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Social Distance toward Immigrants among Koreans

Seokho Kim


The social distance scale is the primary measure used to determine the level of intergroup prejudice. It has been frequently applied in research on interracial prejudice in South Korean society. Such research, however, has tended to apply the social distance scale, imported from the West, in an uncritical fashion. The uncritical acceptance and application of the social distance scale has resulted in ignorance of the basic assumptions upon which it is premised and constructed. As a result, in culture spaces where levels of ethnic diversity or the history of interracial relations differs, research using the social distance scale has not yielded the expected results. In this vein, this article briefly examines the development of the social distance scale as a measure by which to determine levels of mutual understanding and closeness between ethnic/national groups. It also discusses the problems inherent in applying the original concept of social distance, which was created in the United States, a far more multiracial and multicultural society, without any adjustment for the South Korean social context. By analyzing the 2010 Korean General Social Survey (KGSS), this article shows that the social distance felt by South Koreans toward immigrant groups is racially stratified. Americans and Europeans are at the very top, North Korean refugees and Chinese Koreans are next, with the Chinese and Southeast Asians at the very bottom. The fact that Americans and Europeans are ahead of ethnic Koreans (North Koreans and Chinese Koreans) in this hierarchy demonstrates that South Koreans feel a sense of difference from ethnic Koreans from China and North Korea. That is to say, even though South Koreans see these relations as the result of ethnicity and blood, and hence unavoidable, they also desire not to become closely associated with Koreans from North Korea and China in their everyday lives.


Keywords: Social distance, intergroup prejudice, immigrant groups in South Korea, ordering assumption


Journal of Contemporary Korean Studies Vol. 2, No. 2 (December 2015) : 165~187