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Agnes Sohn

AnthropologyAgnes Sohn
Fulbright-Hays Doctoral Dissertation Research Abroad Fellowship 2015-16

How are young people in other parts of the world responding to rapid modernization?  This question lies at the heart of Agnes Sohn’s ethnographic research in South Korea.  As she explains, “Young people are exiting the capital city of Seoul, and one destination is the semi-tropical island of Jeju.  Some of them are relocating with tech businesses that are creating a Silicon valley-like environment, while others are moving to the island to escape the corporate world by scaling back and opening small business.  Like millennials in the U.S., this generation is looking for greater flexibility and outlets for their creative energy.  When we look at East Asia, we see the same trends as in the U.S. but in a more intensified form.”

Agnes’ research interests began in her own transnational experience. Agnes is the daughter of a Korean father and an American mother.  Born in Seoul, her family moved when she was two years old to Chicago, where she grew up in a Korean-American community.  She earned her bachelor’s degree from Kenyon College, majoring in English literature and minoring in philosophy.  

After college, Agnes earned a teaching certificate and taught high school in Chicago through “Teach for America,” but she soon decided to steer her talents in a different direction. At the time, her Korean was limited, but she learned about the U.S. State Department’s Critical Language Program and applied for a scholarship.  She won, and she ended up spending a summer in South Korea studying Korean full-time.  

She explains, “Along with studying the language, the State Department award allowed me to travel around the country, and I was impressed with the vibrancy I saw.  As I learned more about Korean history and culture I also became interested in the fact that  Korea, in spite of its relatively short history of Christianity, was sending out more Christian missionaries than any other country except the US.  What was even more interesting was that Korea was sending missionaries to the United States and Europe, with the understanding that their missionaries were offering a ‘purer’ form of Christianity.  I found this so fascinating that when I later enrolled in a master’s program at the University of Chicago, I ended up writing my master’s thesis on it.  To me, this ‘reverse missionizing’ is part of Korea’s larger and more complex response to rapid modernization and social change, and I knew I wanted to explore these kinds of processes further.” 

Currently a doctoral student in cultural anthropology at the University of Illinois, Agnes is continuing her studies of Korean modernization, but this time with a focus on young adults.  She won a Fulbright-Hays Doctoral Dissertation Research Abroad Fellowship, which is allowing her to conduct fieldwork for a comparative study of two patterns of youth migration to Jeju Island, reflective of the cultural upheavals Korea is currently undergoing.  

Jeju Island, one of Korea’s nine provinces and located off the southern tip of the mainland, already has a strong tourist industry.  It was recently designated a special economic zone modeled on Silicon Valley and is attracting high tech companies with a young workforce.  Agnes is interviewing employees of Daum Corporation, which runs the second largest web portal service provider in Korea, as representative of this group of migrants.  She is also interviewing a second group of young Seoulites who are moving to Jeju to start organic farms and open local-foods restaurants, cafes, and art galleries.  “Although these two groups of migrants seem distinct at first glance, they represent two expressions of Korean longing for alternatives to rapid and intense modernization.”

Included in her study is a third group, indigenous Jejuans with a strong local identity.  She explains, “Jeju is a comparatively less developed, unindustrialized province.  Ironically, many young people born in Jeju are leaving in order to find work in Seoul, and those remaining are often resentful of the ‘cultural migrants’ from the mainland.  I’m trying to understand how these different groups negotiate the various dreams, visions, and tensions that are part of a complex process unfolding over time.”

Agnes is excited to be a Fulbright-Hays recipient.  “It’s an amazing award. It gives me all the resources I need to do long-term research on Jeju Island. I will be able to spend time getting to know the place, the people who are moving in, and the fascinating changes that are happening on the island,” she says. 

Agnes’s long-term goal is a career in academia.  She looks forward to learning more about Korea and modernization and to showing how developments in Korea and other parts of the world can actually be compared cross-culturally to help Americans and others better understand their own experiences.

Agnes Sohn at LinkedIn