"Field Theory" as Pedagogical Tool for Teaching about Social Phenomenae in Korea

Specifically, the impetus for writing this article was the articulation of a useful theoretical tool to teach about racism in Korea. In response to the notion that there might be something as odious as racism in Korea, pooh-poohers of this notion often counter that 1) Korea has had no significant contact with different races in its history (an assertion that South Korea's recent experience with a recent sharp rise in the number of people from non-Korean racial/ethnic groups living in that country effectively negates) or that 2) this experience with the racial Other within its own borders is too short to allow Korean society to be culpable for its own collective actions (a corollary of this line of argument is that racism simply came from the West, anyway, an assertion that both is and isn't true, depending on how one breaks down the history of the intellectual spread of essentially western notions related to the rise of the nation-state. If you buy that argument, then I have a notion of History as we understand it today as merely a western invention to sell you -- but few would be so unwise as to try and argue that point these days. For more on that, check out Stephen Tanaka's Japan's Orient: Rendering Pasts into History and what I often assign as a perfect companion piece to that foundational text, Andre Schmid's Korea Between Empires: 1895-1919These are the two books one should be reading to truly get Korean history and historiography. Armed with theory prep from these two sources, one could turn this post and related chunk of theory into a nice little special lecture or even, with more time and room for decompression (and a few supplementary articles), an entire university course. 

In the bigger picture, this article is both a response to and enhancement of ideas put forth by John Levi Martin in his article “What is Field Theory?" published in 2003 in the American Journal of Sociology. (the PDF of which is downladable here through any academic institution with JSTOR access) First of all, the problem: whenever people talk about racism, in any context, the first 2 things that make any substantive discussion impossible are:

1. Most people don't have a clear working definition of what "racism" is and are only working with the colloquial and everyday definition of the word, which is loaded with negative meaning and pregnant with accusatory energy.
2. Most of the time when people talk about it, they're not talking about a clear model of how it works and how racism exists, permeates, and propagates within society.

This is where sociological theory comes in handy. When teaching about social phenomena, it is helpful to have concrete theoretical tools and conceptual items to grasp onto in order to meaningfully discuss and get handles on the slippery and sensitive topics that are laced and positively shot through with political-cultural booby-traps and bunker-buster bombs that can destroy the entire discussion.

In the same way that one doesn't conduct delicate surgery with butter knives and safety scissors, one should approach the sensitive topic of race, gender, and other discriminations with care and precision, since these discussions often cause individuals' shields to go up and mere intellectual discussions to devolve into savage rhetorical warfare.

I'll start here with "field theory." Since the definition used in the article I am bouncing off of is a bit technical and dry -- classical field theory, actually --  I'll start out by simply offering a primer that what Martin is talking about is an extended metaphor taken from the physical sciences for use in social science, simply stated. And it has great utility as an explanatory metaphor, especially when explaining many far-ranging and diffuse social phenomenae.

Often, people seem to treat the phenomenon of racism as something discreet and definable, akin to something "real" that one can pick up and touch with one's hands. However, the problem here is defining something that is inherently difficult to see, which is the defining characteristic of most social phenomenae -- you can't see the ism itself, but only its effects. Sure, sexism and racism, like gravity, all exist; but you can't see those things themselves. Like Isaac Newton in the apocryphal story connected to his name, he didn't “see” gravity, as indeed no one can or ever has, but could clearly see its effects in the apples falling from the tree. If one goes up into a tower and drops an apple, a rock, and a feather at the same time, we know that they're going to be pulled down, as all mass is inside a gravitational field. Einstein complexified this difficult question by stating that gravity is not a force transferred by some medium or particle across empty space. And that was the essential problem. What is the medium of transference of energy within a field? Is there some movement of a magical ether or some other mysterious thing that we can't see? No, says Einstein. Gravity is the warping of space-time around any object possessed of mass. And that leads us to the major aspects of field theory that will define the theory for us and explain it.

Within a field, there are 5 rules or conditions to think about objects that fall within its influence. The field, in both the physical sciences and social sciences senses:

1. Causes "changes in the state of some elements but involves no appeal to changes in states of other elements."
2. “Changes in state involving interaction between the field and the existing states of the elements" and
3. "The elements have particular attributes that make them susceptible to the field effect.”
4. “The field without the elements is only a potential for the creation of force."
5. The field itself is not directly measurable; its existence can only be proved by its effects.”

In the end, according to Martin, “Field theory, then, has several generic characteristics no matter what the domain of application." And that is key to our purposes here, as social scientists trying to explain phenomenae in social fields. 

So, moving from the ideas of gravitational or electromagnetic fields in physical science, let's argue that racism or an ideology of white superiority is a field permeating throughout a given society to the extent that laws, social norms, and institutions allow and defines its boundaries. Let's say “racism” for example, is this:

"an ideology of or belief in the innate superiority of one socially-defined "racial" group over another, usually argued and understood in cultural, social, or genetic/biological terms."

The specific way certain groups are characterized within this belief system tend to differ, especially as they are compared to a central group in power, as in, say for example, whites in the US. Most racial stereotypes are shot through and mixed with gender and class stereotypes as well, and most of those groups tend to have their stereotypes defined by how they reflect against the white, male central power group. And these preset notions or stereotypes have a specific history. So, if one wants to look at the idea of the hyper-masculine, hyper-sexualized black male, this is usually presented in juxtaposition to the rational, logical white male who is possessed of education, morality, and libidinal self-control. In its original formulation, white female sexuality was pure and in need of being kept unsullied. Black females were libidinous, loose, and sexually promiscuous -- save for the times when they were required for the sexual use by white men. In the American case, the origin of a lot of these stereotypes was in plantation power politics. But that's really beside the point at the present moment.

The rational, civilized, and self-controlled white male becomes the center of an outwardly radiating pinwheel of power and representation. Latina and Asian women are differently "raced" and sexed, with both finding representation as exotic, and either lascivious or demure, sexually aggressive or passive, in respective order. By the same token, Latino and black men are either cultural or physically sexual threats. All the social historical ideas about race, their associated stereotypes, and all of these and myriad other social norms, institutions, and everyday practices are part of this "field" of notions about race, gender, and the roles they proscribe in society.

This field is impalpable and impossible to see directly. This is one reason racism is so hard to usefully define in words or by demonstration. There's nothing concrete to point at, just as there is no physical mechanism for the working of gravity but for the observations of the field's effects. The problem with the Newtonian view of racism is that the existence of the force field is apparent in its effects, but naysayers often want people to point to the mechanism of the phenomenon itself, which is difficult. And the Einsteinian theory of gravity  says that there is no mechanism, there is no medium. It is a warp in the fabric of something we can't see (space-time), which acts on certain particles particular attributes. If you're a proton, gravitational fields affect you because you have mass. Not so  for photons or tachyons. But I'm not a physicist and I don't want to get into this particular point too deeply, since emphasizing myriad technical points will only tend to confuse and distract from the overall point this metaphor is trying to make.

Let's make this grade school simple. Imagine there is a huge and powerful magnet at one end of the room. Let's say this is a super powerful electromagnet pulling at immense levels of strength. Now, you decide to walk naked across the room through the field carrying a large, fist sized glass marble each hand. A friend picks up two iron balls and does the same. Clearly, the friend with the iron balls is going to have a lot more trouble making it across the room without struggling. Now, think back to the  five characteristics of the field above. A superpowerful electromagnetic field in a room isn't a force in itself, but only the potential for the exertion or creation of force. And only iron has a characteristic that will make it susceptible to the field effect. The magnetic field passes through the glass ball without any measurable effect. For all intents and purposes, from the point of view of the glass balls, the field isn't there. And there is no way to measure the power of the field directly, save for measuring its effect on objects made of iron. Now, depending on whom you ask, the field is or isn't there. Their views on the etic reality of the state of the room are going to be totally different, completely dependent on who is carrying iron and who is carrying glass.

I think the point of the field theory metaphor should be clear by now. When asking about the existence or subjective levels of perniciousness of something like racism, it's easy to see the futility of the exercise. Even in the physical sciences, the only way to measure the effect of a field is to measure the strength of the field's effect on the object that it can affect. And this is what social scientists have been doing for quite a long time. And as the idea of “racism” has been negatively stigmatized and figuratively chased off into the woods, it has been given a moral valence such that even asserting the existence of the phenomenon can be seen as inherently negative. Racism has become “that which cannot be named," a fact that get intertwined with the additional fact that racism is indeed impossible to see or even point to directly. But it can be measured, and its existence is easy to assert. And the effect of the field differs according to the particles passing through it and their intrinsic properties. Speaking in social terms, black skin mixed with masculinity and all its related historical stereotypes has its own special reality within the field of American racism. Therefore, a young black male walking the streets of New York City is actually experiencing a completely different reality-- in the inherent sense -- then a young white woman walking the same streets. And there are many overlapping fields -- race, gender, sexuality, etc. Maybe they combine into something like electronic+magnetic=electromagnetic since we know they are directly and inextricably related. How about "genderacesex?

“Racism” in Korea? Let's say that ideologies of racial superiority exist in Korea, and they don't necessarily all come from the social friction that results from historical points of contact and conflict with other races. Korean notions of race come from all sorts of places. They come from notions of skin color having to do with class privilege and class stratification from the agrarian past. Sure, of course. That's why older women here in Korea still carry parasols in the summer while younger women often struggle to maintain their perfect tans -- their different ideas of skin color are linked to old-fashioned notions of class privilege. The former comes from the days when the ability to maintain pale, untanned skin was linked to an elite class status, while the latter is nowadays a function of one's abilities to go outside in the industrialized world, or vacation to sunny spots that require expensive plane tickets and leisure time. Add to this the influence of racist western sociological theory that came 1st through Chinese scholars and translation into Korean, and then through Japanese ones, who had also begun to increasingly warped social theory to privilege their own, Eastern and Asian notions of cultural, ethnic, and even racial superiority to other groups in the world. Thanks, Social Darwinism, because you certainly left a huge stamp in Asia. The entire beginning of South Korean notions of development happened within the conceptual cradle of a racist social Darwinism in Korea that argued for the inherent inferiority of other racial groups, which was itself linked to notions of national power. The thing about some of these early social boundaries to notions of race, ethnicity, and nation is that Korean society didn't actually need contact with another racial groups to form notions of racial superiority. This is one reason that the somewhat ignorant assertion one hears a lot in Korea that “Koreans can't really be blamed for racists notions because Korea has had a very short period of contact with other races" is actually a pretty uninformed opinion, because one doesn't need actual current conflict in contact with other races to develop negative notions about them.

And that's all pre-1950s stuff. By the time you get to notions of race and power swirling up from around the time that Koreans started having heavy contact with American service people in South Korea during and after the Korean War, the ways that these very concrete power relations get juxtaposed atop the top pre-existing negative notions of dark-- or what Koreans call “black"--skin make it really hard to tease out specifically where things came from. But Korea was, as always, an apt pupil and quickly figured out the hierarchy of relations amongst mostly black and white servicemen with whom many people came in contact. It was pretty easy to pick up on the social norm of the American military during the latter 1950's and 1960s, despite having been recently desegregated. And that's the key point: recently, at that time, desegregated. An integrated army had become official policy, but social norms and individual ideas lagged behind, needless to say. On the ground, the socio-historical legacy on power relations was apparent: almost down to a man, officers were white, enlisted men were black. Koreans learn things quickly. Even prostitutes became effectively socially segregated. You were either a prostitute for whites or blacks. People knew that American soldiers had no truck with prostitutes who slept with the other side--well, it was usually whites not tolerating prostitutes who slept on the “dark side.” Add to that little pleasant introduction to American social apartheid the ongoing exposure to American media stereotypes in television, music and film, and it becomes pretty easy to see how all this gets mixed up into the Korean “field” of racism. And in this field too, blacks don't fare very well. Add to this fact that within Korean national ideology, notions of egalitarianism and constitutional claims to certain inherent rights really don't feature very prominently into everyday thinking, and you get black folks here experiencing a different reality, a different Korea, when doing something like preparing a resume to enter into a hagwon teaching kids the ABCs. Or riding the subway. Or going to a dance club. Remember that it is the “particular properties of the elements that make them susceptible to the field effect." This is why, on the subject of racism in Korea against blacks, people are talking past one another. We haven't at all defined what “racism” really means in Korea and most people don't have a very strong sense of what racism means in this country's context, and generally only have their own socio-historical experiences with racism in their own countries to draw from. And since most of these experiences with racism tend to revolve around a social conflict or accommodation model, it becomes easy to say, “come on, how can racism exist here? There haven't even really been foreigners here for all that long.”

Sure, if you're going to take a conflict/accommodation model of racism as the standard. But Korean society obviously has very strong and preset notions of race, from very specific experiences of contact -- not direct, but cultural and intellectual -- with other cultures. Sure, some was parsed in through contact and mediation through other countries' ideologies (China and Japan), but they ended up in Korea as a base to build from nevertheless.

And this defines the "field" of Korean racism. And it is most acute and obvious as blacks pass through it here. WHere the "irony" comes from is the fact that black popular culture has become mainstream here, and the Korean filed doesn't know how to deal with black professionally and fairly. When it comes to dance clubs or the street, being black doesn't tend to pose any major detriment to life here; but when a black man applies for jobs, whoa. Put even more simply, if racism is a field permeating Korean society, then blacks are the iron balls and whites the glass ones passing through the room.


Relevant readings to teach this:

"What Is Field Theory?"
John Levi Martin
American Journal of Sociology
Vol. 109, No. 1 (July 2003), pp. 1-49

Korea Between Empires: 1895-1919
Andre Schmid

Japan's Orient: Rendering Pasts into History 
Stephen Tanaka

Social Darwinism and Nationalism in Korea: the Beginnings (1880s-1910s)
Vladimir Tikhonov