Inmaek/ Yonjul (South Korea)

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Inmaek/ Yonjul 🇰🇷
SouthKorea map.png
Location: South Korea
Definition: Lit. ‘people entangled like vine’, network of social ties and relationships developed in the course of one’s life
Keywords: South Korea East Asia Ties Euphemism Personal connections Favour
Clusters: Redistribution Substantive ambivalence Instrumentality of sociability Economies of favours
Author: Sven Horak
Affiliation: Department of Management, St. John’s University, USA
Website: Profile page at SJU

By Sven Horak, Department of Management, St. John’s University, USA

Inmaek (인맥), in Korean, means ‘people entangled like vine’ (Yee 2015: 3[1]) and refers to a network of social ties and relationships one develops in the course of life (Horak 2014 [2]). Although distinctively Korean, inmaek ties can be described as equating with and having an identical construct to the much studied Chinese guanxi (Yang 1996, Fan 2002; Ho and Redfern 2010; Lin and Ho 2010[3]; J.-D. Luo 2011[4]; Y. Luo 2000[5]) or blat in Russia (see both in this volume). Although inmaek ties can be established purposefully, an action shared with yonjul (see yonjul in this volume), they can also emerge without any instrumental intentions (Horak 2014[6]). The social connection is conventionally developed between individuals from the same home town or alumni, people who do military service together (a relatively strong tie in Korea), ex-colleagues of a workplace who remain connected, or between people who share a hobby or are members of the same sports club. In contrast to the pillars of yongo – family, region and alumni (see yongo in this volume), the pillars upon which inmaek ties are based are more diverse. These include the notions of affection and loyalty between individuals (Lew 2013[7]), and forging informal personal relationships as an important factor in interpersonal transactions in business, politics and society as a whole (Y. Kim 2008 [8]). As inmaek stands for a social network in general it can include yongo and yonjul ties (both in this volume). Ties can be interrelated and develop dynamically, i.e. inmaek (as well as yongo) can serve as a fundament to develop yonjul ties (see Figure 1).

Korea is often described as a relational society (Horak 2015 [9]; Y.-H. Kim 2000[10]) in terms of the way in which sociability is entangled with affection or instrumentality. In economic transactions, for instance, personal sentiments are taken into account, thus rational decision-making is seldom detached from personal factors. Solving problems in a business setting, for example, will always include personal ties and consideration of the relationships between the people involved as they are regarded as an integral part of the solution to a problem. Conventionally a third party may be consulted to act like an intermediary or broker towards conflict resolution. What is the basis of the affective relationships that distinguish Korean society from Western countries?

In the West, the age of Enlightenment promoted a rational fact-based scientific approach to problem solving and in parallel, Christian ideals supported inclusion and open communities based on the ideals of mercy and charity. In Korea, scholars regard shamanism as the first spiritual belief to have had a deep influence on the Korean mentality (Choe 2007 [11]; Seo 2013[12]). Shamanism establishes a transcendental connection between nature and its creatures. According to Hahm (1986 [13]), ‘the individual was always considered to be in a partially interlocking or mutually interpenetrating position with other human beings as well as the Material World. The individual was always viewed in the context of his affection network’ (Hahm 1986: 286 [14]). Confucian ethical philosophies, later introduced to Korea, are compatible with the shamanistic mind-set. Confucianism essentially proposes an order principle that regulates relationships between interconnected people according to family principles, rather than between persons exercising individual rights. In Confucianism, family-like morals are extended to other social relationships in a society, for instance, between business leaders and employees, professors and students, or between friends. To establish community spirit based on family values, an intimate or emotional bond is necessary.

Inmaek establishes an emotional bond between people and emphasises sociability as the essence of humanity. It describes social ties between two or more people in a network, connected either directly, or indirectly through others. A direct connection implies a stronger tie, whereas an indirect connection is considered weaker. A direct connection can easily be established (and instrumentalised as required) by means of an indirect connection which already exists through informal group membership. Quantitative measuring of the strengths of informal ties is problematic, as such ties may be dormant, invisible or regarded as a highly private subject (Ledeneva 1998[15]). Accordingly, whether inmaek ties can be considered strong becomes an empirical question. However, scholars assume that both contact frequency and duration are important variables in determining the strength of inmaek ties. Furthermore, reciprocal actions are important in the maintenance of inmaek ties. Examples of this include the trading of information that is not publically available, an exchange of favours, or one of a variety of other unregulated exchanges (Yee 2015[16]). While interpersonal interactions are generally embedded in Confucian ethics, inmaek requires adherence to particularistic ethics in specific contexts. These include loyalty and acceptance of patronage within the principles of the social hierarchy determined by Confucian norms of behaviour. Dyadic and network-based inmaek relationships follow quasi-family ideals that distinguish them from relationships with outsiders. Similar to the divisive principles of yonjul (see yonjul in this volume), insiders are viewed as quasi-family members and are treated with benevolence and care, whereas outsiders do not receive special attention. Inmaek implies a moral obligation to the group; more successful members are compelled by peer pressure to help less successful members (Yee 2015[17]). Inmaek is often used with good intentions, for example to help less fortunate people secure a job or promotion, although this sometimes results in the employment of persons who lack suitable qualifications or skills. In principle inmaek ties can be seen as positive relational capital as they are open to new members, promote the advancement of communities, and feature mutual help and social exchange – thus, inmaek has the potential to promote public good. Conversely, inmaek can become a negative force if it results in communities of small exclusive cliques that support each other for personal gain at a cost to others, acting in opposition to universal codes of conduct.


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