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The Melodrama of Mobility: Women, Talk, and Class in Contemporary South Korea
376pp. October 2003
The Melodrama of Mobility: Women, Talk, and Class in Contemporary South Korea
Author: Abelmann, Nancy;
Winner, 2004 Leeds Prize, Society for Urban/National/Transnational Anthropology

How do people make sense of their world in the face of the breakneck speed of contemporary social change? Through the lives and narratives of eight women, The Melodrama of Mobility chronicles South Korea's experience of just such dizzyingly rapid development. Abelmann captures the mood, feeling, and language of a generation and an era while providing a rare window on the personal and social struggles of South Korean modernity. Drawing also from television soap operas and films, she argues that a melodramatic sensibility speaks to South Korea's transformation because it preserves the tension and ambivalence of daily life in unsettled times. The melodramatic mode helps people to wonder: Can individuals be blamed for their social fates? How should we live? Who can say who is good or bad? By combining the ethnographic tools of anthropology, an engagement with prevailing sociological questions, and a literary approach to personal narratives, The Melodrama of Mobility offers a rich portrait of the experience of compressed modernity in the non-West.
"Highly recommended. All levels/libraries." --Choice, June 2004

"A thought-provoking and amazingly rich ethnography" --Asian Anthropology 3 (2004)

"Well-researched, engagingly written" --Korean Quarterly, Summer 2005

"Abelmann is a generous writer. Her description of the women whose lives and words form the substance of the book are respectful and humane. But it is her ability to convey appreciation--and often enthusiasm--for ideas, those of the eight women and those of the various scholars from which she draws, that reveals her intellectual warmth.... Abelmann also offers her readers a rare service: through her copious citations and brief discussions of contemporary writing on South Korean culture and society, she provides a kind of positioned literature review that encompasses both South Korean and foreign scholars, young writers and established experts." --Journal of Asian Studies, August 2004

"In this ambitious and engaging study, eight middle-aged women give their own accounts of lives lived in and through South Korea's half century of compressed modernity. Cannily juxtaposing real-life personal narratives, films, and soap operas, Nancy Abelmann suggests that her subjects' aspirations of social mobility can best be understood as a 'melodrama' where personal character and historical circumstances are both at play, where personal acts and choices have profound and often unanticipated consequences. Abelmann challenges not only received wisdom on the positive social consequences of South Korean economic development but the notion of 'class' itself as anything fixed and self-evident. Once read as a 'melodrama of mobility' late-twentieth-entury South Korean society will never look the same." --Laurel Kendall, American Museum of Natural History

"An unusual and important contribution to the growing ethnography of class, especially as it plays out in the intimate relations of family and gender. Nancy Abelmann powerfully demonstrates the many ways in which the political is personal, and vice versa." --Sherry Ortner, Columbia University

"In this beautifully written book women's lives do not sit still; they move through time, change before our eyes, follow their hearts, change their course, and are moved by traces of their own past as they chisel new pathways for themselves. The Melodrama of Mobility is tribute to passion, courage, and culture." --Carol Stack, University of California, Berkeley, author of All Our Kin and Call to Home

Author: Abelmann, Nancy;
Nancy Abelmann is associate professor of anthropology, East Asian languages and cultures, and women's studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign; she is also a teaching faculty member of Asian American studies.
Read an excerpt (PDF).


Introduction: The Melodrama of Mobility

1. The Eight Women

2. Key Words

3. Class Work: Education Stories

4. Social Mobility: "Facts" and "Fictions"

5. Personality Speaking

6. Gendering Displacement: Men, Masculinity, and the Nation

7. All in the Family: Class Distances and Divides

8. When It’s All Said and Done…

9. Conclusion: Living Through Compressed Modernity