English fever and coffee: Transient cosmopolitanism and the rising cost of distinction

Nathaniel Ming Curran, Michael Chesnut

Research output: Journal article publicationJournal articleAcademic researchpeer-review


This article examines the intersection of English and coffee in Seoul, South Korea, in order to document how distinction (ala Bourdieu, 1984/2008) functions under the prevailing conditions of neoliberalism. A mere two decades after Starbucks first opened in Korea, high-end specialty coffee shops proliferate. Drawing on photographs of the exteriors, interiors, and menus from 89 coffee shops in the trendy Seongsu-dong neighborhood in Seoul, we examine how coffee shops deploy English (in addition to or instead of Korean) in their signage, and how this deployment differs by type of coffee shop. We argue that English and coffee interact in a complex process of dual distinction. The coffee shops brand themselves as cosmopolitan and simultaneously offer the customers the distinction of demonstrating themselves knowledgeable about/proficient in both coffee and English. We explain this dual distinction in terms of the extreme competitiveness occasioned by neoliberalism in the aftermath of the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis. We conclude by suggesting the notion of “transient cosmopolitanism” as a way to understand specialty coffee shops, which we argue are crucial sites for understanding the contemporary subjectivities occasioned by the dominance of neoliberalism.

Original languageEnglish
JournalJournal of Consumer Culture
Publication statusAccepted/In press - 2021


  • Bourdieu
  • class
  • cultural capital
  • Language
  • neoliberalism

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Business and International Management
  • Social Psychology
  • Arts and Humanities (miscellaneous)
  • Sociology and Political Science
  • Economics and Econometrics
  • Marketing

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