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Moving in stuckness: ethnography on the time-space of short-term workers in Seoul

Han, Yoonai (2023) Moving in stuckness: ethnography on the time-space of short-term workers in Seoul. PhD thesis, London School of Economics and Political Science.

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Identification Number: 10.21953/lse.00004602


Nomadic and entrepreneurial ways of living are increasingly touted as a lifestyle choice, despite the broader social conditions that impede many people from staying rooted and envisaging the future. In this thesis, I examine short-term workers who are on constant move to seek for a better future in Seoul, South Korea. I analyse how the short-term workers develop makeshift living as unpredictable life conditions continue, scrutinise the broader social structure that short-term working embodies and discuss the cumulative effects on the urban future. I draw on 14-month fieldwork conducted in Seoul between 2020 and 2022. Data were collected through participatory observations in short-term workspaces and work, including coworking spaces, entrepreneur incubators, job training centres, and delivery work, supported by life history interviews. Interlocutors’ socio-economic profiles vary from government-subsidised job trainees to cryptocurrency enthusiasts but they share an exit-oriented life ethos. This ethos stages short-term workers’ space and time as a stopover destination: no one intends to stay long in this interim space and stage of life, and everyone comes only to leave. Life history interviews focus on interlocutors’ history of moving, through which movement is understood as spatialised forms of unpredictability, stuckness, and aspiration for exiting. The research questions addressed in this thesis are as follows. How do short-term workers experience unpredictable life conditions? How is the unpredictable state of short-term workers normalised? What sense of time and space and life strategies are 4 emerging under repeated unpredictability? Relatedly, I critically assess the conventional association of ‘the disenfranchised’ and ‘the rebel’ by engaging in discussions about subjects and the futurity of urban politics (Doucette and Hae 2022; Lee and Cho 2018; Shin et al. 2020). I further ask, what does the emergence of ‘shorttermism’ (Xiang 2021b) and its cumulative effects entail for discussing disparity of South Korean society often stated and battled as issues of generation, gender, or class? Key findings of this thesis are presented through three narratives. First, I demonstrate how repeated unpredictability in short-term working deprives interlocutors of continuity in life-building and leads to makeshift living. Interlocutors instrumentalise short-term jobs, currently available resources, and social relationships as steppingstones for the better future, while steppingstones themselves become the norm. Second, I analyse government subsidy schemes for job trainees and entrepreneurs that interpellate and govern certain populations as underperforming bodies, while operationalising the normalisation of precarity. Third, I address shortterm workers’ speculative lifestyle, in which labour income is imagined and practised as ‘seed money’ for financial speculation that will enable exiting the intense present. I situate the speculative lifestyle and related ‘counting-down’ temporality within the history of compressed urbanisation, economic growth, and its demise in South Korea. I argue that unpredictability, which previously enabled aspirations for upward social mobility, is turning into unequal futurity through the creation of fragmented time-space around makeshift living. Through this research, I enrich the debates on urban inequality by unpacking the spatio-temporal dynamics of class stratification and the construction of precarity.

Item Type: Thesis (PhD)
Additional Information: © 2023 Yoonai Han
Library of Congress subject classification: G Geography. Anthropology. Recreation > G Geography (General)
H Social Sciences > HN Social history and conditions. Social problems. Social reform
Sets: Departments > Geography and Environment
Supervisor: Shin, Hyun Bang

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