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



THE 2014 ANNUAL EMPLOYEE SURVEY of white-collar workers at the Sangdo Group, a pseudonym for a mid-level South Korean industrial conglomerate, contained some surprising, but not unexpected, responses. After thirty-seven questions about their workplace satisfaction and team behaviors, employees were given the opportunity to leave an evaluation in their own words. Around 10 percent of the more than 1000 respondents offered their own diagnoses of life in the Sangdo Group. One wrote starkly, “The attitude of an oppressive boss: the boss who says unconditionally ‘just do it,’ psychologically and physically, causes employee stress.” Others complained about work itself: “meaningless overtime, never-ending meeting reports, ever-changing requests from management.” Others attacked Sangdo’s “military culture,” its “drinking-heavy culture,” and its “Korean-style management culture.” Some were more constructive and proposed solutions of their own, such as the implementation of “performance-based pay,” “360-degree feedback,” “concentrated work time,” and “flexible working hours.” The longest response, at nearly two pages, addressed the unknown surveyors directly, saying that if the Sangdo Group could develop a shared vision of where it was going, all employees could be united, and all other problems would simply be solved in turn. To the human resources (HR) team that created the survey, these results were not entirely unexpected, reflecting familiar gripes and suggestions seen on prior surveys and overheard in offhand complaints.

One set of results, however, revealed a discrepancy that was not so easy for the HR team to explain. In questions about their desired workplace, the South Korean employees responded, seemingly paradoxically, that they wanted both greater collaboration with coworkers and greater individual distinction and recognition for their own work. To the HR team that reviewed the results, these should have been exclusive positions. In fact, the questions were specifically included in the survey in part to distinguish different styles or types of employees, such as those who might seek teamwork and cooperative relations compared with those who were more interested in their individual advancement. However, when more than 90 percent of respondents across Sangdo’s dozen subsidiaries said that their desired workplace combined both cooperation and distinction, the HR team had difficulty reconciling the apparent contradiction. One employee wrote, for instance, “I want to have positive discussions about the future of the company with other employees where we can freely talk to each other,” while another wrote that “we need fair evaluations (gongjeonghan pyeong-ga) that give equal respect between employees.” Employees expressed a desired for the creation of new “systems” (siseutem or jedo) that could be implemented to properly sort out inter-employee distinctions without bias, while they also expressed a desire for more freedom to interact and share ideas with others through “mutual communication” (uisasotong) that would overcome “one-way” (ilbanghyang) styles of communicating.

This book considers a dilemma in the hopes and aspirations surrounding white-collar office work in contemporary South Korea. White-collar office work, particularly at large corporations or within conglomerate organizations, has been long admired as a place of security and stability—regular or standard jobs (jeong-gyujik) which accrue greater benefits and garner recognizable social prestige. However, there are subtle fault lines in the image of standard work in a twenty-first century South Korea that might imagine itself as post-hierarchical. By post-hierarchical, I refer to the notion that South Korea as a nation is continuously distancing itself from the militarized and top-down form of industrialized modernity that marked the latter half of its twentieth-century journey. This period was marked by various impositions of formal hierarchy that might have seemed necessary in the context of South Korea’s massive socioeconomic transformations from a country of largely agricultural workers ravaged by the Korean War to a highly corporatized society operating some of the world’s largest industrial enterprises in chemicals, steel, semiconductors, pharmaceuticals, and others. Two economic dictatorships, rigid gender and seniority norms, and forms of interactional control all could be argued to serve in the name of national development. These have variously been seen as the products of traditional norms, compressed industrialization, pressures from being on a capitalist periphery, or Cold War extremes. Whether necessary sacrifices or unnecessary cruelties, whether the product of South Korean society or geopolitics, the question at the heart of this book is this: what form of work comes in the wake of seemingly negative forms of hierarchy? There is considerable ambiguity around what a post-hierarchy South Korea should look like. For some, post-hierarchy represents a breakdown of vertical workplace norms and structures where employees of different ages and abilities might freely communicate regardless of their ranks, cooperate with others, and have positive team experiences free from traditional social pressures. For others, post-hierarchy represents fair and neutral evaluation where individuals’ skills, achievements, and work efforts can be properly recognized and distinguished, free of concerns around age, gender, or seniority that interfered with individual merit and marked South Korean office systems of the past. Differentiating from the forms and legacies of the past, particularly the culture of male managers from a previous generation who are often seen as the residue of such problems, is not so difficult. It is in those times, people, and practices that negative forms of hierarchy still reside. A more basic problem lies in what role office or professional work should have, either in better articulating individual differences or in working to eradicate them.

This story about the place of office work in South Korea reflects tensions around contemporary ideas and ideals of participation vis-à-vis distinction. Is participation, as the anthropologist Christopher Kelty observed, a matter of losing oneself in the crowd or the masses to be as one with others, or is it a matter of participating so as to ultimately distinguish oneself from the crowd?1 These are in some sense unresolved contradictions at the heart of many contemporary modern organizational questions. While the spread of neoliberal thinking and policies around the world since the 1970s has led to a dramatic restructuring and rethinking of work where questions of distinction and participation have seemingly been shaped for many of us (by the market, by economists, or by financial institutions), there are other places in the world where large organizations continue to be aspirational sites for economic mobility and idealized forms of small-scale social interaction with others—where issues of deciding about how to distinguish from and how to participate with are still being decided. A view of twenty-first century South Korean office life reveals an intensification of both interpersonal difference-making and communal cooperation within the space of large organizations. The former occurs through things like formal testing, work tracking, individual feedback mechanisms, annual evaluations, pay bands, and gradated bonuses. These distinctions have become relevant variables in civil society, where the distinctions of one’s employment help to indicate one’s relative trajectory in life. A middle-class South Korean might be able to distinguish between a full-time engineer at Samsung Electronics in the city of Suwon and a sales representative at Samsung Fire Insurance in Daejeon. At the same time, there are various programs and policies that emphasize cooperative work while de-emphasizing individual distinctions. These include new organizational forms around first-name policies, 360-degree feedback, team- or cell-based work units, small group meetings, hobby groups, town hall meetings, and “mutual communication” mantras.

This book investigates the tension between distinction and participation as idealized but ultimately ambiguous and competing futures amid post-hierarchical narratives in contemporary South Korea. The book is based on an ethnographic account of the Sangdo Group, a pseudonym for a mid-level South Korean conglomerate made up of roughly a dozen companies and one holding company involved in the steel and metals industries. I conducted ethnography in one small corner of Sangdo where I worked as an intern at Sangdo for twelve months between 2014 and 2015 as part of my doctoral research in anthropology. My research was conducted far from the large factories and hot forges of the South Korean steel world; rather, it was within the buttoned-up head office of the Sangdo holding company located at the top of the forty-story Sangdo tower in an area of Seoul (key identifying details of the group have been omitted). There, I was embedded in a small HR team that was attempting to bring changes to the workplace systems of the wider conglomerate that was seen as old-fashioned, male-dominated, and seniority-driven. How to create a post-hierarchical workplace at Sangdo—one that was more than just a rejection of hierarchy—was not always entirely clear in practice. As the employee survey revealed, some employees wanted more technocratic management, separate from the problems of human interference; others had a feeling of being deprived and isolated (baktalgam) precisely in their work and thus wanted more human engagement. These two drives ultimately led to different kinds of contradictions in practice: if distinctions are often measured in forms of rank and achievement, and such ranks and achievements are always relative to others, how can workplace distinction claim to be nonhierarchical? Furthermore, if HR managers can impose new forms of participation or workplace organization, however enlightened or global, on others, are they simply echoing top-down forms of social control in the name of change? This book traces how managers in the HR department (and other managers) understood these tensions and wrestled with creating new programs that might foster positive workplace environments for teams to work together and enable employees to be fairly distinguished in their work while avoiding the reimposition of hierarchies of old.

A generation of social scientists has looked at formal workplace distinctions with a critical eye.2 Over the course of the twentieth century, there have been many dehumanizing or alienating varieties of organizational systems around the world that categorize people based on how efficiently they carry out tasks, their level of communication skills, or even what other people think of them. Likewise, scholars have also been rightly skeptical of ersatz models of corporate culture, produced in HR departments and elaborated in manuals, that are used for kitschy campaigns and recruitment efforts promoting idyllic communitarian values that might elide more pernicious forms of distinction below the surface that arbitrarily define human value or are meant to divide labor forces through interpersonal competition over scarce posts.3 Human resource policies in South Korea are no exception and have been the site of domestic critiques for many years, from cruel practices of excluding those on the outskirts or bottom of the labor system, to aggressive neoliberalizing evaluation policies that attempt to deduce the quality of persons through arbitrary standards like English language proficiency even for those within full-time positions.

Despite these historical criticisms surrounding corporate employment, corporations (or imagined corporate life) in South Korea have remained ever popular. They have been sites of frequent change and reform to problems of both distinction and participation, places where bad policies might be eradicated and new ideas tested, where issues of economic democratization (gyeongje minjuhwa) might be realized. I describe this phenomenon in the book as the “supercorporate ideal.” The supercorporate ideal can be defined as the broader promise of corporations to realize and channel post-hierarchical forms of both interpersonal distinction and positive social interaction. The term supercorporate captures the sense that large corporate organizations cannot be reduced to sites of pure economic or organizational function alone, nor are they solely the objects of control by owners or capitalist institutions. Rather, they are loaded with broader sociocultural significance. The aura of corporate work captures a sense of class mobility for individuals and for national development. Gaining employment, being promoted, and being affiliated with a large corporation remain key markers of success in middle-class South Korea. Likewise, the success of individual corporations in terms of higher revenues or global recognition remains a key measure through which South Korean ideas of development are still tracked, even in a seemingly postdevelopment twenty-first century. Like broader narratives of national industrial-capitalist achievement, the attainment of corporate work provides an important frame for narrativizing the mobility of families through individual success. In this sense, the notion of supercorporate moves beyond only the function of individual corporate organizations or conglomerates within commodity or financial markets to understand them as part of a culturally narrated field.

A key aspect of the supercorporate ideal, particularly marked in South Korea but certainly not absent elsewhere, is that corporations are sites where fair distinctions can be organized and recognized through a technocratic assemblage of different techniques and policies. That is, corporations are not just sites that people gain access to or that elites maintain their control over; they are also fundamentally sites where people might desire to become stratified. Managerial grades, company brands, professional categories, and other signifiers or distinctions comprise basic sets of signs for marking normative urban middle-class career aspirations. Some of these are clearly elaborated, such as core ranks in the corporate ladder or the grades given during annual evaluations; others are more diffuse, such as prestige areas of work, bonuses, or benefits. In this sense, corporate organizations are sites of assembling forms of meaning that go beyond what is necessary for organizational, economic, or market function in the strictest senses. A basic function of what corporations are expected to do—not necessarily as actors themselves, but as sites in society—is to offer a constellation of legible forms of quantitative and qualitative distinction through which the aspirational middle classes can come to recognize themselves and others.

This is a supercorporate “ideal,” however, because the actual organization of distinctions never appears to be as clean as it appears on television, in management plans, or even in critical accounts of capitalism, where corporate ways of sorting people seem to work hyperefficiently. This is because the full spectrum of participatory life in contemporary office work is mediated by much more than corporate techniques; office life is awash in numerous genres of communication, documentation, and interaction, some of which are related to formal work but many of which are simply part of the wider context of social life in an organization. If certain kinds of social markers, such as being hired on a managerial track at a large conglomerate, convey one set of socially legible signs, then things such as being consigned to photocopying, coffee pickups, or ghostwriting PowerPoint presentations for one’s boss also generate their own set of emergent distinctions not readily visible to those on the outside. Office workers, even those in privileged roles, must exist in working environments not of their own making, learning and mastering various genres of documentation, technological platforms, and corporate procedures while also navigating organizational structures, special management projects, and interoffice politics. In this sense, the heterogeneity of modern office work, particularly in large corporate organizations, creates its own messy topography at the office level that does not always align cleanly or clearly with broader social distinctions. This is because work practices generate their own localized orders of meaning, participation, and distinction. While some of these resonate or align with external distinctions such as one’s rank (and, perhaps, relative salary or office size) or perhaps feel more participatory than others (a town hall meeting with the CEO), the potential field of signs at work and how they come to be recognized is emergent, expansive, and full of misalignments. Seemingly small or unimportant encounters over how work is done, what is said in meetings, or how one coworker addresses another can cause dissonance against other signifiers that corporate systems or techniques are supposed to reinforce and make stable.

As much as management systems might attempt to delimit distinction or participation through formal efforts, both are part of an active field where meaning can never be settled or fixed. At times, failures can appear to recall negative elements of hierarchy of the past, such as bosses who are prone to shouting. At other times, hyperdistinction can appear to roil the social life of an office by breeding too much concern about interoffice competition. This book argues that corporate life in South Korea is a site of unstable distinctions in which efforts to continually remap or redefine the lines of office life to enact a supercorporate ideal always appear to fail in doing so. This has less to do with cultural, generational, or even managerial problems, as much as those might appear to be coherent explanations; rather, it concerns the difficulty of stabilizing seemingly post-hierarchical forms of individual distinction and collective participation within any given corporate organization compared to the ideal that corporate organizations represent from the perspective of middle-class aspirations.

The broader South Korean labor market is a contentious zone of classification struggles, with many labor battles revolving around the rightful inclusion of certain categories of labor, such as dispatch work (pagyeonjik), irregular work (bijeong-gyujik), or contract work (gyeyagjik), into standard labor where economic benefits, job stability, and social recognition might be better guaranteed.4 The labor issues of the men and women I worked alongside at Sangdo were in contrast much different, reinforced to some degree by the comforts of being a full-time or regular worker at a recognizably large corporate group (daegieop) where the realities of production were largely experienced through reports and spreadsheets. Nevertheless, large corporate work environments are also marked by a number of other concerns around distinction making, reflecting the seemingly fragile positions of those who might otherwise be considered insiders. There were concerns at Sangdo, for instance, that many workers in the broader conglomerate—those working in regional sales offices or doing back office IT work—were themselves being denied the benefits and privileges that other office workers had. The relative status of regional sales employees compared with headquarters accountants might escape the attention of the general public in terms of broader labor inequities, but their relative differences are followed rather closely by employees themselves and those who attempt to manage them. This book, too, takes seriously that the opportunity to distinguish oneself through the markers of corporate employment is an important premise and promise of modern corporate work and that the ethics and logistics of managing where distinctions are drawn and how employees work together are complex matters.

Understanding such uneven labor terrains internally was an implicit goal of the annual employee survey launched at the end of 2014. The manager of the HR team, Jang, was convinced that the survey would reveal the inner workings of Sangdo’s many distributed workplaces where younger employees were imagined to be toiling under tyrannical bosses, long hours, and unevenly enforced labor policies. The HR team in the holding company, at a remove from these worlds but organizationally above them, Jang believed, could provide one avenue for channeling the collective dissatisfactions of the workforce. By collecting employee responses and then converting them into hard numbers and statistical correlations, the HR team could make apparent the dynamics that would allow them to improve the Sangdo workplace across South Korea that they might never have even visited. The survey was one example of a new turn in Sangdo’s group management via the holding company, where a bevy of new experts had been recently hired to bring outside knowledge and leadership to the group’s subsidiaries and their distributed offices and branches.

Though not a household name in South Korea, the Sangdo Group at the time was undergoing considerable changes to its visibility on the Seoul landscape as well as its group structure. In the early 2010s, the conglomerate became formally centralized in a newly built office tower. What had been a small holding company that existed largely as a secretariat for the chairman next to much larger and relatively autonomous subsidiary organizations was expanding to become a new expert hub overseeing the multinational group. New expert teams had been created in HR, strategy, performance management, legal affairs, and public relations and mid- and upper-level managers brought in bearing accounting degrees, consulting backgrounds, or long tenures at more prestigious conglomerates. These expert groups each addressed different scales of the conglomerate group’s distinctiveness as a group: the strategy team was created to analyze new markets into which the subsidiaries could expand. The public relations team oversaw the multiyear revitalization of the corporate brand, including the introduction of shared company values and internal branding. The HR team also carried out many projects addressing the very infrastructure of personnel distinctions: benefits policies, promotional exams, executive reviews, employee training and internal education, and work-tracking systems.

From a one-floor office on the top of the Sangdo tower, these teams might have appeared to some as an elite group of experts attempting to impose new managerial ideals on unique and rather distinct subsidiary organizations. Critiques of managerial idealism are often premised on the fact that managerial programs are out of step with human values because of their (overly) rational designs, noble intents, or class distance.5 This book takes corporations (and the people that comprise them) as relatively sincere sites of ethical engagement along the lines of what Hegel might have described about corporations two hundred years ago in his Philosophy of Right. Hegel identified corporations as key sites for the exploration of the ethical life (sittlichkeit) in ways that other kinds of social forms (such as the market or the state) might not make possible. To Hegel, corporations were one form of ethical community building within capitalism, membership in which could indicate that “one is a somebody.”6 Of course, Hegel could not have in mind the widespread growth of the modern managerial corporation of the twentieth century focused on large-scale industrial production, imbricated in global commerce, and seemingly disembedded from its local contexts. I would suggest, though, that for many South Korean white-collar employees and managers who approached their work with the promise of fairness, morality, and recognition, navigating corporate life’s ideals and the complex realities of everyday office life remain objects of ethical concern.

If Hegel saw in the nascent idea of a corporation an opportunity for freedom, which for him was the “natural right to exercise one’s skill,” this book points to a different kind of (possible) freedom for contemporary times: that of participating in corporate stratifications.7 By stratification, I do not refer to a romanticized view of human inequity; rather, I refer to the promise of gradated or stratified qualities of persons organized by or at least concentrated in modern corporate organizations. These qualities might articulate how people track and recognize career progressions and where one might ostensibly be free of forms of social control or evaluation elsewhere (by the state, the family, or society). To achieve recognized ranks such as a full-time junior employee (sinipsawon) or team manager (timjang) is a way of indicating that one is important in South Korea where large corporations remain waypoints for the mobile middle classes. This promise is not always fulfilled, and it is complicated by a number of factors in practice. The ideal—or the promise—might be considered a form of freedom and it is something that continues to make office life a continually reworked site of reform and reflection in contemporary South Korea.8


1. Kelty (2019, 1) writes, “The power of participation, at its best, is to reveal ethical intuitions, make sense of different collective forms of life, and produce an experience beyond that of individual opinion, interest, or responsibility. But in the twenty-first century, participation is more often a formatted procedure by which autonomous individuals attempt to reach calculated consensus, or one in which they experience an attenuated, temporary feeling of personal contribution that ends almost as soon as it begins.” See also Kelty (2017).

2. One particular focus of critique has centered on forms of rank, evaluation, and grading on the grounds that such systems treat people like things and render people into the very objects that capitalism produces—the universal commodity. For well-known critiques of corporate ranking systems, see Foucault (1977), Burawoy (1979, 95–122), Townley (1993), Acker (1990), Bourdieu (1991, 238), Klikauer (2014), and Hoskin and Macve (1986) for different perspectives. The invention of hierarchical distinctions within Western organizations has been well documented historically, such as the adoption of measures of individual evaluation and ranking, which moved from the military to early managerial organizations in the nineteenth century (Hoskin and Macve 1986). As Miller and O’Leary (1989) described, debates around workplace hierarchy have also shifted over time, such as serving prosocial functions in American organizational life across different eras in the twentieth century. For an extensive description of South Korean personnel management in the 1980s, see Janelli and Yim (1993, 134–153).

3. Kunda (1992); Weeks (2004); Krause-Jensen (2010); Koo (2001).

4. See Lee (2011), Chun (2011), and Yi and Chun (2020) for sociological accounts of issues around solidarity within informal labor categories, as well as Schober (2018) for an anthropological account of women’s labor protests in South Korea. While hierarchical distinctions within labor groups have long been a focus of attention and solidarity across labor categories is hard-earned, the question of labor success often does not concern whether workers or unions overcome a corporate hierarchy tout court but whether they become included in formal workplace structures—a point from which they could make claims as employees vis-à-vis their employers (see Chun 2011, chapt. 5 and chap. 6). The tension between enterprise unionism and cross-labor (solidarity-driven) unionism has long been a point of tension within South Korean labor movements. See also Doucette and Kang (2018).

5. This does not mean that superficial corporate ethics should not be critiqued; a growing number of anthropologists have tackled these issues precisely, especially in encounters between Western corporations and managers and non-Western actors (Kirsch 2014; Rajak 2011a; Welker 2014).

6. Hegel and Knox (1967, 225); see also Klikauer (2016, 73–98).

7. Hegel and Knox (1967, 226).

8. South Korean firms have long experimented with different work structures, including the advent of team-based working units in the 1990s (Park 2006). However, the cultural and political impetus to locate hierarchy as a problem has been most evident in the wake of the Asian Financial Crisis (or IMF Crisis) of 1997. As Bae and Rowley (2003) have noted, at that time changes were seen to be needed across all levels of HRM as workers themselves came to be seen as problems (insamangsa). A host of reforms were pursued across all levels of HR practices with the assumption that they were seen to be linked to an IMF way (Bae and Rowley 2003, 96). Likewise, anthropologists Song (2009) and Kim (2018 [2001]) have also noted how the financial crisis portended new divisions among types of working men.