopolitanism.

Therefore, it will suffice to remark in conclusion that theories of multiple modernities have led to a new conception of cosmopolitanism that gives particular emphasis to post-universalism. Post-universal cosmopolitanism is cultural, in the sense that plural lifestyles or plural life strategies coexist to the point that the individual, the local and the national and the global are combined in diverse ways. Thus, cultural pluralism cannot be subsumed under a general category of cosmopolitanism where unity is simply the goal.

The post-universalistic version of cultural cosmopolitanism should rather be seen in terms of the tension within andbetween modernities. This is why cultural cosmopolitanism tends to be seen as one of the major expressions of the tendency of the day: self-problematization, in which the universal order of the cosmos and the human order of the polis collide. Under the condition of advanced cultural cosmopolitanism, cultural movement can take on a creative power which enables us to combine different forces — high and low, right and left, center and periphery, local and globa,l and the like. The resulting cultural cosmopolitanism is more than the coexistence of difference. Rather than simple coexistence, what is expected to occur is the co-evolution of society and culture that leads to a mature society of high cultural integrity.

From a series of mixed-blood extravaganza such as the return of Super Bowl MVP Hines Ward and the heroine of the ABC drama Moon Bloodgood (Figure 1), many Koreans are now re-framing interracial issues, and asking this question: “Is multiculturalism bad for social unity?” But the real question is how to develop a cosmopolitan mentality which is defined by intercultural understanding, recognition and tolerance.

By Kim Mun-cho

1 Comment

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One response to ““Korea moving toward a multicultural society”

  1. Pingback: Is Korea a Homogeneous Country? « Standard English Standard

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