Abstract How do women make sense of marriages that start with payments and brokers? This study explores the sustenance of connected lives through relational work by analyzing how women from Asia who marry South Korean men in transnationally brokered marriages understand money and marriage. Evidence from 31 in-depth interviews elucidates the different ways in which women manage their social and economic relations in their home country and their destination country, and how the negotiation of those ties impacts marriage decisions and experiences. The case extends our understanding of relational work by uncovering its dynamic nature as women’s changing expectations reconfigure their relations with family, brokers and husbands, and, in turn, reformulate their monetary practices. Examining women’s relational work also reveals micro-processes that underlie macro-level trends in the flow of money, information and people in Asia, lending an understanding of broader transnational processes. 1. Introduction How do women make sense of marriages that start with payments and brokers? Using the case of foreign women married to men in South Korea (herein after, Korea), this study examines transnationally brokered marriages (TBM) that typically involve men paying brokerage fees for finding their wives. Analyzing empirical evidence from 31 in-depth interviews with wives in TBM through the connected lives framework (Zelizer, 2005) and relational work (Zelizer, 2012; Bandelj, 2012, 2016) elucidates why women seek marriage brokers and how the act of paying to find a partner shapes the ensuing intimate bond. Rather than simply showing that different kinds of moneys are matched with different relations, this study advances our understanding of relational work by empirically substantiating its dynamic nature and identifying what makes this process dynamic. While previous studies apply relational work in ranging contexts, they rarely showcase the dynamic processes entailed in it. Focusing on women’s ties with family in their home country, with commercial and personal marriage brokers, and the relationships that form with husbands who use brokerage services to find their wives, I argue that changing expectations reconfigure relationships and reformulate economic practices. By linking individual-level experiences to a broader social context, I also show that the intersection of intimacy and economy at the micro-level of TMB lends a greater understanding of transnational processes in Asia. 2. Theoretical underpinnings of the relations and money nexus Scholars examine the intersection of intimacy and economy in diverging analytical viewpoints (for review, see Ertman, 2009, and Bandelj et al., 2015), and transnationally brokered marriage is no exception. Reductionist perspectives regard marriage decisions as a rational exchange for optimal economic benefit in the marriage market (Wang and Chang, 2002; Wang, 2010), none too different from other markets. The marriage process entails profit-seeking brokers, competitive pricing of female body and labor, and decision-making based on supply and demand for wives (Wang and Chang, 2002). With money calculated in this fashion, TBM is conceived as an extreme form of economic rationalization. Commodification theorists suggest that markets and intimacy cannot exist without contamination, and that market views will eventually crowd out non-market elements (Radin, 1996). Indeed, global inequalities that position men and women on unequal grounds do not preclude negative consequences for encroaching intimate spaces with market practices (Newsome, 2007). Ertman (2015) documents, however, that marriage already entails deeply embedded elements of exchange in the relationship. Some studies that illuminate women’s experiences in marriage migration and brokered marriages reveal the complexities in the co-existence of economy and intimacy (Faier, 2007; Constable, 2009; Hoang, 2013; Zug, 2014; Tseng, 2015) in those relationships. These studies affirm that the connected lives framework, which acknowledges economy and intimacy as co-constitutive whereby one shapes the other, can help to elucidate how these interwoven pieces reinforce one another. Relational work captures a mechanism that sustains connected lives and refers to a process whereby individuals try to create appropriate matches between their social ties, economic transactions and media of exchange (Zelizer, 2012). Bandelj (2012, 2016) broadens the concept to include a more general dynamic process through which people create, negotiate and sometimes dissolve socioeconomic relations. Empirical applications of relational work vary from innovation work (Montanari et el., 2016), entertainment work (Mears, 2015), egg donating (Haylett, 2012), and tithing (Garcia, 2014) to organizational giving (Lainer-Vos, 2014), university–industry relationships (Biscotti et al., 2012), and interorganizational embeddedness (Whitford, 2012). Montanari et al. (2016) frames innovation, not as an individual effort, but as a result of a series of relational work. Among artists, relationships that they create and manage with organizations and contract-based employers become important spaces where artistic innovations emerge (Montanari et al., 2016). The specific application of relational work reveals the content of socioeconomic ties and accounts for ways in which money unbinds from work. Women in VIP entertainment, for instance, engage in free labor for club promoters whose financial gains hinge on women’s presence at party venues (Mears, 2015). Instead of understanding their free labor as self-exploitation, women articulate their work as leisure and the working relationship between themselves and their brokers, or club promoters, as friendships cemented with reciprocity and obligations from the promoters’ gift giving (Mears, 2015). Meanwhile, relational expectations may also unbind money from morals as Haylett’s study (2012) highlights that payments in intimate ties need not be viewed negatively. In the case of egg donors and in vitro fertilization, couples making bigger financial investments in conceiving were regarded as potentially better parents (Haylett, 2012). Surrogacy can be understood in similar ways. Though Berend (2012) does not use the term relational work, surrogate mothers desire to create lasting relationships with couples for whom they carry the baby and reference their action as altruistic giving. Surrogate mothers essentially engage in relational work to understand their relations with couples as interpersonal rather than economic and their actions as gift-giving. Garcia (2014) expands on relational work by extending the concept to human and non-human interactions such as the act of tithing in religious contexts. In doing so, he shows how money functions in sacred religious spaces through individual relational work that frames faith and tithing as reaffirming of each other. Money in the form of tithes symbolizes trust that individuals have in religion and religious figures, and therefore, ‘a measure of faith’ (Garcia, 2014, p. 645) where more money means more trust. While scholars apply relational work to understand individual-level behaviors and actions, the concept is also applied to understand organizational action, such as organizational effort in gift giving and institutional building (Lainer-Vos, 2014) and university–industry relations in academic and commercial research and development partnerships (Biscotti et al., 2012). Interviews with managers at original equipment manufacturers also reveal the complementary aspects of embeddedness and relational work as conceptual tools (Whitford, 2012). Previous research shows the ways in which individuals and organizations engage in relational work through the matching of relationships, transactions and media of exchange. However, empirical studies fall short of elucidating the dynamism of relational work that Bandelj (2016) highlights, in her theoretical statement, arguing that relational work is a dynamic process of negotiating social/economic relations. Marriage brokering, marriage migration, and their complexities (Faier, 2007; Constable, 2009; Zug, 2014; Tseng, 2015) present TBM as a fruitful research site to enhance our understanding of relational work, in particular its dynamic nature. This is because women’s negotiation of various socioeconomic ties with families in their countries of origin, with brokers that facilitate the TBM, and with their husbands and family ties they forge in the host country all reveal how women’s changing life circumstances over time reconfigure the kinds of monetary practices they engage in. Examining the range of experiences of women who marry through TBM, therefore, helps to highlight the dynamic aspects entailed in relational work, and how this sustains their connected lives of intimacy and economy. 3. Background of transnational marriage in Asia International marriages en masse surfaced during the post-World War II period when soldiers from Europe and the US married women from war-torn countries and brought them back home. In the US, the War Brides Act was passed in 1945 and immigration law changed in 1952 to allow Asian wives of American soldiers to enter the US at a time when migration from Asia to the US was restricted (Yuh, 2005). Commercially brokered marriages became popular thereafter when women from the Philippines, Vietnam and the former Soviet Union arrived in the US through mail-order-bride catalogues and, more recently, through internet matchmaking and marriage tours (Robinson, 2007; Kim, 2009). Within this gendered migration (Chun, 1996; Constable 2009), US mail-order brides were estimated to be 9500–14 500 per year (Newsome, 2007). In the last few decades, however, migration patterns shifted as Asian countries grew in wealth. Cities such as Phnom Penh have been undergoing rapid urban development and revival through Asian investors from Korea, Malaysia and Singapore since the 1990s (Nam, 2009). Prior to the 2008 financial crisis, Western countries such as Canada and the US were the largest FDI stakeholders in Vietnam. After 2008, Eastern countries such as Korea, Taiwan and Japan became Vietnam’s top investors (GSO Vietnam, 2011). Simultaneously, Singapore, Hong Kong and Shanghai rose as leading global cities while New York and London struggled (Ong, 2011). In sex work, an industry intimately linked to business deals and money circulation, Asian businessmen displaced Western men as the highest-paying clientele (Hoang, 2015). The prominence of strong Asian economies turned countries such as Japan, Taiwan and Korea into new marriage destinations for women (Jones and Shen, 2008; Wang, 2010), and demographic changes resulted (Jones and Shen, 2008; Bélanger et al., 2010). Marriage between Japanese men and women from the Philippines, China and Korea increased in the 1970s (Morgan and Hoffmann, 2007). In 1991, 20 000 marriages took place between Filipinas and Japanese men (Tolentino, 1996). In Taiwan, marriage between Taiwanese men and non-resident women accounted for 31.9% of the marriages in 2003 (Wang, 2010). However, countries began restricting their marriage migration laws with growing concerns around the legitimacy and viability of commercial brokering and their resulting marriages. For example, the US tightened its marriage migration regulations through the International Marriage Brokering Act (Newsome, 2007), while Taiwan prohibited business registrations for marriage brokerage (Tseng, 2015). Sending countries such as the Philippines (Lloyd, 2000) also outlawed international marriage brokering. The number of Taiwanese men marrying foreign wives fell subsequently from over 48 000 in 2003 to over 18 000 in 2009 (Tseng, 2015). Marriage with wives from China, Vietnam, Indonesia and Thailand continued (Tseng, 2015), however, suggesting that commercial agencies went underground. Meanwhile, Korea underwent dramatic changes. It transformed from one of the world’s poorest countries in the world after World War II and the Korean War with GDP per capita of $155.6 (US) in 1960 which remained under $10 000 until 1994 and peaking in 2014 near $28 000 (World Bank, 2016). As its economy developed, Korea shifted from a country with war brides migrating to the US (Yuh, 2005) and women migrating to Japan for marriage until the 1990s (Morgan and Hoffmann, 2007) to a wife receiving country since then (Freeman, 2001; Kim, 2009). The Korean government initiated marriage brokering in the early 1990s to recruit wives for rural bachelors (Kim, 2009). Until 1995, the number of international marriages in Korea remained below 7000, accounting for less than 2% of all marriages. By 2004, the number exceeded 43 000, accounting for over 11% of all marriages (Yuh, 2005). By 2007, a reported 40% of all farmers in Korea were married to foreign brides (Freeman, 2001, p. 49), though 75% of foreign wives married to Korean men actually live in metropolitan Seoul and other urban regions (KOSTAT, 2008). From 2005 to 2012, the number of marriages between Koreans and foreign spouses, most of whom are female, surpassed 280 000 (MOGEF, 2013). While economic partnerships between Korea and other Asian countries contributed to TBM (Bélanger et al., 2010; Bélanger and Linh, 2011), historical connections between women’s countries and Korea from the Korean diaspora (Freeman, 2001; Lee et al., 2006) and the Unification Church’s effort to marry its members in Korea and other parts of Asia (Choo, 2013) further added to the number of foreign wives marrying Korean men. Since the early 2000s, scholars also document the burgeoning influence of Korean popular culture across Asia, Europe and the Americas (Vu and Lee 2013; Marinescu 2014). Korean soap operas (K-dramas), popular music, and film have become representations and reflections of Korea’s economic development. For women in neighboring Asian countries, Korea became ‘the new France’ (Hoang, 2015, p. 133) as they sought Korean fashion and beauty products to look like Korean celebrities. K-dramas had an impact on Vietnamese women’s marriage desires (Vu and Lee, 2013). In Japan, matchmaking parties have sprung up as an increasing number of Japanese women romanticized marrying Korean men (Takeda, 2014). Korean popular culture became a critical vehicle for cultivating and transporting the country’s modern image to various regions across the globe (Marinescu, 2014). The Korean government set up multicultural centers in response to the growing population of migrant wives, providing a range of services to facilitate their transition with emphasis on social and cultural incorporation. To date, over 200 operate across the country. The centers additionally offer legal provisions that protect women in important ways, as legally protected women are more likely to report abusive relationships than undocumented migrants, for example (Zug, 2014). This is unlike other destination countries such as Taiwan that have been slower with immigrant incorporation efforts (Hsia, 2006; Lan, 2008). These developments stage Korea, a country that transformed from a migrant sending country to a destination country, as a strategic site for exploring women’s understanding of money, marriage and migration through their relational work in TBM and connecting them to broader trends in the flow of money, information and people in Asia. 4. Data and methods This study uses interview data from 31 foreign women who married Korean men and reside in Korea. Data were collected in urban, suburban, and rural areas of Korea in the summer and fall of 2014. To identify migrant wives married to Korean men, I initially approached personal contacts and multicultural family centers. With services available in 13 languages, including Chinese, Japanese, Tagalog, Uzbek, Russian, Thai, Vietnamese and Mongolian, these centers offer language and cooking courses as well as instrumental services such as interpretation, document translation, economic aid and legal aid. The organizations furthermore provide spaces for women’s social gatherings, thus attracting many marriage migrants to these locations. With more migrant wives residing in Seoul, finding participants in Seoul was easier than in rural parts of Korea. Contacts in the offices helped with the initial recruiting of wives who use their services, and I met some of these women after events or group meetings. I further diversified the interview group with purposive sampling by additionally contacting international migrant worker’s offices and women’s rights organizations where women can express their grievances and receive low-cost or pro-bono legal advice, services and counseling. These organizations connected me to divorced women or women in potentially negative relationships. I collaborated with migrant women themselves or Korean women who work in related organizations in the earliest stages of the research to identify relevant issues that need attention, develop appropriate strategies to ensure rapport during the interview process, pre-screen women based on language proficiency and coordinate scheduling. Interviewees also made referrals to other women whom they know, allowing me to contact them by phone. The referrals helped to include women who do not use organizational services or resources, and therefore, potentially capture a wider range of experiences. The interview participants are not representative of all marriage migrant women in Korea. However, reaching out to organizations that offer distinctly different programs and services, in addition to the referrals, enabled me to diversify the sample among dimensions of employment status, marital status and economic status, for example, to collect more varied experiences. Given my language skills as the interviewer, women had to exhibit proficiency in either Korean or English. This language criterion introduces sample bias toward women who have spent longer time in Korea or had sufficient free time to gain proficiency in Korean, rather than toward newly-married migrant women. Because some questions require women to provide retrospective accounts, their reconstructions of the past and memory relapses may introduce reconstructed memories (Snow and Machalek, 1983). Nevertheless, current narratives that incorporate the past (Polletta et al., 2013) should not be disregarded because they shaped women’s current conditions. Finally, this study recognizes that social desirability biases may motivate women to tell more optimistic accounts, although given the opportunity to have someone listen to their life stories may also contribute to honest revelation of their experiences, even to a stranger (Morrill et al., 2007). I introduced myself to the interviewees as a student researcher from the US. Disclosure of my family’s immigration history and my parents’ difficulties as adult immigrants encouraged women to speak of their own experiences and challenges. Women were ensured of anonymity and informed of their freedom to terminate their participation at any point, and interviews began after women gave their verbal consent in either English or Korean. Semi-structured life-course interviews lasted approximately one hour to one hour and a half. The nature of the interviews allowed access to experiences typically hard to capture with surveys. Women were asked to describe their lives prior to marriage along with their current circumstances and the nature of their relationships tied to financial matters such as remittances and household budgeting. The interviews took place in environments familiar to the women, including private meeting rooms in community buildings, workplaces, or small coffee shops in the women’s residential neighborhoods. All interviews were conducted one-on-one and in-person, except for one woman who brought a friend along for interpretative support. With permission, all interviews were audio-taped and transcribed verbatim. Interviews requiring translation into English were selectively done in sections based on their relevance to research themes emerging from the data. Where appropriate, pseudonyms were used to protect interviewee identity. Once the interviews were complete, some women expressed relief and appreciation for being able to talk about their stories. Others likened the interview to a confession. Although findings from the sample cannot be generalized to all transnational marriages, stories that women tell offer fruitful insight into how women manage their social relations and why some women may even experience marital satisfactions contrary to common assumptions. 4.1 Sample Of the 31 interviewees, two were divorced. Interviewees came from Vietnam (15), China (6), the Philippines (5), Mongolia (2), and one each from Japan, Cambodia and Thailand, and they resided in urban, suburban and rural parts of Korea. The sample generally reflects the national composition wherein Chinese, Vietnamese and Filipinas make up greater proportions of marriage migrant women (MOGEF, 2013). Respondents differ across dimensions of age, spousal age gap, marriage duration, education level, employment status, husband’s employment status, and type of marriage arrangement (Table 1). Many resided in urban areas of Korea (KOSTAT, 2008) and most were married to non-farmers. The husbands’ occupations ranged from manual laborers and farmers to white-collar occupations including university lecturer, architect and government employees. Women’s occupations ranged from housewives and factory workers to translators and public speakers. Thirteen women married through commercial brokers, thirteen through unpaid brokers that include family, friends, and religious affiliations, and five through direct personal contact. Personal contact was possible for women who migrated to Korea in the 1990s through government-sponsored Industrial Trainee Programs between Korea and South East Asian countries (Cheng, 2011). The five wives who initially migrated for work and other wives who had migrant work experience elsewhere prior to marriage constitute a critical comparison group. The juxtaposition of the workers’ and wives’ experiences offers an opportunity to refine the understanding of relational work as it pertains to the changing expectations of family in the home country. Table 1. Statistics on sample of interviewees and migrant wife population in South Korea Sample National (%) Country of origin Vietnam 15 18.3 China 6 53.5 Philippines 5 5.3 Mongolia 2 1.2 Japan/Cambodia/Thailand 1 each 5.8/1.9/1.2 Broker Formal 13 Informal 13 Self 5 Years married Min/Max/Mean 3/24/7.6 Age at marriage Min/Max/Mean 20/31/24 Spousal age gap Min/Max/Mean 1/28/14.3 Education Less than Middle School 4 (12.9%) 10.3 Less than High School 4 (12.9%) 23.5 Less than College 11 (35.5%) 45.6 College or beyond 12 (38.7%) 20.5 Employment self No 10 (32.3%) Part-time/Full-time 21 (67.7%) Employment husband No 2 (6.5%) 10.2 Part-time/Full-time 29 (93.5%) 89.9 Sample National (%) Country of origin Vietnam 15 18.3 China 6 53.5 Philippines 5 5.3 Mongolia 2 1.2 Japan/Cambodia/Thailand 1 each 5.8/1.9/1.2 Broker Formal 13 Informal 13 Self 5 Years married Min/Max/Mean 3/24/7.6 Age at marriage Min/Max/Mean 20/31/24 Spousal age gap Min/Max/Mean 1/28/14.3 Education Less than Middle School 4 (12.9%) 10.3 Less than High School 4 (12.9%) 23.5 Less than College 11 (35.5%) 45.6 College or beyond 12 (38.7%) 20.5 Employment self No 10 (32.3%) Part-time/Full-time 21 (67.7%) Employment husband No 2 (6.5%) 10.2 Part-time/Full-time 29 (93.5%) 89.9 The second column of numbers indicate national percentages from the national statistics reported by the MOGEF (2013). Table 1. Statistics on sample of interviewees and migrant wife population in South Korea Sample National (%) Country of origin Vietnam 15 18.3 China 6 53.5 Philippines 5 5.3 Mongolia 2 1.2 Japan/Cambodia/Thailand 1 each 5.8/1.9/1.2 Broker Formal 13 Informal 13 Self 5 Years married Min/Max/Mean 3/24/7.6 Age at marriage Min/Max/Mean 20/31/24 Spousal age gap Min/Max/Mean 1/28/14.3 Education Less than Middle School 4 (12.9%) 10.3 Less than High School 4 (12.9%) 23.5 Less than College 11 (35.5%) 45.6 College or beyond 12 (38.7%) 20.5 Employment self No 10 (32.3%) Part-time/Full-time 21 (67.7%) Employment husband No 2 (6.5%) 10.2 Part-time/Full-time 29 (93.5%) 89.9 Sample National (%) Country of origin Vietnam 15 18.3 China 6 53.5 Philippines 5 5.3 Mongolia 2 1.2 Japan/Cambodia/Thailand 1 each 5.8/1.9/1.2 Broker Formal 13 Informal 13 Self 5 Years married Min/Max/Mean 3/24/7.6 Age at marriage Min/Max/Mean 20/31/24 Spousal age gap Min/Max/Mean 1/28/14.3 Education Less than Middle School 4 (12.9%) 10.3 Less than High School 4 (12.9%) 23.5 Less than College 11 (35.5%) 45.6 College or beyond 12 (38.7%) 20.5 Employment self No 10 (32.3%) Part-time/Full-time 21 (67.7%) Employment husband No 2 (6.5%) 10.2 Part-time/Full-time 29 (93.5%) 89.9 The second column of numbers indicate national percentages from the national statistics reported by the MOGEF (2013). 5. Findings The matchmaking, the brokering processes and the marriage experiences reveal that women’s decisions and actions entail a complex interplay between economy and intimacy as women manage various relationships and economic activities sustaining those ties. Evidence from this study reveals that women constantly negotiate economic transactions and social ties as part of their relational work (Zelizer, 2012; Bandelj, 2012; 2016) in which what appears as an economic decision at the macro-level involves constructing different emotional and intimate meanings to them at the individual level. As women’s life circumstances and family expectations shift over time, remittances sent to their home countries take on a different meaning and name, either as obligations or gifts. Brokers come in two forms, commercial or personal, and serve as important information channels about marriage and life in Korea. However, women have different expectations about the role that the brokers play and conceive differently of the payments these brokers receive. Though marriages began with payments and brokers, women engage in relational work to integrate the payments as integral to their marital relations and build their marital bond with their husbands. 5.1 Family ties and economic responsibilities toward the home country Women’s familial ties and economic obligations embedded in those ties impact the decision to look abroad for marriage. Among women from lower economic status, the desire to marry stemmed from their hope of improving familial economic conditions. Marriage offers this hope because stories of families benefitting from daughters married to foreign men abound in poorer communities. Such stories convinced Bach Yen that TBM would alleviate her parents’ financial troubles. Back then, I just wanted to help my Vietnamese mother and father by marrying … I thought that if I marry and move to Korea, then I could help my parents, so I married to help them. Bach Yen, Vietnam Yet, reasons are multifaceted and more complex than simply wanting to help family. Although Bach Yen described her marriage decision as importantly tied to parental well-being, lack of education also limited her employment opportunities. Consequently, marriage was an attractive alternative to employment. For four of the women, illness in the family aggravated financial difficulties and required them to quit school prematurely. Families expected women to contribute to household resources, including money and time. Therefore, women not only cared for the ailing family member but also earned wages at a young age. Women as young as 11 years earned money through babysitting, restaurant work, and domestic work. My mother had been sick for a long time, and the elders in the neighborhood said my mother has two daughters. At least one of us should [marry abroad], but my older sister refused because she had a boyfriend. My mother never told me directly, but I could feel that she wanted me to [marry abroad]… I had no other choice, and I resented her for that. Linh, Vietnam Expectation for daughters to contribute to family are evident in Linh’s story. Along with economic obligations to her parents, however, Lihn felt an emotional responsibility to her sister as well. Of the two daughters in the family, Lihn married abroad because she felt as though she had no other choice as her sister already had a boyfriend. While brokered marriages enable women to manage their economic and emotional obligations to family, relational work also entails dissolving ties. Ahn Dao had a mother whose large debt fueled conflict between mother and daughter. Once Ahn Dao’s husband-to-be paid off the debt as part of his payment for the brokered marriage, Ahn Dao felt that she fully paid off her emotional and economic obligations to her mother, and with the transaction complete, she could finally break the family tie. In this case, Ahn Dao used marriage to permanently break familial ties laden with emotional and financial troubles. My mother told me that she owed too much [money] and couldn’t pay it all back … When life was hard, all my mother could say was, “let’s poison ourselves to death.” That’s why I just left and married. I met my husband through a marriage agency. I didn’t think twice about it … I don’t know how much my husband paid, but he paid more because I couldn’t leave without my mother’s debt unpaid. Ahn Dao, Vietnam Marriage and migration create an opportunity for women to renegotiate the content of their familial ties and economic obligations because expectations about the women’s emotional and economic obligations change. Once married and living in Korea, many women experience changes in the nature of their relationship with family members back in the home country. Wives in this study with prior migrant work experience provide examples of what that renegotiation entails. I went to Brunei. It was good money because I worked in an office. Not factory work. I sent money every month for many years! But you know, I don’t do that anymore. Raising children in Korea is expensive! I send gifts to my parents when it’s their birthday or holidays like New Years. Tala, Philippines As Tala highlights, families expect remittances from daughters when they migrate for work. However, expectations shift when daughters migrate for marriage. While women still send money, it is neither as frequent nor regularly scheduled. Women send sums of money that they refer to as gifts rather than remittances. These are gifts because family members receive them on special occasions such as birthdays and holidays, days that mark meaningful celebrations and remind daughters of their familial ties. Similar to Tala, Huong also worked as a migrant worker prior to marriage. Working in a factory, her employer provided basic housing, food, and clothing. With few expenditures, she sent most of her earnings back home. Since marriage, however, she stopped sending remittances on a regular basis because she now had her own family to take care of. In fact, having children and entering motherhood further help women to redefine their relationships with family in the home country and rearrangement of financial resources and obligations. As Linh’s situation also shows, women’s ability to send remittances becomes limited once they have children as childrearing is expensive. Kin in the home country understand that circumstances change and no longer expect economic contributions in the form of regular remittances. Sometimes I do [send money] when things get really bad at home or there’s no money for my mother’s medication, I’d send 100, 000 won [$100]. I don’t do it too often. It depends on my own financial circumstances because raising children is expensive. Linh, Vietnam Financial difficulties and ailing family members, aggravated by limited education and employment prospects, motivate women to consider marrying abroad, but monetary needs alone do not sway their decision. Instead, women manage their family ties as daughters and sisters in relational spaces with economic and emotional obligations. In contrast, Ahn Dao’s relational work shows that women use economic aspects to dissolve social ties. Once married, women become wives and mothers themselves. With new roles, marriage allows them to renegotiate the nature of their ties with family in the home country as changing family expectations involve a reshaping of monetary practices. Women articulate money from migrant workers as remittances and economic obligations to family. In contrast, money to family in the country of origin from wives are gifts or special assistance money for emergencies such as unexpected hospital bills. Similar to the workers’ remittances, however, wives’ economic contributions also help families build new homes and open new businesses. These outcomes reaffirm the stories that circulate in women’s hometowns that marrying abroad creates significant economic changes in their home communities. 5.2 Brokers and service payments Women typically meet their foreign husband through commercial brokers (Wang and Chang, 2002), but interviewees in this study also reveal that personal brokers are commonplace, giving clues to how brokering continues in countries that ban for-profit international matchmaking. Brokers then come in two forms, commercial and personal, and while relational work with commercial brokers appears straightforward, relational work with personal brokers is more complex. This is because the relationship with commercial brokers typically ends once the transaction, or matchmaking, results in women’s marriage and migration to Korea. In contrast, women’s relationship with personal brokers often continue even after the match is made. Commercial brokers have an established enterprise with a facility and offer services from providing partner information, meeting locations, and interpreters to completing migration-related paperwork and making travel arrangements. Women commonly interact with ‘madams’ and ‘aunts’ suggesting that most of the commercial brokers are women. Phuong described a typical matching arrangement set by commercial brokers wherein the initial meeting to the ceremony happens within a few days. Five men sat on one side of the room and chose five of the fifty women they liked in the room. If we liked the men who selected us, we said yes. If we didn’t, we said no. Each man eventually had to choose one woman. I was chosen, and I agreed. I called my mother to tell her the news, and I married the next day. Then we had a two-day honeymoon because my husband could only stay for five days. Paperwork to go to Korea began as soon as he left, and I arrived just two months later. Phuong, Vietnam Phuong later explained that she felt embarrassed and humiliated to stand in front of the men, yet once chosen, she felt desirable and pretty. Phuong considers herself lucky to have married during her first visit because most women visit an agency multiple times before being chosen by a man. Expectations function importantly in TBM. Women who go through commercial brokers expect the brokers to make successful matches because they are paid for their services. In other words, women create relationships with commercial brokers because payments signal the brokers’ expertise and capacity to provide pertinent information about potential partners. Amparo, a college-educated woman, turned to professional help when it was time for her to marry at age 25. Seeing her married friends and male friends in her life, Amparo had little faith in a successful marriage outcome if she only tapped into her social networks. She was convinced that her odds for a successful marriage were better with a professional. My mother urged me to think about it … She’d ask, what kind of life will you have if you marry just any man without a job like your friends? But you know not all my friends were married to boys with no job, but most of them, yes. So maybe my mother was afraid that I would ruin my life that way … I was worried too. What if I marry a nobody without a job? So I decided to give it [a marriage agency] a try. Amparo, Philippines Taking advantage of Korean popular culture, commercial brokers also appear to engage in relational work in recent years by expanding their services that scintillate women’s imaginations about Korea. Some of the services include teaching women how to dress, apply Korean style makeup, and say affectionate phrases in Korean meant to attract Korean men. As Korean popular culture spread, such services help young women feel closer to the modernity and sophistication they see in K-dramas. Despite the high risks and uncertainties surrounding TBM, the brokers’ relational work raises the expectations and optimism among younger women about their future lives in Korea and, as Hahn reveals, the hope that the men they meet may resemble those in popular media. In addition to building expectations about the destination country, commercial brokers shape women’s expectations about their economic prospects. My husband was just an employee at a firm, but the broker said that he owned the firm. She told me that he would probably want me to help him as his secretary, but that wasn’t true. He wasn’t the owner. She lied to me, but I didn’t know until after I had gotten married. It was too late for me to change my mind then, but that didn’t matter anyway because my husband turned out to be a kind man. Duyen, Vietnam The commercial broker’s exaggeration or outright lie about the husband’s financial status highlights a number of important considerations. The broker assumed that higher social and financial status would be more attractive to women while Duyen’s reflection sheds light on the importance of character expectations as well. Duyen’s relational work with her husband in the next section elucidates how the couple overcame this discrepancy between expectations about their economic prospects and reality by redefining their goals and reformulating the economic aspects in the relationship. Meanwhile, the flip side brings up caveats that potentially dangerous situations could arise when false information is given to the women. While mild consequences include disappointment from unmet expectations, serious consequences such as abuse cannot be entirely eliminated. Because brokers do not always disclose all information and rather share it purposefully, some women turn to their own social networks, that is to personal brokers, to find information about TBM or concrete marriage candidates. Pre-established trust in the relationship between women and personal brokers enable women to regard TBM as a safe and reliable way to marry because personal brokers come from women’s own social networks. Personal brokers include cousins, aunts, in-laws and friends who married abroad themselves or have close family and friends who migrated for marriage. Therefore, women trust that the brokers will advocate for their best interest and expect them to do so, yet experiences show that personal brokers may fall short of expectations. Involvement of personal brokers poses potential complications because the broker is simultaneously a marriage broker and also a family member or a friend. This becomes evident when women’s expectations are unmet, and they must shift between negotiating with a broker and negotiating with family or friend depending on changing circumstances, or when the matchmaking transaction ends but the relationship continues. Trahn’s case illustrates dynamic relational work where an initial meeting with a man who would later become her husband was far from ideal. My aunt [mother’s younger sister] brought a Korean man home for our first meeting, but he didn’t look into my eyes at all! He looked grumpy, and he wasn’t interested in our conversations. I felt confident [about marriage] because I graduated from college. I thought I could marry anyone because of my degree, so an introduction to someone like him infuriated me. My aunt convinced me really hard to give him a chance. She even enlisted my sister’s help to change my mind. My degree aside, I had to give him another chance for my aunt’s sake. Trahn, Vietnam Though Trahn was disappointed with the man, she also felt offended because her aunt failed to see the value in her college degree. Elaborating that under different circumstances she could have easily said no to another meeting, Trahn believed that a college education should afford her more attractive marriage prospects. In other words, she treated her degree as currency. The situation, however, involved not just any broker but family, and Trahn could not simply refuse the match as it also meant discounting her aunt’s judgment. When Trahn gave in and met the man for subsequent dates, she saw him as ‘husband material’. By shifting the nature of her relationship with her personal broker from that of broker–client to aunt–niece, Trahn placed value in her aunt’s effort in the arrangement rather than calculating the value of her college degree. In some cases, women assess the worth of the ongoing relationship with their personal broker. Ruby, for instance, married through a personal broker and experienced dissatisfaction in her marriage but did not hold the broker responsible for the potentially incompatible matchmaking because she wanted to maintain their friendship. She [best friend] didn’t know that guy very well. Her husband knew him … My husband is good, but maybe he doesn’t love me or anything [sic] because we were not boyfriend and girlfriend … . She still doesn’t know so I’m not really that angry with my friend because it’s not like she wanted my life to be like this, to be miserable. So I don’t blame her. Ruby, Philippines Ruby’s best friend gave exaggerated descriptions about her eventual husband’s wealth and attractiveness, but Ruby did not seem to mind the deception on those matters. Instead, the quality of marital life that transpired from the arrangement bothered her with a discrepancy between the level of intimacy she expected in the marriage and reality. However, Ruby avoided confiding in her friend about the emotional distress, possibly for fear of damaging the friendship. Ruby also rationalized her decision to marry as a way to live closer to her best friend, sometimes placing marriage as a secondary reason for her migration throughout the interview. Moreover, she highlighted a number of ways in which she benefitted from having her friend nearby including receiving emotional support and language support. Ruby’s interaction with her personal broker shows that the relationship is ongoing, and she receives continued support in exchange for not straining the relationship by placing any blame for her marital unhappiness. Unlike short-lived relationships with commercial brokers that end once women arrive in Korea, women’s relationships with personal brokers are longer lasting and maintained even after marriage. Friends and family serving as personal marriage brokers lead co-ethnics to marriage and migration opportunities, and often as migrant wives themselves, personal brokers provide emotional and resource-based support beyond matchmaking services to the newer marriage migrants. Whereas women expect professional knowledge and expertise from their commercial brokers, women expect continued emotional and resource-based support from their personal brokers. Payments in brokerage services deserve attention. Although the monetary transaction in commercial brokering creates a market-like feature, dowries and matchmaking are time-old practices in some Asian cultures (Stockard, 2002). In TBM, men are typically responsible for fees incurred in the paid brokered process. Experiences of women who married through commercial brokers suggest that fees vary case-by-case. Factors accounting for the difference in service fees paid by the husband include interpreter fees, airfare for their future wife, visa-processing fees, and payments to free women from financial responsibilities, such as debt, that may prevent migration. One woman estimated that her husband paid $10 000 for the complete service. While women rarely pay, few brokers also extracted fees from the women in this study. Two service users, one from Vietnam and the other from China, paid a considerable amount to their broker. One wife from China paid $3000 and only after having talked to other women did she realize that she had an idiosyncratic experience for having paid a large service fee. Personal brokers also receive payments for their services though not in the form of service fees. One woman mentioned of her husband receiving a ‘family and friends discount’ for the matchmaking service rendered by her aunt. The woman called it a ‘family and friends discount’ because although her aunt did not have set fees for the matchmaking, her husband gave a sum of money as a token of appreciation. The woman estimated that her husband paid half the amount that he would have had to if he had gone through a commercial broker. More commonly, however, husbands gave smaller monetary gifts, paid for traveling and lodging fees when the personal brokers made trips to make the meeting arrangements, and paid for meals, rather than explicitly making service payments in a way of compensation. These interactions point out that couples accept commercial brokers’ service fees and monetary payments as appropriate in the spousal matching process, but offering outright compensation for the services rendered is not considered appropriate when personal brokers offer the service. With limited information about their potential husband, women rely on brokers, both commercial and personal, to form an idea of their future married life in Korea. As a result, brokers lay the foundation for women’s expectations about their marriage. This consequently impacts women’s relational work as they formulate how economic and intimate aspects of relationships will shape their marriage. Interestingly, women interpret men’s ability to pay commercial brokers large sums of money as a signal of their commitment to finding a wife and marry. In other words, women understand men who go through commercial brokers as engaging in relational work by using economic means and appropriate transactions to establish their marital relationship. Meanwhile, personal brokers, too, involve money and gift exchanges, and these tokens of appreciation help women maintain their existing social ties and receive on-going support. Therefore, women’s marriage outcomes are not necessarily contingent on the use of commercial brokers and payments. Akin to the ways in which money signals better parental qualities or deeper religious faith, men’s willingness to pay for marriage brokering signals their seriousness about the marriage for some women. Whether women use a commercial broker or a personal broker, then, does not dictate the quality of the relationship that unfolds, and compensation to commercial brokers is not somehow more damaging and corrosive to the relationship, compared to personal brokers. 5.3 ‘Love’ ties, money and husbands Men travel from abroad to meet potential wives, and it typically takes less than five days for the couple to meet and marry. Once married, men return to Korea and wait for their wives’ visa to be processed which may take anywhere from three to nine months. Contrary to assumptions that courtship and dating are absent among transnationally brokered couples, men and women use this waiting period to establish an emotional connection through frequent phone calls, text messages, and video chats, as in Hahn’s case. We talked on the phone for one to two hours every day … We didn’t even speak the same language! At the time, I just thought it was so nice. He learned how to say ‘I love you’ in Vietnamese. ‘I love you.’ He said that every single day. Hahn, Vietnam Language constraints often limit the extent of the couples’ dialogue, but both the wife and the husband put an effort to create their marital bond through daily interaction like Hahn and her husband. Though these interactions initially strike as romantic gestures, they importantly help couples to build an idea of how their married life will unfold. This was the case even for Trahn who was unhappy with her husband’s first impression and required her broker’s convincing to pursue the relationship. Her husband turned out to be kind, true to her aunt’s words, and his daily phone calls after work helped Trahn see him as a reliable and caring life partner. While romantic gestures have an important place in the marital bond, so does money. This is particularly true once women arrive in Korea. Kalianne from Cambodia who married through a commercial broker frequently articulated how money is intertwined with love. For instance, the couple planned to have a baby as soon as Kalianne arrived. However, when the couple had difficulty conceiving and their plan did not unfold as expected, Kalianne’s husband mobilized his economic resources. By going to the fertility clinic and investing in various remedies to conceive and create a family, the ways in which Kalianne’s husband spent money reaffirmed her emotional connections to him and assurances of their marital bond. Kalianne was also convinced of her husband’s love when he entrusted her with control of their household financials. By binding the meaning of money to marital commitment, trust, and love, Kalianne’s reflection of her marriage shows dynamic relational work at play. Prior to marriage, Duyen expected to work at her husband’s firm, but once she arrived in Korea, she soon discovered her broker’s deceit that her husband did not own a firm. Though Duyen communicated with her husband in the few months before her arrival, language barriers prevented her from learning the truth earlier. Despite the initial anger and disappointment from the unmet expectations, Duyen reflected that she overcame those feelings when her husband actively fostered her career aspirations by paying for her cosmetology classes. While learning Korean, Duyen developed an interest in cosmetology, and with her husband’s emotional and economic support, the couple developed a career path for Duyen to eventually work as a hairdresser. At the time of the interview, Duyen was preparing for a cosmetology licensing examination. Duyen did not feel confident about the examination because it is in Korean, but she felt confident about the strength of her marriage because the couple worked together to address Duyen’s expectations and aligned their resources to match the different circumstances. Kalianne and Duyen’s experiences show that couples may encounter discrepancies between their expectations and reality when their interactions move from the virtual space to face-to-face. As a result, once women arrive in their husband’s country, couples engage in relational work to renegotiate their expectations and reformulate the economic components in their spousal relationship. For some women, cohabitating with the in-laws adds further layer of complexity in the marital relationship and relational work with their spouse over time. For instance, Jou from China pointed to her father-in-law as a critical source of conflict in her marriage. Though she tried to cater to her father-in-law’s capricious ways, she recalled one specific event that changed everything. He [father-in-law] noticed that his fish tank was leaking and ordered me to buy another one, but I had no money back then. I didn’t even have a wallet, so I asked my husband to buy the fish tank on his way from home. But my father-in-law just became very angry and wanted the fish tank immediately. I tolerated him before, but I couldn’t stand it anymore … I got angry at him too for the first time and just left the house. Jou, China The event from a few years back remains crucial in Jou’s memory because, for the first time, she wanted to run away from home and the marriage. She loved her husband, but he went to work all day, leaving her at home with an emotionally abusive father-in-law who wielded his power through his control of household finances. Jou helped her father-in-law both at home and on the farmland that he owned, not expecting money for her work but also never receiving any compensation even after he made an income from her labor. Jou found the arrangement that left her economically dependent unfair. The situation changed since that day, however, when Jou’s husband found Jou waiting outside his workplace after the conflict, and he learned that she wanted to leave the marriage. He began to give an allowance to Jou and eventually convinced his parents to allow her to work for pay instead of working on his father’s farm without pay. With three years of work experience at the time of the interview, Jou had her own work to do and own money to spend, and this reformulation of economic practices sustains her marital relationship and happiness. Money aside, marriage is still regarded as something to be protected, valued, and as an intimate contract between husband and wife. Two divorcees in this study attributed lack of love as the reason for marriage dissolutions. Wang Yan specifically faulted her husband’s extramarital affair and emotional infidelity for their failed marriage. We’re married, but if the man sleeps with someone else, can things ever be the same again? Can the couple continue living together? They get a divorce. I don’t understand women who are ok with being married to cheaters. I wasn’t ok with it. Wang Yan, China Wang Yan was reluctant to discuss the recent dissolution of her marriage because feelings of hurt were still fresh in her mind. Throughout the divorce proceedings, she was aware of impending money problems, but emotional betrayal had greater weight than financial stability. In Wang Yan’s case, economic consequences did little to reshape her marriage outcome. With marital trust and commitment broken, economic security alone did not satisfy her marital expectations. To outsiders, love is not necessarily part of the equation in TBM. However, love in various forms of expressions and understanding through monetary exchanges and relational work becomes a meaningful part of the couples’ lives, irrespective of the fact that a monetary payment to marry is often the start of the relationship. 6. Discussion This article examined how economy and intimacy co-constitute and reinforce each other using the case of TBM in Korea with a focus on the wives’ relational work and their understanding of money and marriage. As daughters, clients, and wives, women’s negotiation of the exchanges in their various socioeconomic ties reveals the different ways in which individuals use economic transactions to sustain or dissolve intimate ties. Women’s stories reveal that happiness can also be found in commercially brokered marriages, and that arranged intimate relations have their own merit as women carefully interpret the meaning of the entailed payments and monetary exchanges. This does not suggest the absence of conflict and challenge. Rather, women negotiate their connected lives and intimate relations and often use monetary transfers to do so, sometimes reprioritizing existing ties and readjusting expectations, like in all intimate relationships. Whether women use commercial brokers or personal social ties is not as consequential, and payment is not necessarily detrimental to intimacy. Despite assumptions that love is absent in TBM, younger women with more recent migration experiences expect romance in marriage, pointing to Korean popular culture as sources of cultivating marital expectations with love and romance. The central theoretical focus of the study was how women engage in relational work, as relational work is proposed to be at the core of the co-constitution and reinforcement of intimacy and economy. The analysis of the narratives by women who described their life trajectories revealed the highly dynamic nature of relational work, as suggested by Bandelj (2016). While the women, their families, the brokers and their husbands negotiate appropriate matches between economic transactions, the media of exchange, and their social relationships, uncovering women’s changing expectations over time unveils just how dynamic relational work can be. Changes in existing ties with family in the home country, new intimate ties in Korea, and adjustments to make it in a new socio-cultural environment propel women to redefine their economic priorities and relationship ties. Admittedly, selecting a case with multicultural service centers that help to produce more positive marriage outcomes is something that is relatively unique to Korea. By offering language classes, culture lessons, skill-based courses, spaces for women’s social gatherings, translation and interpretation services, and legal advice, organizations are moving in the direction of regarding the women as immigrants and as wives, not victims of gendered migration or sex trafficking. Results may be different if the study were conducted in other countries that offer more or less services. Also, while various resources were used to diversify the sample, women in this study were still more integrated than populations that may have been overlooked and could potentially have more negative experiences. Therefore, findings of this study do not pertain to and cannot account for wives with more negative experiences of their TBM. This study also cannot pertain to runaway brides, wives or divorcees who return to their home country, as it only captures women who reside in Korea. While abuse cannot be eliminated as a factor in runaway bride cases, for the vast majority, as my findings reveal, marital experiences and satisfaction vary, and while not all TBM are successful in my sample, several offered glimpses of how lasting and even happy marriages are possible as couples continuously reconfigure economic aspects of ties to reshape the quality of their intimate relations. These limitations aside, the micro-level interactions of women, men and families impacted by TBM also lend an understanding of the broader transnational processes in Asia. Remittances move through multiple pathways, through migrant workers and migrant wives. As women become wives and mothers, relations with family in the home country are renegotiated in which financial responsibilities are less likely to be considered as obligations and more frequently take a form of gifts. Brokers come in two forms, commercial and personal, and women’s marital outcomes are not contingent on compensation payments, suggesting that monetized marriage markets are not necessarily toxic. Given that many commercial brokers are actually women, madams giving beauty tips to brides-to-be are seen as more than commercial matchmakers. Like K-dramas, commercial matchmakers are cultural products that keep alive imaginations of a modern world that Korea represents, particularly among the younger women in this study. Personal brokers come from wives’ own social networks and facilitate migration among friends and family. As social ties and migrations become increasingly institutionalized, personal brokers create migration chains between sending countries and receiving countries, thereby playing a meaningful role in the transnational movement of people and money. For migrant wives, these networks also have the potential to facilitate a smoother transition and adjustment into the husbands’ countries. Women generally experience improved socioeconomic status, but migration does not preclude downward mobility. Because wives come from diverse households with different financial and educational backgrounds, wives with professional careers prior to marriage experienced downward movement in the face of ethnic marginalization in Korea. I found this to be the case for two middle-class interviewees who were teachers prior to migration. While women may not endure financial hardships in Korea, their foreign origin, nevertheless, impacts their everyday experiences of prejudice and racism (Choe, 2012). This could be further explored as women make sense of their belonging and their relation to the host country. Interviewing husbands and brokers about their perspectives and relational work are other areas of potential research. On the whole, a close examination of TBM situated in the context of increasing transnational connections among Asian countries reveals that this form of marriage is constituted by a complex set of relationships and economic activities, which reconfigure and reformulate with women’s changing expectations. The socioeconomic ties that women dynamically negotiate unveil micro-processes that underlie broader trends in the flow of money, information and people. Funding This project was funded by the Newkirk Center for Science and Society at the University of California, Irvine. 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Socio-Economic Review – Oxford University Press
Published: Jan 2, 2018
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