The middle classes in most advanced economies today are frequently described as being “squeezed” and “shrinking.” Hagen Koo’s recent book, Privilege and Anxiety, examines what has happened to the Korean middle class in the era of rapid globalization and demonstrates that the middle class experiences far more complex changes than usually assumed. Koo argues that globalization inserts an axis of polarization into the middle class, separating a small minority that benefits from the globalized economy and a large majority that suffers from it. This internal differentiation generates new class dynamics, as the newly affluent seek to distinguish themselves from the rest of the middle class and establish a new, privileged class position. The rest of the middle class tries to follow the affluent’s class practices, suffering great anxieties and frustrations. The middle class thus turns into an arena of intense class distinction struggles, bringing great anxieties to both the affluent and the lower segments of the middle.
Hagen Koo is Professor Emeritus of Sociology at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. Born in Korea, Koo received his BA in Korea and briefly worked as a journalist before coming to America where he received a PhD at Northwestern University. He has published extensively on economic development and social change in South Korea. His major work includes Korean Workers: The Culture and Politics of Class Formation (Cornell University Press, 2001). After his retirement in 2017, he spends more time in Korea studying the changing social fabric of Korean society in the global era. Privilege and Anxiety (Cornell University Press, 2022) represents his most recent work.
Alek Sigley is a PhD student at Stanford University's Modern Thought and Literature program, where he is writing a dissertation on North Korea. From 2018-2019 he studied for a master's degree in contemporary North Korean fiction at Kim Il Sung University's College of Literature. He speaks Mandarin, Korean and Japanese. Follow him on Twitter @AlekSigley.
Elisa Kim is a PhD candidate in the department of sociology at Stanford University. Her dissertation theorizes on racialization by systematically investigating the portrayal of minority groups in South Korean newspapers across time using computational methods. Prior to the PhD, she majored in Asian American Studies at Pomona College and has an MA in East Asian Studies from Stanford, researching the relational landscape of North Korean human rights organizations.
This event is made possible by generous support from the Korea Foundation and other friends of the Korea Program.