Pollution as Relations: Reconfiguring Pollution, Toxicities, and Bodies Through Particulate Matter in South Korea

Seohyung Kim, Purdue University


Particle pollution in South Korea has become a matter of significant public concern, culminating in its declaration as a “social disaster” through a government proclamation in 2019. This study shows how the existing interventions to tackle particle pollution in South Korea as a “social disaster” contribute to maintaining the status quo, paradoxically. The study attempts to interpret pollution as entanglements, relations, and processes by addressing the discussions and politics surrounding particle pollution, the interventions to tackle it, and what they presuppose and exclude via multi-sited ethnography.What narratives form the bedrock of the current discourses and politics around particle pollution in South Korea? What kinds of population, knowledge systems, values, and interests are incorporated and excluded around particulate matter in Korea? Drawing upon four months of fieldwork, interviews, and collaborative work with residents, scientists, and activists in South Korea, this thesis offers a new understanding of how citizens’ experiences and knowledge practices have reshaped the concepts of pollution, toxicity, and health. The study indicates that the existing practices and knowledge vis-à-vis pollution control have individualized pollution by presuming particular ways of normalcy and excluding others. In doing so, this study captures the multiplicity of particle pollution and shows the existence and stories of different bodies living with/in pollution.Drawing on the literature in feminist science and technology studies as well as medical and environmental anthropology scholarship, this study problematizes harm reduction-based environmental and health intervention practices by describing the current individualized particle pollution responses. The research reveals how people in Korea living with/in particulate matter have perceived, datafied, defined, adjusted, and responded to particle pollution and its toxicity.The study suggests that pollution should be envisaged as entanglements and relations by shedding light on the stories that particulate matter has been perceived, coordinated, and generated in various ways. Lastly, indicating that the knowledge and interventions surrounding particle pollution have exploited and flattened the environment based on the human–nature dichotomy, the study suggests different ways of conceptualizing pollution, while considering the multiplicity of pollution, toxicities, and bodies.




Nyssa, Purdue University.

Subject Area

Asian Studies|Atmospheric Chemistry|Atmospheric sciences|Chemistry|Cultural anthropology|Economics|Political science|Sociology

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