Seung-Cheol Lee: The Rise of 'Ethical Capitalism' in South Korea
Last summer, I conducted my preliminary dissertation research in South Korea, sponsored by the WEAI Ph.D. Training Grant. For two months, I worked as an intern in Beautiful Coffee, the biggest local fair trade organization and conducted participant observation focusing on the discourse and practices of "fair trade" and their political effects in South Korean civil society.
The internship was planned as a part of my dissertation project about the rise of "ethical capitalism" in South Korea. I chose the fair trade organization internship for the several reasons. First, in a country like South Korea which has dramatically moved from underdeveloped to developed country status in the world-system, the term of "fair trade" has an interesting history. Under the developmental state, the term of "unfair trade" was used to signify and criticize the unequal economic relationship with Western advanced countries. Currently, the word "fair trade" is circulated as a token of cosmopolitan responsibility of "now-developed" Korea toward other underdeveloped countries. In this sense, the discourse surrounding "fair trade" can serve as a window through which we can examine the rapid transformation of South Korea from a developmental state to a post-developmental and trans-national society. Second, the organization Beautiful Coffee has consciously aimed to contribute to a wider program for the evolution of "ethical capitalism." Since its establishment in 2002, the organization has not only promoted the fair trade of coffee, but also played a leading role in creating a favorable environment for the "ethical turn" of Korean economy, with other affiliated organizations, Beautiful Store (ethical consumption organization) and Beautiful foundation (charity organization).
In conducting participant observation and in-depth interviews with the staff in the organization and consumers of fair trade goods, I focused on two things. First, I explored how the discourse and practices of fair trade produce and circulate a new model of "ethical citizen" embodying "cosmopolitan" ethics. To be more exact, I tried to illuminate how the fair trade discourse is tainted with a new developmentalism combined with the idea of "ethical capitalism." Second, I examined how the fair trade discourse exploits South Korea's memory of underdevelopment and what kind of "affect" they produce. Although the painful memory is mobilized to create a feeling of solidarity with the underdeveloped country, the representation appears to produce ambivalent effects, in that it also reaffirms the privileged status of "now-developed" Korea in the global order. To sum up, I tried to unravel the multiple layers of meaning associated with fair trade in South Korea.
In conclusion, in the process of my preliminary research sponsored by WEAI, I deepened my interest and gained several significant insights for my dissertation. I would like to express my appreciation for the wonderful opportunity I was given.
For more information on the Weatherhead PhD Training Grant fellowship, please contact Kim Palumbarit at email@example.com.