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The Utilization of Residential Space and

Family Relations:
The Case of the Korean Rural Family*
Park Boo-Jin

I. Introduction
Mans social environment has undergone enormous changes since
World War II. Among these, frequent contact with different cultures
and drastic institutional change in the process of industrialization
have caused numerous changes in cultural patterns.
Since rural life in Korea has drifted away from its prototype and
its structural form has altered, the life of rural villagers is now very
similar to that of city dwellers. They sell what they produce from the
land and purchase necessities in the market. Their economic activity
occurs within the boundary of the market economy system. Land is
no longer an important means of supplying what they need. Farming
is more important for market sales than for their own consumption,
and profit-making has thus become the main motive of farming,
unlike the traditional peasant society in which their ancestors lived
(Chang 1990, 110).
In addition, rural villages are functionally connected to the social
system of nearby cities and, with the development of transportation
and communications, they have become incorporated in the dimension of urban life. This has led to a loss of their unique traditional
culture and lifestyle. Moreover, as a large number of rural villagers
earn part of their income by engaging in non-farm wage labor in
* This paper is a revised version of my paper published under the same title in
Hanguk munhwa illyuhak (Korea Cultural Anthropology), Vol. 24, 1992.

The Utilization of Residential Space and Family Relations


nearby cities, the self-sufficiency which farm labor once enjoyed has
diminished, and dependence on wage laborers from outside has
These changes in rural society have not only directly impacted
farm life but have also caused cultural changes in the family, the primary structural unit of society. The industrialization of production
and the development of a new form of human relations stimulated
the rural family system, long accustomed to the traditional social
environment, and these operated as important latent factors inducing
cultural change in the family. Based on the primary human relations
between its members, the family formulates its structure in accordance with the mode of production and transmits culture to the next
generation through the culturalization process. In this way, the family mimics many traits of general society and can thus be seen as a
microsociety. Because the family culture reflects diverse experiences
occurring in the larger society, the structure and process of social
change are thereby absorbed into the family.
Due to recent changes in Korean rural society, rural families are
undergoing pattern, cyclical and institutional changes, all resulting in
alterations in familial and cultural systems based on traditional family ideology. These changes are manifested concretely in the family
institution and in the diverse forms of actual family life.
All human actions reflect the culture of the group to which the
actor belongs. This is because humans choose their course of action
in the process of the shared experience called culture, and the content of their choices is determined by their cultural perceptions.
Thus, actions aimed at those with whom one has social relations and
the environments humans create are expressions of cultural selection.
Of the many social environments humans create, the homethe
space shared by family membershas the closest ties to their lives.
Every society has certain accepted spatial practices based on culture.
What kind of house a family makes and how each family member is
placed in the space are determined entirely by cultural meanings
existing within the society. From this perspective, the spatial arrangement of family members within the home space can be seen as a



set of concrete actions which reflect important aspects of family culture, and change in the home space can be understood as meaning
change in family culture.
First, this paper will attempt to understand the changes which
have occurred in rural Korean family relations, focusing on space utilization practices; and second, to analyze the gap between reality and
perception by comparing visible, real phenomena with cultural meanings inherent in these perceptions. This study will demonstrate how
rural family culture has changed to adapt to changes in Korean rural

II. Symbolic Approach to the Changing Family Culture

Culture has a life cycle of its ownit is born, prospers, declines and
then changes. Humans adapt to their given environment by transforming their culture, experience their environment through culture,
and adjust their social relations within a conceptual cultural framework. The process by which humans adapt to their environment is
nothing less than the process of cultural change, and culture is
always and inherently dynamic. Therefore, for cultural analysis we
must move beyond the structural functionalist perspective which
views culture as an entity with a fixed form.
One of the major reasons both functionalism and structuralism
fail to cope with change lies in their tendency to deal with social and
cultural processes on equal terms. To more effectively deal with the
problem of change, we must begin with an attempt to distinguish
analytically between the cultural and social aspects of human life,
and to treat them as independently variable (Geertz 1973, 144).
On the one level, cultural system includes the framework of
beliefs, expressive symbols, and values in terms of which individuals
define their world, express their feelings, and make their judgments;
on the other level there is the ongoing process of interactive behavior,
whose persistent form we call social structure (Geertz 1973, 145).
In most societies, where change is a characteristic... we shall

The Utilization of Residential Space and Family Relations


expect to find more or less radical discontinuities between the two

systems... it is in these very discontinuities that we shall find some of
the primary driving forces in change. (Geertz 1973, 144). Because
these two systems do not have identical principles of integration,
because the particular form one of them takes does not directly imply
the form the other will take, there is an inherent incongruity and tension between the two (Geertz 1973, 145). Aspects of change and its
pace are incongruent between the two systems, and these incongruities make it difficult for social members to choose courses of
action. In order to understand change, we need to distinguish
between the two for analytic purposes and examine tension caused
by the incongruities between them in the process of change.
Here culture does not mean the patterns of action themselves,
but certain patterns enabling action inferred from observable patterns of action. That is, culture does not refer to concrete phenomena, but rather the rules of action which bring such phenomena into
existence (Goodenough 1957), and individuals employ these rules to
determine how to evaluate a given situation and act accordingly. Just
like computers are operated by programs composed of rules for how
to handle particular situations under diverse conditions, individuals
are considered to be operated by cultural programs (DAndrade 1984,
89). In this sense, culture is the fabric of meaning by which human
beings interpret their experience and guide their actions.
On the other hand, Geertz says that social structure is the form
that action takes, the actually existing network of social relations.
Culture and social structure are then but different abstractions from
the same phenomena (Geertz 1973, 145). Culture of a society can be
understood as an aspect of the society seen from a particular angle,
or a system of meanings and symbols at the level of value expression. Social system refers to the actual level of social structure where
interaction takes place. The phrase culture as a system of meanings
and symbols refers to a system of meanings comprising human
action and social relations rather than a cognitive structure inherent
in the human brain. Therefore, cultural analysis should not seek out
symbols and meanings in the human brain but should be an interpre-



tive operation searching for meaning in actually existing social structures and human interactions (Geertz 1973, 235; Yanagisako 1985,
In this respect, the biggest problem we face in analyzing culture
is how to separate culture at the abstract level from patterns of action
at the actual level. In fact, culture as a system of symbols and social
action as an actual social system are entangled in a greater order, and
culture does not exist separate from social action. It is impossible to
separate idea and action entirely (Collier and Yanagisako 1987, 18).
While culture is inherent in human action, the human world does not
exist beyond the boundary of culture (Schneider and Smith 1973, 6).
Culture and action exist as an aggregate set and the two can be distinguished only for the purpose of analysis.
Approaching the family as a cultural system, we need to analyze
the meaning inherent in the actions of family members in order to
understand family culture. Each family member, in selecting an adequate model to guide his or her actions, tries to find answers in the
cultural system he or she belongs to. Also, as social members, individuals infer particular meanings from the behavior, language, and
attitude of others who communicate to them and then formulate their
own action accordingly. In this sense, every human action bears a
special meaning, and this meaning becomes understood in given conditions and contexts. As Geertz and Yanagisako argue, cultural meaning can be inferred from concrete actions and events, and understanding the symbolic meanings hidden in such actions and events
enables us to construe and analyze the cultural system of the family.
Thus, I propose here to analyze family culture by examining family
relations based on the concrete actions of family members and interpreting the system of meanings attached to them.
This study attempts to understand the cultural significance of the
family and interrelations among family members by examining their
concrete actions with focus on the utilization of space within the
home. I begin with the assumption that the arrangement and placement of family members in the rooms of a housesuch as table seating, bedroom arrangement, main room space utilization, arrangement

The Utilization of Residential Space and Family Relations


of each roomreflect their status, role, relations in the family, and

analyze space utilization by family members to understand the status
and change of family relations in rural society.

III. General Characteristics of the Study Site

The data for this study were collected at Kol, a village in Myngjugun county, Kangwn-do province through participant observation
from March 1987 to January 1988. Complementary data were collected in two waves, with a two-year interval between the two, July 23
to August 1, 1990, and July 20 to 23, 1992.
The study site, Kol village, is a rural village on the outskirts of
Kangnng, a mid-size city on the eastern shore of the Korean peninsula. The village is a 20 minute bus ride from Kangnng. Most of the
villagers produce agricultural products and sell them in Kangnng
and also purchase consumption goods there. They also work as wage
laborers in Kangnng in wintertime when they are not engaged in
farming. Unlike other myn (an administrative district unit) locales,
Kol does not have a commercial center, because the branch office of
the agricultural cooperatives and the police station are located elsewhere.
As the village has only a primary school but no secondary
school, students who advance to secondary school must commute
to Kangnng, and this plays a role in bringing the village in close
contact with the city. Until the 1970s, transportation to and from
Kangnng was very inconvenient. At one time, buses passed the
entrance of the village only once every hour, but today they run
roughly every 20 minutes. The bus stop is at the village entrance, and
buses do not pass through it, so villagers have to walk 15 to 20 minutes after they get off the bus.
The village had 73 households with a population of 271 in 1987
when the first phase of the study was conducted, but the figures
decreased to 68 households and 218 people in 1992. Looking at the
population change by age, the number of those younger than 10



decreased from 32 to 7, 10- to 19-year-olds from 59 to 50, 20- to 29year-olds from 31 to 22, and 30- to 39-year-olds from 28 to 14. The
number of 40- to 49-year-olds remained constant at 28. The number
of 50- to 59-year-olds decreased from 35 to 30, while that of 60to 69-year-olds remained at 34. The number of septuagenarians
increased from 16 to 25, while that of octogenarians decreased from 8
to 7. There was one person older than 90, an increase from zero.
Altogether, the populations of children, adolescents, and middle-age
men and women were on the decrease, whereas the elderly population was on the increase, clearly indicating that the aging of the rural
population was occurring in Kol village as in other rural villages in
which young people have begun to leave for the cities.
Data concerning the occupations of the heads of families showed
that in 1987 there were 61 farming households but by July 1992, only
47 out of the total 68 households engaged in farming. In addition,
there were 3 merchants, 2 drivers, 1 public official, 3 laborers and 12
jobless family heads, indicating that though farming households had
decreased, there was no corresponding increase in other occupations.1
As for the age distribution of the heads of the farming households,
one was in his thirties, 10 in their forties, 11 in their fifties, 15 in
their sixties, 8 in their seventies, and 2 in their eighties. All the
unemployed household headsexcept for one in his fiftieswere
either aged couples or elderly people living alone. Because they could
not work due to advanced age, they lived on farm rent or small sums
of subsistence money they received from their children.
Of the farming households in the village, four depended more on
wage labor than on farming for income. There were two households
in which both the husband and wife had worked as tenant farmers
before but now earned income exclusively by wage labor because
doing so yielded higher income. However, most villagers did not consider following this path because of the unstable nature of non-agricultural labor.

1. Among three-generation families, when the older-generation male did not work
due to old age, the occupation of the younger-generation male was considered.

The Utilization of Residential Space and Family Relations


In the households where husbands worked outside the fields in

the capacity of civil officers or tractor drivers, wives earned money
by farming their own land or performing wage labor. Most married
women in the village contributed to the family economy by farming
alongside their husbands, engaging in secondary jobs (making dried
persimmons, fleshing dried pollack, etc.), working as farm laborers
(collecting potatoes or tending vegetable gardens), or performing factory or construction work.
In 1987 when I began this study, most households in the village
had a considerable amount of debt. By the time I conducted the follow-up study, however, they had paid off their debts except for some
bank loans they secured to purchase farming machinery. People who
had money to lend said few wanted to borrow. A few elderly villagers mentioned that there used to be many people who wanted to
borrow money despite high annual interest rates of 20 to 30 percent,
but this situation so completely changed that few borrowed money
even though they had the opportunity to do so. This means that most
households now could afford to support their livelihood adequately
with their own income.
Some factors that could have contributed to bringing about this
financial change are the improved distribution system of farm products, lowered tenant rents, rising wages and increased female participation in economic activities. Until 1988, most villagers sold their
farm products to middlemen who controlled the selling prices. Some
women made daily trips to Kangnng to sell directly to consumers,
but merchants in the market interfered and they could not get a selling spot in the market. Even if they managed to get a spot, they had
to pay fees for it and stay there over long hours which could otherwise have been spent on productive labor. Frustrated over the situation, they staged demonstrations and appealed to the county and city
authorities to secure them a place to sell their products. After many
years of struggle, they at last got permission from the city of
Kangnng to sell directly to consumers in the market from 5 to 8 a.m.
before the market opens. By selling directly to consumers in what
they call the lightning market, they could get much better prices



than from selling to middlemen.

The second factor that contributed to improving the economic
condition of rural farmers was reduced tenancy rates. Until the
1960s, land tenants paid 50 percent of their harvest to landowners,
but this rate dropped to 30-40 percent during the 1970s and early
1980s, and again to 20 percent by the late 1980s, and then even further down to 10-20 percent in the 1990s. Landowners had difficulty
in finding tenant farmers for a number of reasons. With the demand
for factory laborers increasing, many people opted to do factory work
instead of farming. On the other hand, the aging of the farm population meant many landowners were too old to farm themselves. There
was also an increase in absentee farmers, those who inherited land
which they could not farm. Therefore landowners have no choice but
the lease their land to tenant farmers at minimal tenant fees. A villager commented that It is like they own the land. Anyone who is
able-bodied can now get rich as there is a lot of land sitting idle.
Farmers could keep most of their harvest for themselves and secure
the profit from their labor; thus even those who did not own the land
could live decently now if they work hard.
Because the village is located near the city of Kangnng, its residents have more opportunities for wage labor than those in other villages, and many were engaged in wage labor. Rising wages boost
their income, contributing to the enrichment of their household
Moreover, married women began participating in productive
labor, and this became an important factor in improving their living
standard. This change resulted mainly from a rise in womens wage
levels, as women who used to do more housekeeping labor than farm
labor were pushed to work in the fields alongside their husbands.
I collected data over an extended period of time concerning inmigration to and out-migration from the village to examine population mobility. Investigation shows that two households settled in Kol
village in the 1940s, four in the 1950s, three in the 1960s, 13 in the
1970s, and 15 in the 1980s, revealing that in-migrants increased
rapidly after the 1970s. This also means that out-migration from the

The Utilization of Residential Space and Family Relations


village was also active during the same period. According to the data
gathered on many, though not all, out-migrators, those leaving the
village did so for various reasons: (1) some elderly people left to live
with their sons who settled down in Seoul after finishing school
there; (2) the households heads got a job in cities; (3) some bought
bigger houses in another village; (4) some moved to Kangnng looking for opportunities for wage labor because of the difficulty of farming and (5) some sold everything they had and moved to mountain
villages because they could not live there anymore. As for the inmigrators, (1) many came to the village from nearby mining or
mountain villages looking for a more favorable environment where
(they) could make a living by farming; (2) some moved into their
relatives houses which were left empty; (3) some decided to live in
the village because the rent was lower than in Kangnng, and (4)
some came from mountain villages to send their children to school.
The reasons for in-migration changed somewhat compared to the
1980s, during which most moved into this village seeking better conditions. To examine this recent trend, I interviewed the 7 in-migrant
households and 12 out-migrant households between 1988 and 1992.
Two households moved to the village looking for cheap rent; two
came for the purpose of tenant farming; one moved in because the
place they used to live was torn down to make way for the construction of a power plant; one obtained his house from a debtor; and one
household returned to Kol village after they lost everything they had
in a entrepreneurial pursuit in Seoul. As for those out-migrating, two
households left because the household heads got a job elsewhere;
three households consisting of elderly women living alone left to live
with their sons in cities; three tenant families left for cities looking for
a job; and three households flew in from outside to earn money there
before moving to Kangnng. Other reasons for out-migration included finding employment elsewhere, moving to another village after
having lived in a house their relatives had left empty, and moving to
join a married daughter after being widowed. While recent in-migrators came to the village not for farming but for just a place to live,
out-migrants left to reunite with their families or to find jobs. Kol



village appeared to function as an intermediary place where the people from nearby mining or mountain villages lived temporarily before
ultimately settling in cities. Many original settlers of the village left to
work in the cities, and people from more unfavorable living environments came to fill in the empty space left by them.

IV. Change in Behavior Patterns

1. Change in the Family Cycle and Family Types
The family unit undergoes a sequence of periodic changes, which
may be comparable to the growth cycle of organisms. In every society, the development cycle of the family shows uniform and common
patterns, and these familial and residence patterns tend to fall into
correspondence with stages in the family cycle (Netting, Wilk and
Arnold 1984, 17). Thus, changes in familial and residence patterns
can be regarded as changes in the family cycle. As the changes in
family patterns cause changes in family relations, I will investigate
the changes in the family cycle and family types before I examine
changes in the family relations.2
The cycle of the traditional Korean family goes through the following stages: 1) conjugal family without children, 2) conjugal family
with unmarried children, 3) stem family with unmarried children, 4)
stem family with more than one married son, 5) three-generation typical stem family, 6) four-generation stem family with unmarried
grandchildren, 7) four-generation stem family with more than one
married grandson (Y 1977, 28-30; Yi 1975, 267-269).
No female septuagenarians and octogenarians in Kol village
began their family cycle as a conjugal family without children. If we
regard marriage as the starting point of a new family cycle, they all

2. My paper, Chnhwangi hanguk nongchon sahoe-i kajok yuhyng (Family

Types of Korean Rural Society during the Transitional Period) (1994) provides a
detailed discussion on the changes of family cycle and family type.

The Utilization of Residential Space and Family Relations


began this cycle as a stem family with unmarried children or as a

stem family with more than one married son. On the other hand,
some housewives in their sixties began their family cycle as a childless conjugal family, and so did a large majority of those in their thirties. The most common form of the family cycle observed among septuagenarian housewives was either a stem family with more than one
married sona conjugal family with unmarried childrena conjugal
family without children or a stem family with unmarried childrena
three-generation typical stem familya conjugal family without children. That is, most of them lived with their husbands family upon
marriage, set up their family separately with their children, married
them off, and have lived only with their husbands since then, or
have lived with their husbands parents, married their children off
and have lived only with their husbands. Many women in their sixties underwent similar changes in the family cycle. But many in their
fifties and younger started off as a stem family with unmarried childrenconjugal family with married children, integrating into their
husbands family, and moved on to establish a separate family such
as a conjugal family without childrena conjugal family with unmarried children or stem family with more than one married sonconjugal family with unmarried children. Only 2 of 18 housewives in their
fifties formed a three-generation stem family in which they were the
oldest generation. This indicates that although they are old enough to
marry their sons off and form a stem family, they have let their sons
set up family separately, and thus, are living as a conjugal family.
The same pattern is repeated among those in their forties. The forties
group generally started their marriage life with their husbands family
and then set up their own family separately, thus changing from a
stem family with unmarried children to a conjugal family with
unmarried children. Only two women in their forties formed threegeneration typical stem families. This tendency was even more pronounced among those in their thirties. In that age group, 9 out of 17
lived separately from their husbands family upon marriage, while
the remainder lived with their husbands parents forming stem family. This is because young couples who did not leave for cities and



stayed on in their hometowns took over farming from their parents

and they could not live in a separate house from their parents as long
as they lived in the same village.
These findings imply that the changes in the traditional family
cycle result more from the changes in socioeconomic conditions such
as work and employment than conceptions of not wanting to live
with parents or regarding the conjugal family as the ideal.
The most notable changes found in the study with regard to the
family cycle were that the traditional family type, that is, a stem family with more than one married son, almost disappeared, and that 6,
7, and 8 types are no longer observable. Most families followed the
stages of 1-2-1, 3-5-1, or 3-2. While traditional families underwent the
stages of 1-2-3-5, its variant, 1-2-1-5 was observed in Kol village. This
was because the husband and wife often let their adult children set
up their own families separately upon marriage, and then joined the
eldest sons family in advanced age. Actually many elderly people left
the village to live with their sons family in cities. As elderly couples
commented that (they) would go to their sons when (they) cannot
function properly due to poor health, the conjugal family consisting
of an elderly couple is a temporary family pattern with the potential
to become a stem family.
As Korean rural society experiences change in the family cycle,
its household patterns are also undergoing change. I compared
household types between 1987 and 1992 in Kol village to examine
the changes, the results of which are shown in the Table 1. In 1987,
of all 73 households, 7 households had only one person (6 households had a single elderly woman and the remaining one had a
young unmarried male wage laborer from another town); 13 households had only husband and wife; 35 households were composed of
husband and wife with unmarried children; 12 households were
three-generation families (one was a stem family with unmarried
children; one was a stem family with more than one married son;
one was composed of a married daughter and her parents; three
households were made up of husband and wife living with parents
while their children were married off and living in cities; two had


The Utilization of Residential Space and Family Relations

elderly couples looking after grandchildren with their son and daughter-in-law living in cities; and one household had unmarried brothersin-law).
Table 1. Change in Household Types
Household Type












Total number of households



By way of contrast, in July 1992 there were nine households with a

single elderly person, 18 households with only a husband and wife,
32 conjugal households, and 8 stem households with elderly parents
(two of them were composed only of grandparents and parents with
the children living in cities), and one household with grandparents
and grandchildren only.
These findings reveal that elderly couple households and single
elderly person households are increasing rapidly, while three-generation households are declining, from 10 to 6. In 1987, there were three
two-generation households in which couples in their fifties lived only
with parents while their married children set up their families separately. Two examples of such a peculiar household type were also
observed in 1992. This household type has something in common
with the three-generation family in that married son live with parents. However, the third generation not being part of the family, the
three-generation family is in the process of demise. This is a transitional phenomenon exemplifying that the family cycle is changing.
This finding is also observed in Choe Chae-sks study on changes in
the Korean rural family between 1965 and 1985 (Choe 1988, 90-92).
In summary, the Korean rural family is characterized by the increase
of one-person households and one-generation households and at the
same time, the decrease of three-generation households.
In 1987, there were two two-generation households: one consisted of two married sons and their wives; the other one in which one
married daughter and her husband lived with their parents. In 1992,
there were two two-generation households and no households other
than stem households lived with parents. So, the number of households living with parents decreased from 15 to 8. In contrast, the
number of conjugal households with unmarried children decreased
by 3 from 35 to 32, while the total number of households by 7.
Based on these findings, the traditional stem family cycle of
Korean rural society maintained through generations is being
destroyed, and transforming into the conjugal family prevalent in
Western societies.
However, the boundary of family they conceived to be my family

The Utilization of Residential Space and Family Relations


differed from the household type shown in statistics. Most of the twoperson conjugal households and one-person households noted that
their family encompassed the traditional three-generation stem family. Although there were only six households composed of three generations, 42 households had an expanded notion of the family which
included three generations. This reveals the chasm between the
social system at the actual level and the cultural system at the perceptive level.
2. Change in Space Arrangement
The space each family member occupies in the home reflects his/her
role and status in the family. We can examine the diverse aspects of
family culture by analyzing the activity range of family members and
the space they occupy in the home.
The space occupied by individuals can be categorized into three:
fixed space, semi-fixed space, and informal space (Hall 1966, 103112). Fixed space means physical space with clear boundaries and
people who use such space consider it as a fixed zone. Semi-fixed
space refers to the space which varies with the arrangement of furniture and mobile objects. Informal space means the space individuals
create by moving their bodies according to changing situations.
This study analyzes family relations with focus on fixed space,
which is relatively stable with clear boundaries, and informal space,
which varies depending on the situation and ones status in the family. Space for living is divided into the space for work-related activity and the space for private activity.
1) Space for Work-Related Activity
Arrangement of space for work-related activity is determined largely
by the nature of work performed, whether it is housekeeping or outdoor work. Housekeeping is work performed within the family, and
includes cooking, making clothes, doing laundry and cleaning; while
outdoor work includes farming, selling farm products, purchasing
consumer goods, and visiting public offices and schools.



Traditionally, housekeeping was the province of women and outdoor work the province of men. Until the 1950s, men were almost
exclusively responsible for farming except for weeding the fields,
while womens productive activity was limited to milling, spinning
hemp and weaving yarn. As the womens work was performed within the house, their work space was also limited to the indoors. House
chores were considered as unproductive labor, a domain belonging to
women which imparted relatively lesser value than mens domain of
work. Women were excluded from productive labor such as farming
and the selling of farm produce. At the time, work space was
arranged primarily based on gender. Women were discouraged from
leaving the house which was the mens sphere, and were made to
feel ashamed of even going to the market to sell farm products. Likewise, men shunned the womens work space such as the kitchen and
the communal washing quarters. As indicated in the comments that
(my) husband would rather starve than fix himself a meal, and I
had to do all the house chores however sick I was, a clear distinction was made between the work spaces of men and women.
However, as the yarn industry developed toward the end of the
1950s, freeing women from weaving, women came to spend more
time on farming, traditionally mens work. In family cycle stages in
which there were many men in the family, such as a stem family
with unmarried children or a stem family with more than one married son, men did most of the farming except for weeding the fields.
Yet in the case of the conjugal family with unmarried children, both
husband and wife participated in farming. As the family became
more couple-oriented and the shortage of farm labor intensified,
female participation in productive labor rose. Now women worked
not only in dry fields but in rice paddies. With the widespread use of
modern farming equipment, men operated the equipment and
women helped out alongside them, increasing work efficiency. The
young couple worked as a team without relying on others, when they
sowed seeds, tilled rice paddies and dry fields, weeded, sprayed herbicides, and harvested the crops. Also, women went to the market
riding a tractor loaded with vegetables alongside their husbands to


The Utilization of Residential Space and Family Relations

sell farm products, advancing into the mens sphere. Today, while
more and more women participate in the mens sphere, even visiting
public offices and schools, men still avoid entering the womens
sphere, for example, the kitchen.
2) Space for Private Activity

A. Arrangement and Use of Rooms

The structure of the houses in the village under study is classified
into the following three categories.

(the male quarters;
a reception room for
entrance (male) guests)

(the womens







rear sarang

rear room




Who occupies each of the rooms is determined by such factors as the

structure of the house, family cycle, family size and type, and the
family members ages. The structure of the house determines the size
of public and private space within it. In cases where there was such a
small number of rooms available in the houses of the study site, it
was unthinkable that each member or nuclear group in the family
used a room of their own, especially in large families such as extended families or families with multiple nuclear groups. When there
were multiple nuclear groups in the family, for example when the



married children lived in their parents home, space was arranged

based on sex and age. This is demonstrated in the following comments received from respondents:
All men in the family slept together in the sarang and women in
the anpang.
Men slept together in the sarang, children in the sangbang and
women in the anpang.

As mentioned in the previous section on family cycle, most septuagenarians and many in their sixties started their marriage life at stage 4.
Forty to fifty years back when they first married, couples could not
have their own room because there were not enough space. In those
days, the occupants of the rooms were separated by gender. Even
after setting up their families separately from their parents, some
came to their parents to work or have their meals. Sometimes,
women had to go over to their maiden homes occasionally to eat or
sleep, because there was no space for them to sleep in the room.
This began to change in the late 1950s, and a new bride could
have her own room, though this arrangement was not easy to make.
But even then, few couples could keep a room to themselves; in most
cases, they used the anpang (inner room) or rear roomif their parents used the anpangwith their young children. At the time it was
commonplace that couples aged 50 and over used separate rooms
the husband stayed in the sarang, his wife in the anpang. Under this
arrangement, other family members were also assigned to rooms
based on gender. Young couples usually used a room together with
their babies. In short, until the 1960s, family members did not have a
room of their own but shared it with other same-sex members or
nuclear family members.
As many farmers left for the cities and the birth control drive of
the government took root in the 1970s, family sizes became smaller
and the number of conjugal families increased. With this change,
husband and wife could secure their private space and the children
could have a room to themselves.

The Utilization of Residential Space and Family Relations


Today, it is quite common in the village under study for the

young couple use the main room (anpang) next to the kitchen, the
sons use the sarang and the daughters use the rear room or
sangbang. Among couples in their fifties and over, however, the old
tradition is still observed that husbands stay in the sarang separately
from their wives, who stay in the anpang with their daughters, and
the sons use the sangbang. But there are some couples who use the
anpang together. By contrast, couples under 40 years of age, husbands and wives often stay in the same room and give the children a
room of their own when they are old enough to enter elementary
school. Among three-generation families, it is common that the couple uses the anpang next to the kitchen with their young children
because it is convenient to work in the kitchen early in the morning,
while the grandfather uses the sarang and the grandmother uses the
sangbang with school-aged grandchildren. But in some families, the
grandmother still uses the anpang instead of giving it to the son and
daughter-in-law. Some elderly couples living separately from their
married children mentioned that (they) let (their) sons set up a family separately upon marriage despite (their) sons wish to live with
them because the house did not have enough space. As this shows,
most villagers now seem to accept the idea that married couples must
have private space of their own and the family does not necessarily
live together unless there is enough space.

B. Space Arrangement at Table

Mealtime is the time in a given day when the entire family gathers
around together. Each family member has a fairly fixed seat around
the table. Cultural norms determine seat arrangement; therefore,
table practices provide useful insight into understanding family culture and relations between family members.
Table practices up to the 1950s can be divided into three categories: (1) having the meal all together in the anpang, (2) having the
meal separated in the sarang and the anpang, and (3) having the
meal separated between the anpang and the kitchen. In the first category, males sat around the table with individual rice bowls, while



females ate rice from a communal large wooden bowl called a kubak
placed on the floor. In some families, the father-in-law had a separate
table to himself and the brothers-in-law also ate separately at their
own table, while the mother-in-law, sisters-in-law and young children ate from a kubak on the floor. Children aged 13 and over ate at
the table with male adults and the mother-in-law could also eat at the
table as she became older. In the second category, men ate in the
sarang and women ate from a kubak placed on the floor in the
anpang. In the third category, men ate in the anpang while women
ate sitting around a kubak in the kitchen. It was common even in the
conjugal family that the husband had a separate table from the wife
and children who ate from a bowl on the floor. As the eldest son
grew older, he could join his father at table, while the wife and the
other children would eat from a kubak.
Most women in their late fifties responded that they had their
meal on the floor when they first married, while those in their early
forties stated that they ate at table when they got married (about 20
years ago). This indicates that table seating based on the hierarchical
order within the family began to change in the 1970s.
Today in most families in Kol village, all the members sit around
a table and have their meal in the anpang. The parents-in-law and
husband are usually seated at the araenmok, the place on the floor
nearest the fireplace, or the seat of honor in the ondol (Korean heating) room, while the wife and children are seated at the winmok, the
place on the floor farthest from the fireplace; an ordinary seat. In
some families, the father-in-law and husband receive a separate table
from the mother-in-law, wife and children. The father-in-law is not
supposed to sit at the same table alone with his daughter-in-law. In
cases where there are only the father-in-law and daughter-in-law having a meal, the father-in-law eats alone first and then, the daughterin-law eats after he is finished, or the two eat separately. In conjugal
families, the husband and children are seated on the warmer part of
the ondol floor and the wife is seated on the less warm part, or the
husband and child sit facing each other and the wife eats at a corner
of the table.

The Utilization of Residential Space and Family Relations


The placement of sidedishes on the table is determined by the

value of the sidedishes and the rank of the family members gathered
around the table. The arrangement of sidedishes on the table reflects
the traditional hierarchical order operating at the micro-level.
Sidedishes made of ingredients bought in the market such as meat
are considered to be of higher quality than those made of homegrown products such as vegetables. More valuable dishes are
placed in front of the seniors or males, and this rule had been
adhered to until the 1960s when most families did not have enough
to eat. Valuable meat sidedishes were for the seniors and males
who took higher status in the hierarchy. This is demonstrated in the
following comments:
Women did not dare to think they could eat meat.
On those rare occasions when a meat dish was prepared, it was
put on the table for the senior family members and the leftovers
were given to the children. Women never tasted it.
Women did not eat leftover meat but saved it to put on the table
again or to feed the children.

These days, women as well as children can eat meat sidedishes without reservation, but good sidedishes are still placed in front of the
seniors or males. Often the seniors move them towards the children
but the housewife is not supposed to put them on the table where the
children will be seated when she sets the table.
When the housewife fills bowls with cooked rice, she must do so
in the order of father-in-law, husband, mother-in-law, son, daughter,
and lastly, herself. Sometimes, young housewives serve their mothers-in-law with rice before their (young) husbands, but most housewives serve their husbands before their mothers-in-law as the husband is the pillar of the family, a rule taught them by the mothersin-law themselves.
As electronic rice cookers are widely used these days, rice is
served in the order family members eat their meal. So children going
to school early in the morning eat before the seniors.



3) Shared Space and Separate Space

Space in the house is arranged under the assumption that the family
members live together in a shared space. But in todays rural society,
the highly-educated young generation take it for granted or even
ideal to leave their parents and hometowns in search for a job and to
live separately from them. In fact, many leave their hometowns and
find employment in cities; therefore, when one marries and sets up
his own family, the nuclear family lives separately from and shares
no space with the parents. This separation of living space has
brought change to family relations. Children, who leave their parents
in their adolescence and find a job in cities and settle down there,
lead an independent life from their parents and have autonomy in
deciding personal matters and resolving their personal problems.
Moreover, they obtain practical knowledge and experience to help
them adjust to the changing social environment, so their attitude and
lifestyle are very different from their parents. The children leave the
parents while they are still young, so the parents have little room to
intervene in their personal lives, and this weakens the tie between
parents and children.
In the past, parents had absolute decision-making authority in
selecting their sons bride but nowadays they have no such authority.
Since after marriage the couple lives away from the parents, they
spend little time together with no opportunities to develop affection
or experience conflicts.
Though I do not particularly like my daughter-in-law, I have to
accept her since they love each other... after all, they live separately
from us...
What is the use of acting like a mother-in-law when we do not live
together? So I tend not to say anything that upsets her.
Since we do not live together, I neither like nor dislike my daughter-in-law.
Since they are living apart from me, I will just consider them filial
unless they treat me badly.
Because I see my daughter-in-law only two to three times a year, I

The Utilization of Residential Space and Family Relations


have nothing to talk about with her when we get together.

Since our son lives apart from us, he thinks more about his wife
than us, but I put up with it for the peace of the family.
What can I say when the world has changed so much? I have to
accept it though I am not happy with it.
Before my son married, he had to cook for himself. So I feel better
for him now. He cannot live with me anyway. I worry about him

The married son and the mother cannot help but to accept the reality
that they must live apart, though they regret this. Meanwhile, due to
the spatial separation, the mother-in-law never develops an intimate
relationship with her daughter-in-law and often even grows indifferent to her.
Despite the physical distance, however, the family members in
the village still feel strong bond for each other and regard themselves
as one family. In other words, there is a gap in the boundary of the
family between what they have in reality and what they have in conception, and what they seek in conception is a traditional family
(Park 1988, 172-174; 1994, 175-183). Therefore, despite physical separation, the married couple thinks they must always take care of the
parents and that they will live with them someday. Meanwhile, the
parents think that (they) will have to live with (their) son if (they)
cannot live on (their) own when they get older. They feel happy and
proud that their son visits them on weekends or on holidays with his

IV. Searching for Meaning in Space-Utilizing Behavior

Space-utilizing practices in the Korean rural family up to the 1950s
had several distinct characteristics. Work space was divided into the
consumptive private sphere where women performed housekeeping
labor and the productive public sphere where men performed farming labor. At mealtime, men ate at table with an individual rice bowl,
whereas women and children ate sitting around a communal wooden



bowl kubak placed on the floor. Men were seated in the warmer part
of the floor and women in the less warm part. There was no private
space for husband and wife; the space between children and mother
was closer than that between husband and wife.
These characteristics reveal that space utilization within the family occurs on the basis of politically organized gender. Family members, who are divided into males vs. females, are further divided into
the public sphere vs. the private sphere, the table vs. the floor, the
warmer vs. the less-warm part of the ondol floor, the sarang vs. the
anpang, the individual rice bowl vs. the communal kubak. In these
divisions are hidden symbolic meanings that imply status, which is
the focal concern of the hierarchical Korean society. The public
sphere, the table and the warmer part of the room are accorded more
importance and value than the private sphere, the floor and the lesswarm part of the room. These special arrangements once again
reflect gender hierarchy in which men (husbands) dominate women
(wives). The fact that men and women used separate rooms and husband and wife had no socially approved private space implies that
their marriage was based not on love but on domination and subordination, and thus husbands and wives could not exchange affection,
nor achieve a union in a socially approved manner. Sexual behavior
is a way of expressing mutual love and is a cultural symbol in itself.
But in traditional society, sex between husband and wife was considered as pre-cultural behavior to be engaged in only for reproduction.
Men, who occupied more important and valuable space, were
recognized as individual beings and were given an individual rice
bowl, while women, who ate rice from a communal kubak, were not
regarded as individual beings. Women could move up in the family
hierarchy only after they fulfilled their reproductive function by giving
birth to a son and having a grandson. Only then were they regarded
as individual beings who could have rice in an individual bowl.
The space-sharing between mother-in-law and daughter-in-law
occurred at work, at table, and in sleep. They worked in the same
work space and ate rice from the same kubak. The mother-in-law not
only gave the daughter-in-law jobs to do and supervised her perfor-

The Utilization of Residential Space and Family Relations


mance, but even monitored the amount and type of food she ate. In
sum, the mother-in-law played the role of supervisor over her daughter-in-law.
Beginning in the 1960s, these practices of space utilization gradually changed and new patterns emerged. Womens activity, which
was once limited to the private sphere of the home, expanded to the
public sphere. The eating space which was once divided into the
table and the floor has now been integrated into the common area of
a round table. Women used to eat from a communal kubak but now
have an individual rice bowl. Husband and wife have private space
of their own. With the development of the conjugal family, the mother-in-law and daughter-in-law who were placed in the common space
in the past now live in separate space. The downsizing rural family
and the shortage of farm labor have led husband and wife to enter
each others work space and as a result, the conjugal relationship has
changed from an indifferent dominant-subordinate relationship to a
complementary and interdependent relationship.
That womens participation in productive activity has expanded,
that womens seat at table has moved from the floor to a corner of
the table and then, to a fixed seat at the round table, and that women
are recognized as individual beings and given individual rice bowls
mean the weakening of strict hierarchical relations governing males
and females in the family. Men no longer occupy a dominant position; however, these changes have not afforded women an equal status to men within the family. Rural womens participation in farming
labor means the expansion of the scope of womens participation in
productive activity considered valuable by the society, but they are
not engaging in it in order to be recognized for their ability or to
establish themselves socially. Success is not part of their goal when
they participate in farm labor; they just regard it as their duty to their
husbands and children. Women work in the fields to help their husbands and buy things for their children, and they perform wage labor
to earn more money for the family. They still believe that men are
the bread-winners for them they only provide help. In actual life,
womens sphere of action has expanded and they contribute more to



the family economy, but in conception, they still think they are only
help-providers for their husbands who are the masters whom they
cannot live without. This is revealed in the following comments:
It is embarrassing to see a very assertive or aggressive woman.
It only humiliates the husband.
You must speak highly of your husband at all times in front of the

Despite this, the husband and wife relationship has developed from a
dominant-subordinate one into one which is complementary and
interdependent, and the conjugal tie is reinforced as they realize that
they only have their spouses to depend on when they advance in age
and that all their children will leave.
Because women are more receptive to this change than men,
sometimes conjugal conflicts result.
In the traditional family, the relationship between mother-in-law
and daughter-in-law was often dubbed the shadowy (dark) side of
the family but this has changed due to spatial separation between the
two (Yi 1975). Mother-in-law and daughter-in-law have less contact
and thus, less conflict, while mother and son grow less intimate.
Among three-generation families, the mother feels both thankful and
sorry at the same time that her son and daughter-in-law live with her
in the hometown, unlike other youths leaving for cities. In this case,
the mother-in-law no longer plays the traditional role of a supervisor
but that of a cooperator who provides help for the young couple.
As industrialization has made a broad range of jobs available and
provided more opportunities for education outside the family, the
younger generation live separately from their parents and lead a different life from theirs. These changes have weakened the bond
between parents and children, and as a result, the Korean rural family is having less conflict between mother-in-law and daughter-in-law,
and a stronger conjugal bond between husband and wife.

The Utilization of Residential Space and Family Relations


V. Conclusion
Social institutions and customs change to adjust more effectively to
the given environment. Change in the socioeconomic climate generates new forms of social relations and culture, and this is true of family relations and family culture too.
So far I have examined the changes in family relations by investigating the changes in space utilization behavior in everyday life, and
have analyzed changes in family culture. Based on this analysis, I
will close by making several conclusive remarks.
First, the two key variables determining hierarchy in the family
are gender and age. Korean culture is hierarchically organized based
on gender and age. Practices of space utilization reflect this hierarchy
and changes in the practices mean changes in the hierarchy.
Second, the most noticeable change in the hierarchy of the family in terms of the practices of space utilization is the advancement of
womens status. With their active participation in productive labor
from the 1960s, women are recognized as valuable human beings
and are given individual rice bowls at table. With the shortage of
male labor in rural areas which resulted from reduced family size,
females were recognized as substitutes. When food was scarce,
women could not have good food, the source of energy for productive labor, as they were deemed valueless for not performing such
a productive labor, but this began to change as food came into abundance and women emerged as productive members of the family
(farming producers). However, conflict arose between older and
younger generations and between men and women due to the difference in their acceptance of this change. Also peoples attitude and
conception have not changed as fast as what is occurring in real life.
Third, the distinction between mens sphere and womens sphere
is becoming obscure. However, while more women are participating
in farming labor, men are still reluctant to perform housekeeping
work. This is partly because women perform productive labor for
economic need, while men still hold on to the traditional idea that it
is a shame for men to do house chores because it is womens



Fourth, the conflictual relationship between mother-in-law and
daughter-in-law in the traditional family has weakened considerably,
because they live in separate spaces. In cases where they do live
together, the mother-in-law is thankful that her daughter-in-law lives
with her taking care of her, unlike other women of her generation
who live apart from their son and daughter-in-law.
Fifth, the focus of family relations is switching from the relationship between mother and son to that of husband and wife. In rural
areas, the married couple is the primary production unit, performing
productive labor in the same work space and helping each other.
Because husband and wife know they will be left alone when their
children grow up and leave for the cities, they develop a stronger
bond than was previously the case. Considering that sharing a room
means maintaining a close private relationship, we can conclude that
the couple also has a more intimate relationship now that they have
a room of their own.

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