The interview section is looking for in-depth discussions with sociologists at Seoul National University. For the first interviewee, we met newly-recruited professor Dong-kyun Lim and talked about his vision for future research, as well as his recent experience at Seoul National University.
Q: Can you introduce your Ph.D dissertation?
A: My dissertation is an analysis on cognition and attitude of Chinese people, especially regarding inequality, welfare, and distributive justice. Chinese society is very unique in many aspects, when compared to Korea, or Western countries, in which a democratic policy system is operated. Contrary to these cases, China does not have a two-party system, nor political polarization, which results in a unique political culture. I have assumed that people living in such a unique background might think about inequality, welfare policy, and basic justice problems from a different perspective, thus, I analyzed the related quantitative data. The result was fairly interesting. Foremost, the attitude of most Chinese people is very pragmatic and thoughts are not structured by ideology.
Q: What are your recent research interests?
A: I have many research interests these days. One fundamental interest among these is socio-psychological, to be specific, the mechanism of the inner psychological world of people. Thus, it would sound like I have an interest in micro-sociological or cognitive aspects, or even just psychology. However, my main focus is to see how those cognitive characteristics are socially shared or not shared, or socially formulated. In this respect, "hope" is the specific theme I would like to pursue. How hope can be socially constructed is the question I hold right now. Let us say a person is more or less satisfied with his or her happiness or life. This present happiness is decided by, of course, one’s past, but also by one’s future. The present happiness or expectation is given by a future which has not come yet. Thus, whether hope can provide a certain image of a future, or anticipated days to a society, is important. One could say my interest is in the roots of hope being social. The way in which hope is made is not only about materialistic promise, but indeed a symbolic, linguistic metaphor about what life is. The research about social origin of hope is, in this respect, related to socio-psychological aspects.
Q: You open a new class this semester titled “Cognitive Sociology.” Does it stem from your interest in socio-psychology?
A: Yes. Cognitive sociology might sound very unfamiliar to many people. It is indeed not a clearly established field at this point. The root of cognitive sociology is in research about culture. Contrary to this, socio-psychological research is about psychological characteristics, such as identity, emotion and affection, conflict between groups, etc. In the field of cultural sociology, on the other hand, some have determined that culture is in fact largely dependent on cognitive structure. This beginning step of research was mainly performed by cultural anthropologists. They now try to absorb even the results from cognitive psychology, but, to be precise, it is an interest about culture. How schema is structured, changed, and shared, and how schema produces the certain type of attitude, these are the main distinctions with that of socio-psychology.
Q: You have worked as an undergraduate chair this semester. Can you explain characteristics of the undergraduate curriculum?
A: I believe SNU sociology’s strong point is its diverse spectrum. SNU provides classes in diverse streams such as a class about local issues and problems and about global and trendy research. That is partly because of the high number of faculty members compared to other universities. The tradition of SNU sociology is that students have critical minds regarding social issues. I think these characteristics are not to be seen in either Korea or abroad, the inherent and distinct aspects of SNU.
Q: Do you have any experience or strategy regarding teaching foreign students?
A: Since I studied abroad for my Ph.D course, I do understand difficulties living and studying abroad. That is why I think additional care is needed for foreign students. However, most foreign students I have met possess great potential, so that I try to encourage them to grow that potential. Also, since I do research about Chinese society, sometimes if foreign students come from China, there are certainly some things I learn from them, too. As I gave special care to them and supported them in many ways, they have done very well so far.
Q: You returned to your campus to become a professor again. How different is it compared to 20 years ago?
A: To speak about a negative side first, many students are under pressure and have many worries. They do not hope or look forward to the future either. This might be the entire social atmosphere. Thus, some are struggling with mental problems. On the other hand, the positive side is they have more opportunities than I had. Korea has been globalized, and many more opportunities have been made for social purposes. If one is looking for a global or creative career, there are more options than when I was an undergraduate student. However, of course, more options make them feel more unsettled.
Q: Becoming employed has become very difficult in Korean society, so many students go for practical majors. Do you have any advice for sociology students who took an unpractical major?
A: Even in other countries, many undergraduate students go for practical majors, by which they can obtain a job easily. However, if I were them, I would never select practical majors if many others go for them. If I take the same path, my skill or route is not differentiated at all, but if I take the unique and distinct path, that could be a good strategy to stand out. Additionally, majoring in practical subjects does not guarantee that you will acquire practical skills. You can learn and acquire practical skills easily even when you major in sociology. If your vision is correct, you do not have to move on in a typical way. The reason why students move on in a typical way is because of anxiety or uncertainty about the future, but, what I have learned from watching my friends is that what you really feel anxious about is not how much money you earn or how successful your career is, but about whether your life is spent for monotonous life goals. We only have one life. If you ever adventure yourself to pioneer what nobody has done before, you will get the best compensation one life can ever provide. In this respect, sociology could be a good alternative, because sociology is good for anything, and provides critical minds for social issues. Therefore, it does not seem practical, but it is the most powerful knowledge.
Q: What is sociology?
A: It is quite difficult to define in one word, but we can discuss the characteristics. Sociology makes you look at the world from a totally different perspective. In reality, there are not many such disciplines. There are almost no disciplines that allow us to see the essence of society differently. What is more surprising is that no matter how much you study and research, sociology continues to deliver surprise and academic enlightenment. That surprise is continuous. I believe that is the biggest merit of sociology, and through this process, you learn to understand yourself in a different way, as well. Thus, you never become bored by studying and learning sociology.