Researcher Spotlight: Russell Burge

July 4th, 2017

Russell Burge
Junior Researcher 2016-17

Can you provide a small bio that outlines your hometown and education background?
I grew up in Escondido, California and majored in Art History at UCLA. After a brief stint working in the art world in New York City I came to Incheon to teach English, which is how I became interested in Korean language and history. After two years working in South Korea I completed a masters at Harvard’s Regional Studies East Asia program, and am currently a PhD candidate in the History Department at Stanford University.

Can you briefly tell us about your research?
I look at city growth and social change during the 1960s and 1970s, a time in which South Korea underwent rapid development, shifting from a rural to urban society. My focus is on the history of Seoul, which was the largest center of rural-urban migration and quadrupled in size during these decades. This is an important area to study because we see some of the most contentious questions in South Korea today – such as the relationship between development and inequality, and the relationship of the government to urban voters and urban protest – emerge for the first time in a big way. My dissertation looks at these questions from two main angles: the rise of shantytowns and the political struggles around their existence, and the development of the Gangnam region.

Why did you specifically pick this particular project and field?
When I first arrived in South Korea to teach English, one of the first things that struck me was how urban space here seemed so different from the United States. I had lived in big American cities, but the pace of redevelopment here felt much more accelerated, and the contentious politics around it more militant. After I completed my masters I felt ready to revisit urban politics as a research topic. I hope in my dissertation to cut underneath some of the political divides on the issue and shed light on development in a more historical way.

How do you hope your research can help your respective field?
Korea historians in the English-speaking world have only recently begun to explore the years after the Korean War. When it comes to South Korean history there are still so many large questions left unanswered or almost entirely unexplored. This makes dissertation-writing something of an uphill battle but also presents precious opportunities – I’m able to bring in and discuss the ideas of many South Korean social scientists unknown in the United States in my work, and to raise questions concerning development and social change that haven’t previously been a big part of Korean studies.

What has been the biggest challenge for you in conducting research in South Korea?
Many of us working in the field of history see it as a part of our job to amplify the voices of those who have previously been silenced, and in so doing to give a more balanced or complete picture of the past. Only after starting fieldwork in South Korea did I realize how difficult this really is – it’s very easy as a historian to find the records and thoughts of powerful people, and when attempting to tell the story of marginalized groups it’s equally easy to fall into traps of projection and cliché. Actually locating the voices of the urban poor and shantytown dwellers in the historical archive, or tracking down these people today for interviews, has been a big challenge and occupied a huge part of my energy in Seoul. I’ve been more successful at the former than the latter.

What advice would you give to other researchers coming to South Korea?
It’s something of a truism, but the importance of networks cannot be understated. In this regard you should use your university affiliation to the greatest advantage possible, even if it starts with just meeting faculty and fellow graduate students – being a foreign researcher is a position of great privilege and should not be squandered.

Quote to live by?
“Be not simply good; be good for something.”- Henry David Thoreau

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