Subjectivized Spirituality As Empowerment: Youth Responses to Life Course Uncertainty in South Korea

Thursday, 14 July 2016: 15:14
Location: Hörsaal 42 (Main Building)
Oral Presentation
Anna BRINKMAN, Sogang University, South Korea
Undergoing industrialization over the course of a few short decades and experiencing revolutionary changes at all levels of culture and societal structure, South Korea is an archetypal case of “compressed modernity” and its accompanying social challenges. Korean youth in the 21st century face unprecedented uncertainty in the form of fierce academic competition, high youth unemployment levels, and a changing life course trajectory in which milestones such as marriage and children are delayed or skipped entirely. At the same time, Korea’s traditional Confucian value system has been usurped by increasingly individualistic attitudes that foster the desire for self-expression and autonomy. This study employs Swidler’s “toolkit theory” to examine how Korean youth utilize religion as an empowering mechanism to cope with insecurity on a personal and social level.

This study utilizes qualitative interviews with 40 university students residing in Seoul, representing the three major Korean religious groups of Protestantism, Catholicism, and Buddhism as well as religious non-affiliation. Their responses to questions regarding their religious practice, beliefs, stress management and goal orientations were analyzed to examine patterns of security-seeking. Findings indicate three distinct categories: those who seek security through the social bonds and shared commitments of religious community; those who seek security through personal, transcendent spiritual experiences; and those who seek security outside the context of religiosity. A broad pattern emerged in which the majority of participants referred to their forms of religion belief or participation as “unique,” “personal,” or “different from others,” suggesting high levels of subjectivization even among traditionally practicing believers. A pronounced theme among Protestant and Catholic respondents was theodicy and the use of religion as a means of empowerment following personal failure. These results call for further exploration of how youth utilize religion to resolve the unique tensions of their desires and circumstances in the era of late modernity.