Reflections from Amish 2016

Part of my research includes the collection of different perspectives of nutritional health and welfare from different kinds of people.  Though I work primarily with “modern” American farmers and veterinarians, I’m always interested in what different cultural groups have to say about human and animal health.  When I was completing my Master’s degree, for example, I focused more pointedly on the Amish community.  My research on animal health companies that work with the Amish largely inspired the kind of cultural/historical work I do today, and I continue to participate in events involving the community and its farmers.

amish conference
Brochure of conference, Elizabethtown College 2016.

From June 9th through the 11th I participated in Elizabethtown College’s International Amish Conference.  This year’s theme was “Continuity and Change: 50 Years of Amish Society,” based in part on the timeline of John Hostetler’s renowned book Amish Society (1963).   What is the benefit of taking part in such a specialized conference?  I think Steven Nolt’s opening plenary helped contextualize the significance of the Amish and our current interests in studying them.  The group at the publication of Amish Society, for example, was thought to be a dying culture.  Reviewers of Hostetler’s book noted how he was documenting the traces of a disappearing community.  This was because in 1963, Nolt noted, there were a documented 21,000 members of the Amish community in North America.  Things changed, though.  By 1993, 135,000 members were documented.  Today, there are an estimated 308,000 Amish members on the continent.

amish society
Amish Society (4th edition), 1993.

The Amish have been growing, and so has general and scholarly interest in them. Their growing visibility is somewhat to blame, partially from scholars like Hostetler and partially (more significantly, Nolt would argue) from popular media representations of them.  The 1985 crime thriller Witness is constantly cited as a particular point of departure (albeit, inaccurate in many parts) when Amish life was played out for the public.  Nolt cited other examples including other films and reality TV.  He did miss the important intervention made by Orange is the New Black with its third season flashback of Leanne, which touched on the consequences of adolescent experimentation held in some of these communities.   Regardless of this missed opportunity, his speech emphasized that the general public knows about and is fascinated with the Amish – and often we find ourselves pressing our outsider desires, ideals, and misconceptions onto the community.  Amish romance novels with innocent storylines and environmentalists taking up Amish farmers as poster children for environmental sustainability are just two ways this is illustrated.  As Donald Kraybill would note in his concluding plenary, we hold up a cultural mirror to ourselves and think about our own society’s changes when we think about and study the Amish.

Leanne orange is the new black
Screenshot from Orange is the New Black, Leanne Taylor flashback.  I was happy to see at the conference that there was a panel on Amish and the State, with one presenter who looked into underage drinking violations during Rumspringa.  It would have been nice to see more engagement with this popular take on the community in this panel or others.

There were some incredibly helpful *academic* ideas expressed throughout this conference (which I write about below), but for some (including myself to a degree) this was not enough.  I think the level of engagement and reflexivity needed in working with the Amish community could be improved, as it continues to be improved more generally in anthropological, sociological, and historical fields.  For example, I was surprised to hear when I asked if Amish scholars were implicated in any of the changes we are seeing in the community today (particularly the instability of categories and nuance between churches), that most scholars did not have an answer.

I was later approached by an Amish convert who assured me that scholars probably don’t make great changes, but I still wonder what consequences may be held in living with, researching, writing about, and promoting studies about Amish life.  I think these questions are often avoided because there is a sense of fragility that comes with working with and representing a community so dedicated to being separated from our larger world.  This is understandable and comparable to experiences held by academics who work with other culturally specific groups.  But I want to challenge this notion of fragility a bit, as it is perhaps only reflected within our own perceptions of this kind of lifestyle.  Who has the self-control nowadays to limit technology use, to be satisfied with community-based (usually only up to 8th grade) education, and to be fully devoted to a religion largely criticized socially and politically for its exclusionary history?  I feel many scholars look to Amish communities with a sense that this space *can’t* be stable, forgetting that many members struggle daily with the *same* physical, economic, and philosophical challenges as us, but with perseverance that now boasts over 300,000 strong.  Their support system is different, and perhaps we are envious of this system in a world where definitions, categories, and identities have become more ambiguous, multi-faceted, and unstable.  Nolt proposed this of the non-academic media-driven world around us, but it certainly extends to those of us dedicated to studying and documenting different histories, cultures, and communities.

**Note the comments by @easyEZ at the end of this LancasterOnline article.

Considering what academics might gain from Amish studies, I think Nolt, Kraybill, and others at the conference provided some really wonderful frames to think about many different academic topics that transcend Amish life and society.  I wanted to share some of my notes that might be useful for other readers and scholars.

  1. Satire is a “hypermodern” narrative. Nolt repeated this phrase a few times in his plenary.  He was interested in driving home examples of satire from talk show hosts like David Letterman who have poked fun at the Amish (or ourselves through the Amish) in the past.  What is wonderful about satire, Nolt expressed, is that it isn’t confined to one point of view.  Multiple points of view are revealed in a satirical narrative – and this is what makes it uniquely a device of our “hypermodern” age.  We are not confined to categories or even a singular perspective in how we express our feelings – we talk about, engage with, and essentially *are* many things at once.  This is what makes our contemporary age exciting and unstable, perhaps reflecting some of the longing we have for the seemingly more stable Amish community.  In actuality, the Amish are also experiencing similar in-betweens and multi-identities as we are; the anxiety is just expressed in different ways.


  1. Christianity may be too anthropocentric for environmentalism. This came up in an Environmental Stewardship seminar, which in ways challenged this notion that Amish farming “stewardship” is comparable to the goals held by environmental activists. Though the focus was on Christianity, and more specifically the Genesis narrative getting in the way of farmers caring more about non-human welfare, I thought this was an important frame of departure for those in environmental studies.  There are multiple ways of seeing the world that are human-centric, but the big question today seems to be, “how do we get past this?” However, *do* we need to get past human-centric notions to engage in meaningful behaviors that consider our non-human counterparts, including the climate we are altering?  In ways, Marilyn Loveless and David McConnell, who headed the seminar, implied that anthropocentrism isn’t the worst relationship one can have with nature.  The Amish community has a significantly smaller carbon footprint when compared to other groups, and this is in part due to their devotion to the Christian Bible.  The discussion left entangled notions of Christianity, environmentalism, and stewardship up in the air.  What “environmentalism” as a term triggered for Amish members, however (including liberal/immoral stances), should not be ignored.  Can’t wait for their book, which will cover these discussions in more depth!
faith in nature
The seminar reminded me of some of the arguments held in Dunlap’s Faith in Nature (2005) book.  Environmentalism has also borrowed a bit of language from Christianity in its history. How do we grapple with this?  Where do the Amish fit in this narrative?
  1. Externalizing v. internalizing rules is contested, informal “testing” of cultural structures is often more meaningful for individuals. In the technology panel of the conference, rules for adopting and using computers, the internet, and cellphones were investigated with the philosophy of technology in mind. I was happy to hear Gerald Mast cite McLuhan in his paper on internet-use between Amish orders (New v. Old Order).  For his paper and the others in his panel, understandings of technological control and extension (from body, mind, etc.) ran rampant through Amish debates about the use of these devices.  What all the panelists concluded was that testing was an important component of technological adoption, whether on part of individuals testing the Ordnung and its limits, or testing the tech itself and the dangers it could pose to the community.  I thought this finding showed an incredible, empirical nature to human decision-making and community building – the fact that “testing” was a meaningful process regardless of proximity to scientific practice (the Amish prefer “natural study” over “science” given its similar political underpinnings to “environmentalism”).  Testing was also shown to be an important internalized, informal process.  Formal notions of rule-making like written down rules or copies made of written down rules proved less meaningful to individuals when taking connections between technology and society seriously.  This is definitely something I want to keep in mind as I move forward as an educator.  Sometimes the informal spaces of learning are the ones where the most meaningful connections are made.




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