Rethinking Intimacy, the Self, and Ethics: A Postcolonial Feminist Analysis of Polyamory Cultures in the US and South Korea
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Rethinking Intimacy, the Self, and Ethics: A Postcolonial Feminist Analysis of Polyamory Cultures in the US and South Korea


This dissertation is an ethnographic study of the development of polyamory cultures in the US and South Korea with a focus on how individuals experience polyamory within the dynamic of governing the self. Based on three years of multi-sited fieldwork in Southern California and Seoul, South Korea, this study unearths how Americans and South Koreans adopt polyamory—a consensual non-monogamous relationship—by negotiating agency, identity, and social constraints. As a non-normative intimate practice which rejects the norm of monogamy, polyamory has grown in association with the values of freedom, autonomy, and gender equality in the US since the 1990s. Through transnational mobility and communication, polyamory was introduced to South Korea in the 2000 in the contexts of the neoliberal socioeconomic reforms after the Asian financial crisis of 1997. Drawing from critical studies on intimacy, Foucault’s theory of ethics, and postcolonial feminist epistemology, this study theorizes polyamory as an agentic practice through which individuals construct and govern selfhood in relationship to the self as well as to the reality that circumscribes their conduct and identities. This study offers a postcolonial feminist analysis of polyamory by mapping out four themes: (1) the racialized development and practice of polyamory, (2) South Koreans’ translation of the American polyamory culture, (3) anti-patriarchy and gender complexities in polyamory cultures, and (4) the ethics of self-realization in private life. The first part of the dissertation examines polyamory culture in the US. Chapter one illustrates how the normativity of white and middle-class individuality is essentially embedded in polyamory culture in the US. Chapter two focuses on American individuals’ everyday practice of polyamory. Highlighting the virtue of authentic self in the practice of polyamory, chapter two reveals how race plays out in individuals’ practice of polyamory. The second part of this dissertation analyzes polyamory culture in South Korea. Chapter three contextualizes the growth of polyamory within the reconstruction of South Koreans’ lives after the Asian financial crisis of 1997. Chapter four analyzes how polyamory culture has grown in South Korea through the complex process in which South Koreans translate the American culture of polyamory. Chapter five scrutinizes South Koreans’ experience of polyamory by focusing on what polyamory signifies in the management of the self. Demonstrating that polyamory manifests the growing moral value of self-realization in South Koreans’ lives, chapter five addresses how gender complicates individuals’ practice of polyamory. Ultimately, by illuminating polyamory as a racialized, gendered experience of practicing the self, this dissertation addresses broader issues of the political economy of intimacy, everyday politics of selfhood, and ethics in private life.

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