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Korean Adolescents’ Understandings of Social Equalities and Inequalities


Equality is a central issue in morality, and a desire for equality has resulted in major historical changes in human societies. The issues regarding social inequalities among different social groups are complex because they often involve multiple players bringing in varying claims, demands, and perspectives. Thus, individuals need to coordinate multiple considerations in coming to judgments about fairness. However, research on equality has not been sufficiently extensive to fully understand the development and application of concepts of equality to social inequalities that exist among different social groups and processes of coordination involved in making judgments about equality.

This study examined Korean adolescents’ judgments and reasoning about social inequalities. Eighty-four adolescents from three age groups (12-13, 14-15, and 16-17 years) were administered individual interviews. Participants were presented with hypothetical situations depicting unequal allocations of resources among different groups based on social class, race, and gender. Participants were first asked to evaluate the inequalities. Then, they were presented with a set of questions that measured whether their evaluations would change in the face of personal and conventional contingencies (i.e. personal assertions, dictates from authorities or a rule, cultural generalizability). Participants’ reasoning was assessed through elicitation of justifications for each question. As a follow-up of a study that was conducted with American adolescents, Korean adolescents’ judgments and reasoning about social inequalities were compared with those of American adolescents.

The findings showed that Korean adolescents have developed understandings about equality, and they apply concepts of equality in making judgments about fairness. Although the majority of adolescents evaluated the inequalities in all situations as unacceptable, fewer made negative evaluations in the social class situations than in the race and gender situations. The negative evaluations about the inequalities in the race and gender situations were not contingent on personal assertions, the directives from authorities, the dictates of a rule, or culturally accepted practices. Those negative evaluations were justified with reasons of welfare and equality. In the two social-class situations, more positive evaluations were made and based on moral justifications of merit, as well as on conventional justifications. Justifications based on personal choices were common in the situation that pertained to differences in the amount of lunch money. Korean adolescents’ judgments and reasoning about the social inequalities were largely in line with those of American adolescents. A few differences were observed. One was that American adolescents primarily used moral reasons of welfare and equality whereas Korean adolescents also took into consideration moral concerns of merit and property rights. Another was that racial inequality invoked concerns about welfare of immigrants as well as maintaining equality for Korean adolescents, whereas the latter was a single main concern for American adolescents.

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