Marriage Networks and Figurations of Power in Late Medieval Korea

Javier Cha
Harvard University
East Asian Languages and Civilizations

A central theme in historical research of Korea’s transition from medieval to early modern times is the remarkable retreat of the state and the growing gulf between the metropole and the provinces. The later medieval spirit of the civilizing project and the court elites’ vision of political, economic, and cultural integration of the peninsula experienced a serious setback in the sixteenth century. From the perspective of the fifteenth century, the new order of things in the seventeenth century appears astounding. The moralization of politics divided the literati into irreconcilable ideological positions, the state relied on tax farmers to collect revenue, and the closing of public granaries translated into a diminished sense of loyalty to the monarchy.
How can historians explain this change? The conventional narratives have exclusively approached the social changes in the late medieval era through analysis of attributes such as class, status, and address. Such a method follows the logic of frequentist statistics, implicitly assuming a positive correlation between tabular aggregation and social power, and the attendant data are examined for confirmatory analysis.
This presentation proposes an alternative research design following the figurational framework of Norbert Elias. Figurational sociology conceives human societies as incessantly changing web of interdependent individuals and identifies social power in the shifting balances of centrality in the network. This theory of established-outsider relations, I believe, helps us enrich our understanding of the segregating process of the capital district and the provinces in early modern Korea. The initial stage of this task begins with analysis of marriage networks of the late medieval court elites, based on a biographical database of 4,000 individuals who constituted the upper echelons of Korean society between 1392 and 1469. At the summer workshop last year, I visualized the organic structure of an enormous supercluster that included nearly half of the individuals in the database. I de-clustered that organic network into 32 sub-networks using a Cytoscape plug-in and share the new insights gained as a result of this exercise at the reunion conference.

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