A Stronger Sense of Belonging

Aram Hur interprets national stories to understand civic duty
A headshot of Aram Hur in front of an orange background

Aram Hur, Kim Koo Chair in Korean Studies and assistant professor of political science, can pinpoint the genesis of her interest in democracy and civic duty. It began when she witnessed citizens in South Korea, lined up in the cold of January and February to sell their family heirlooms, trophies, and wedding rings to the government.

In the wake of the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis, the Korean government launched a national gold drive, asking citizens to sell their possessions for cheap to the government. The state subsequently resold the collected gold at market price to raise funds and pay off the country’s soaring international debt.

A teenager at the time, Hur watched the television enrapt, seeking to understand what motivated these people to sacrifice for their state. South Korea was a very young democracy at the time. As a democracy scholar today, Hur understands that financial crises are one of the top predictors of democratic breakdown shortly after transition. In the face of these sobering prospects, and amidst a financial crisis that incurred personal hardship to many families, people still lined up.

“Watching this as a young person was really moving,” said Hur. “It sparked in me so many questions. Why would people do this? What makes citizens feel that level of moral obligation to be a good citizen? Being a good citizen when things are going well is easy; being a good citizen and upholding that commitment when it comes at a personal cost, that’s another thing.”

National Stories in the Democratic State

Since then, Hur has been curious about what motivates a sense of duty and sacrifice in a nation’s people. In her work, she focuses on the intersections of nationalism, democracy, and ideas of political loyalty and civic duty.

Her interest in nationalism stems from a similarly personal source. Hur was born in South Korea. Her father was a civil servant, and her family moved between South Korea and the United States several times during her childhood, making it hard for her to put down roots.

“This was before people had text or Whatsapp. To send an email you had to dial up,” said Hur. “It was tough growing up, and it really made me think hard about what belonging means. A sense of belonging, when felt wholly and deeply, motivated loyalty beyond what was rationally expected.”

“For me, it was a story of finding my tribe wherever I went. When I did, it provided this intrinsic sense of attachment and gratitude,” she added. “It made me viscerally experience both the power of belonging and the cost of exclusion. I was on the outskirts much of the time socially. I would come to the U.S. and be too Korean, and when I'd go back to Korea, I’d be too American. That really helped me understand belonging and exclusion as two sides of the same coin.”

These lines of inquiry came together in her book, Narratives of Civic Duty: How National Stories Shape Democracy in Asia. The book made waves, winning the 2023 Robert A. Dahl Award for the best book on democracy by an untenured scholar from the American Political Science Association. Hur investigated the civic duties to vote, pay taxes, and complete military service by comparing South Korea and Taiwan, nations that are often seen as parallel cases. While there are striking similarities in their paths to democratization, she notes that in terms of nation building, these are cases where the national political elites made very different strategic choices after gaining independence.

“South Korea is a case where nation and state are very much homogenous and tied together,” said Hur. “Taiwan is equally racially homogenous, but it's a case where understandings of nation became bifurcated through the democratization process; it's a case where under a single state, you have essentially two different imaginations of what the nation is. That creates, through the story that I've told, a lot of problems for motivating things like civic duty in the name of nation, because citizens are fundamentally divided on what that nation is.”

These national stories have important implications for contemporary politics in the region, something she plans to study and teach while at The Fletcher School. 

“Democracies are not these identity neutral philosophies,” she added. “They are living political communities that are intimately tied to specific ideas of nationhood and who belongs to that nation. Understanding that identity landscape will be key to understanding the future security and democracy challenges in the Asia region.”

A Personal Journey

Hur brings her newest research interests to the Fletcher community. Currently, she’s examining migrant integration from a nation-building perspective, asking how people might reimagine existing national boundaries to be more porous, fluid, and inclusive. Her main case study is South Korea, a state she often sees hailed worldwide as the posterchild for ethnic nationalism. Strong flavors of ethnic nationalism, coupled with declining birthrates and aging populations throughout East Asia, present critical welfare and stability challenges for regional democracies, many of which are confronting an era of migration for the first time.

For Hur, working in the field never ceases to be interesting.

“In a lot of ways, my research is very personal, and that’s why I think it’s so fun and meaningful. There’s not a single day that I feel like it’s work because it’s very much part of my own identity journey,” she said.

“If you look at the evolution of my work, it tells a personal story of trying to seek belonging and to understand and hopefully alleviate identity conflict for others in situations of exclusion.”

Read more about Fletcher’s Comparative and Regional Studies field of study.