Distinction and Participation in Post-Hierarchy South Korea
Michael M. Prentice


Contents and Abstracts
chapter abstract

The Introduction introduces the concept of the "supercorporate ideal" through an ethnographic portrait of the Sangdo Group, a pseudonym for a South Korean conglomerate. The supercorporate ideal proposes that corporations in South Korea are more than just economic entities; they are part of sociocultural imaginaries that posit corporate office work as aspirational sites for both individuals and society. While corporate work has often been marked by images of negative hierarchy in the past, many across the corporate world today contemplate what a post-hierarchical office place should look like and how to realize it. The path to creating idealized office work is marked by a tension between two competing values: whether it should be a site of individual mobility or of democratic cooperation. This tension between forms of distinction and participation animates much of contemporary office life in South Korea.

1 A New Tower
chapter abstract

Chapter 1 discusses the move of the Sangdo Group to a newly constructed corporate office tower in Seoul. The tower was part of an effort to create a new platform for distinction and participation within Sangdo. The advent of a new generation of ownership repurposed a holding company into a strategy office that would centralize what were largely autonomous and separate subsidiaries. What was to the owners an act of purifying the complex worlds of the Sangdo conglomerate by consolidating various subsidiaries under one roof with a reunified brand led to new dilemmas surrounding other intraorganizational relationships. The chapter captures how what appear as legible symbols of distinction belie more complex realities inside. Holding company managers navigated a complex act of new relationships and distinctions among themselves and subsidiaries.

2 Infrastructures of Distinction
chapter abstract

Chapter 2 begins with a discussion of experiments to upend South Korean corporate hierarchies in the image of flatness. These office-level reforms, which became popular in the first decade of the 2000s, sought ways of linking macro-organizational problems with issues of employee interaction and stratification on the ground, such as changing how employees speak to each other and how they are ranked. The chapter suggests that such thin reforms lie on top of much more complex infrastructures of distinction that comprise forms of implicit and explicit gradation between employees. One reason that flattening projects fail is that they interfere with many of the distinctions that define the basic raison d'être of corporate labor: as a site for cultivating individual markers of mobility. More than just a preference for hierarchical forms of old, corporate life is premised on organizing and sorting these distinctions among potential and current employees.

3 Old Spirits of Capitalism
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Chapter 3 addresses how hierarchy appears as a negative force associated with generational conflict across South Korean society. The figure of the older male manager has become particularly stigmatized and negative depictions of bad or immoral behavior circulate in discussions around the office and in the media, putting blame on this figure for issues from inefficiency to dissatisfaction. The chapter suggests that attention on such figures is significant because such stereotypes provide a legible sign of the past to build from, inspiring new kinds of office reform in the present. The chapter focuses on the ways that the figure animates much of the promise of the supercorporate ideal through the belief that getting rid of such figures and their practices can resolve problems of both proper distinction and cooperative social interaction in the workplace.

4 Surveying Sangdo
chapter abstract

Chapter 4 examines the implementation of a satisfaction survey at the Sangdo Group. Employee satisfaction surveys operate as a key site within supercorporate ideals as a form of technocratic participation. Surveys collect the basic empirical evidence (the "voices") needed to drive corporate change. As objects of management, however, they also create potential for new kinds of knowledge distinctions that intersect with, and come into conflict with, more visible forms of rank-based distinction. The chapter documents the difficulties human resources managers faced as they attempted to recreate the image of bad office cultures on the survey, plans that were partly foiled when the numerical realities did not align with the image they hoped to present. The failure of numbers in turn threatened their own status as internal experts.

5 Interrupting Democracy
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Chapter 5 examines a site where a different kind of supercorporate ideal is enacted: shareholder meetings. Shareholder meetings are quite unusual as state- and market-mandated forums that break the monotony of everyday office life and enact a flipped version of many forms of distinction and participation. They are forums in which the minority shareholders seize power temporarily—a power communicated primarily through the right not only to speak but also to publicly berate or accuse corporate executives. In South Korea, I describe how this power is employed by different actors such as meeting extortionists (chonghoe-ggun), activist investors, foreign investors, and institutional investors, all of whom exploit the parliamentarian format of the meetings to enact new forms of distinction in which they can have greater external control to different ends.

6 Virtual Escapes
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Chapter 6 focuses on after-hours socializing. After-hours work has often been imagined as a refuge from many of the formal demands of the working day and a site where unspoken aspects of office life can be resolved. I highlight how after-hours socializing in South Korea also operates as its own zone of distinction. Activities such as going drinking together, singing, and playing games such as golf mediate work relationships through forms of play or leisure; they are also sites for forging alternative distinction and participation, such as how much one can drink, how late one can stay out, and how well one can sing. The chapter points to the ways in which socializing is a complex site where employees must manage other peoples' preferences in zones outside corporate jurisdiction and control.

Conclusion: Hidden Distinctions
chapter abstract

The Conclusion describes how some employees locate hidden forms of distinction within the corporation itself, such as ties to Christianity and the military. Even passing comparisons can reflect the way that corporations exist in the context of other institutions of which it is sometimes a model and other times a point of comparison. I suggest that the issue of locating the deeper origins of hierarchy as a matter of the past and distinction as a matter of the future is partly a creative act, not just an objective form or characteristic. It depends, in part, on how employees come to situate their own worlds in the complex and contradicting historical forces still shaping South Korea's twenty-first century.

Methodological Appendix
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I discuss my own encounters as a researcher with different forms of distinction. These encounters greatly affected the ethnographic research process in three ways: First, the way in which I was connected to the Sangdo conglomerate affected how others treated me and what I could access. Second, as an anthropology student, I entered a space of experienced experts versed in organizational behavior, clear and transparent methods, and project timelines. Finding myself downgraded in rank and expertise, my own conceptions of what an anthropologist would or should be researching changed significantly in the field.