Intro. to Cultural Anthropology
On March 23, 1998, I carried out an interview and field observation to confirm a previous hypothesis on Amish social change and survival. I hypothesized, based on library research and personal experience, that Amish society was not static but dynamic and affected by many factors such as economics and cultural survival. In order to check the validity of my hypothesis I arranged to spend a full Sunday (March 23, 1998), with an Amish family. I attended church services at the Westhaven Amish-Mennonite Church in New Holland, Pennsylvania, and afterward spent the day observing and interviewing with an Amish dairy farmer named Aaron and his wife Anna. They have six children and live on a dairy farm in Lancaster County Pennsylvania, which is a large farming community. I met Aaron and his family roughly four years ago while in Lancaster County with my family and since then our families have remained in close contact. Thus, to do an ethnography on the Amish, my primary informant was Aaron, someone I was already comfortable speaking with.
What I found in the process of my observation and interview was that my hypothesis on social change and survival was greatly influenced by my own secular and scientific world view. I had also underplayed the importance of certain key ideas which help to explain Amish cultural ideologies, Amish survival, Amish social change, and dynamics. I found that religion, more than I had assumed, played a crucial role in Amish survival in America. The Amish family, I also found, contributed to the rate of Social Change. Prosperity, to my surprise, played a greater part in social change than I had previously thought. In addition, I was able to establish the accuracy of other research information on Amish society that I had collected and observed.
Realizing that vast cultural cleavages exist between Amish society and my own, I am not surprised, in retrospect, to find communications, as is probably common in most anthropological studies, was the most difficult aspect of my interview. The educational barrier that existed between myself and Aaron during the interview was one of the complications that I experienced. What I had not thought about before carrying out my interview with Aaron, was that he would not be familiar with Sociological, Anthropological, and Economic concepts, terms, and theories which I had learned through my college education. Aaron, like most Amish, only had formal education until eighth grade. Thus, when asking questions such as "does anabaptisim contribute to Amish cultural survival in America?" Aaron was unable to directly answer the question until I had modified or rephrased it. Variations in vocabulary also had to be overcome in order to establish a basis of fluid communication, where both Aaron and I could understand each other. Another problem I encountered was that the average Amish man and even "the English" (Amish term for Americans other than Amish) do not consciously think about or know why social change takes place or why their culture has survived. They do not share the same world view that a sociologist or anthropologist develops. Except for popularized social movements, more often than not, social change is taken for granted or ignored and allowed to take its course. Due to this, Aaron had some difficulty in answering my questions related to social change and cultural survival.
Not only are there language and cultural differences, but the way in which I have learned to communicate differs greatly from that of the Amish. While my family often discusses intellectual topics, feelings, etc, the Amish don't talk much. During and after my interview with Aaron, there was a small group of men sitting with each other. However, these men often just sit without talking for long periods of time. This is cultural, the Amish are not talkers but a people of action. They don't discuss theology, but they try to live it. This Amish characteristic to be reticent (there are the few yappers) influenced my interview in that I was trying to have an intellectual discussion to determine Amish social change with an individual who not only had not considered this but was unfamiliar with having long discussions or questioning why things are the way they are!
The next obstacle I encountered was that of introspection. How often do average members of a society question what they do and and why they do it? The truth is, unless that is your profession or you are naturally introspective, it most often won't occur. An anthropologist must deal with why a culture thinks it does what it does and then de-construct that view to form a more objective interpretation. Anthropologists are dealing with the cultures inside view and his own outside view. This is a similar problem that I encountered with the Amish. There are other particular issues that also apply to the Amish's lack of introspection. First of all, the Amish don't like to think of the self, to do so, they believe, is sinful. Without being able to think of one's self or culture, it is difficult to look back on yourself and relate it to your culture,or to analyze the cause of social change. The Amish glorify God, not the individual or culture. Thus, the Amish have dedicated their time to discovering God's will-- not causes of social change. To ask why social change occurs is contrary to the Amish's world where God is why . The problem that I have as a fledgling anthropologist is that I come from a secular world and belief while the Amish come from a world of sacred belief. I am culturally biased towards more objective, scientific, and secular theories, while the Amish are are religious. This was the greatest obstruction to my interview. I come from a world view where economics, cultural survival, and social forces are the cause of social change. For the Amish, change is part of God's plan. To ask why is absurd when it is God who makes and decides change! When science tries to study the sacred, we often find the limitations of science in understanding that which is ineffable. Given these issues, would I have been able to find more truth by observation alone and omitting the interview? I think the answer is no. Together, observing and interviewing, helped me understand more accurately these "strangers," even with the acknowledged limitations of my methodology.
For the first part of my ethnography, I spent two hours visiting and observing the Amish church services. During the sermon, the ministers main points was to reinforce the Amish belief that they are to live as "Strangers of the World" (Amish Sermon, 3/23/98). Immediately, I realized that I had left out an intriguing point from my previous paper which would help to explain Amish culture, survival in America, Amish social change, and dynamics. In my paper, "Cultural Change and Survival in Amish Society" (1998), I postulated that social and economic forces were why the Amish have remained separated from American society and the "world," but had forgotten the Biblical reasons. (another cultural bias). The reason, I observed, was Biblical and deeply rooted in the Amish's Christian beliefs.
"Hear my prayer, O Lord, listen to my cry for help; be not deaf to my weeping. For I dwell with you as an alien, a stranger, as all my fathers were ." (Psalm 39:12); "We are aliens and strangers in your sight, as were all our forefathers. Our days on earth are like a shadow, without hope ." (1 Chronicles 29:30); "Dear friends, I urge you as aliens and strangers in the world, to abstain from sinful desires, which war against your soul ." (1 Peter 2:11).
Here, in these Biblical phrases, we can finally understand why the Amish live a pious life of simplicity and why they consider themselves "strangers in the world". An explanation can be found in Psalm 39;12, which is interpreted by the Amish that they should live their lives on earth before God only as pilgrims and "strangers in the world". "Strangers of the world" is a vague statement so I will try to clarify it. A stranger is defined by the American Heritage Dictionary (1982, stranger ) as:
1. A person who is neither a friend nor an acquaintance; 2 . A foreigner, newcomer, or outsider; 3. A person who is unaccustomed to or unacquainted with something specified...4. A visitor or guest
The above definitions are how the Amish feel they relate to the world. The Amish believe that they are outsiders or visitors to this world; they are to stay removed from the evils of the world that surrounds them. By being pilgrims, the Amish mean that they are strangers on a journey to their ultimate destination. The material world to the Amish is "like a shadow with no hope" (1 Chronicles 24:30). From these and other Biblical phrases, the Amish have created a society that separates them from the material world-- a world that they are commanded to avoid in the Bible.
This Amish belief that they are strangers and pilgrims who must be separate from the secular world is not only the foundation of Amish culture, but it has also served as a method of shielding Amish culture from the influence of outside cultures and thus, has contributed to Amish survival in America. As the world around them has changed and turned to a world focused primarily on the acquisition of material goods, the Amish, because of their strong religious beliefs, have been, to some extent, able to avoid material temptation and shield themselves from the materialistic society that surrounds them. They focus on glorifying God, not themselves. To glorify themselves is to worship the "golden calf". Christianity binds the Amish together into a cohesive society. It provides a sense of belonging that, unlike other social forces, is hard to break. This sense of identity that is brought to Amish society by Christianity is greatly responsible for retaining Amish youth from the tempting culture that surrounds them.
In my interview with Aaron after the church services, I was able to find out even more about the effects of religion on Amish survival and change. Christianity, Aaron confirmed, serves as the foundation and guideline for Amish life as well as creating a strong set of beliefs and norms by which the Amish may identify themselves. The Amish have been able to utilize this social force and unity to preserve their culture. However, even though the Amish, through their religion, try to remain strangers from the world of "sin" that surrounds them, they tacitly recognize that Christianity alone is not enough to keep Amish society together. Aaron explained that the Amish have acknowledged the need to change in order to survive while surrounded by an incongruent culture. Not only do the Amish acknowledge that their culture must change over time, the Amish see it as inevitable . I would like to emphasize this statement because it is key to understanding the Amish society as well as showing that their culture is dynamic rather than static. What I did not realize, and left out of my previous report, was the importance of religion and the church in determining change. The church is the chosen governor of social change which According to Aaron, is in order for the church to make only changes that are consistent with Biblical principles. By allowing the church of the district to vote on matters of social change, the Amish insure a thoughtful, purposeful, and slow look into the effects of social change. According to the "Statement of Christian Doctrine and Standard of Practice" (Westhaven Amish Mennonite Church 1994, p.38):
We Also recognize that changes in application in our standards of practice may be needed as time goes on. Nevertheless, we believe that changes should not be hasty and should not be made without prayerful consideration. All proposals shall be voted on with a 75% vote of those present, for any change to be made.
As we see with the use of the words "changes should not be made without prayerful consideration", the Amish integrate social change into their religious practices. The rate in which change takes place is also not left to individuals or an anonymous mass society but again is decided through an intimate religious context. Social change exists in Amish society but, while the Amish condone social change when needed, most Amish, according to Aaron, would rather see society remain simple, with as little change from the past as possible, and focused on obedience to God, not worship of material possessions.
After finishing my conversation with Aaron about how social change comes about, I questioned him on why social change takes place, checking to see if his reasons corresponded with those that I hypothesized to be the reasons for social change. I first questioned him as to the effects of economics on Amish social change. Aaron responded that economics effected Amish society by creating occupations that were not related to farming but rather to carpentry, dry goods, and construction. This change from farming, according to Aaron, was caused by a growing population of Amish and the crowding of Lancaster County. Changes in occupation were not necessarily viewed as detrimental by the Amish as one might have supposed. When I asked Aaron why, he said it was because it created many new businesses that were owned and operated by other Amish. This allowed the Amish to go to other Amish for services instead of relying on non-Amish for services, in addition to creating more jobs with Amish employers.
While the forces of economic survival seemed to be one of the greatest causes of social change, the next factor that Aaron thought led to social change was completely unexpected. Prosperity and comfort, Aaron said, were a constant source of social change, both in his life and in those of many other Amish. As many Amish have moved beyond a subsistence economy, they are going through the same changes that most industrial societies have had to deal with--increasing efficiency, profits, and having extra time and leisure to deal with. While I tried to offer evidence in my last paper that the Amish were a dynamic culture rather than static, my reasons for social change were all in the macro-perspective, focused on large scale social forces such as the market place. According to Aaron, this was not the case in a growing number of Amish churches. While much of the mechanical equipment found on Aaron's farm is allowed for economic reasons, such things as diesel engines, electric ovens, electric stoves, electric refrigerators, telephones, and electric lights are the result of a desire to live a more comfortable life. What many Americans don't understand is that though the Amish don't focus their lives on the acquisition of material goods, because of their religious beliefs, they don't believe that they must live in abject poverty either. There is nothing (according to Aaron) in the Bible that says that one must live in poverty to live a godly life and be a "stranger of the world". The Amish don't believe in vanity and worldliness. They do, however, feel that if one works hard and lives a pious life that they may enjoy some comforts. That is, if it is not for vain purposes. Thus, some Amish groups, such as the New Order Amish (the order which Aaron has belonged to for much of his life), have allowed the use of electricity to power refrigerators, heat, ovens, and electric lights. Other changes such as the use of the telephone and fax are allowed because of the convenience that it brings to business and communication with far-away family members and friends. However, the Amish church works hard to keep prosperity and leisure from leading to distraction or focus on the material world.
That some social changes are mandated in the realm of the church, and other control of life and change is determined by the family at the micro level, is another factor that Aaron attributed to social change. For instance, while the church may require its Amish members to dress in a plain fashion, whether or not an Amish family uses buttons or snaps may be a family decision. Or in business, while the church may require business to be moderate and discreet, it is not mandated as to what profession you work in, whether carpentry or farming. There are many aspects of family life that are not controlled by the church. This allows for small but constant changes to be made in Amish society. The individual way that parents raise their children, which is largely outside the control of the church, can have a great impact on future social changes. Amish parents raise their children according to their own understanding of Biblical principles and random past experience. If parents lead a more progressive family, the children may grow up believing in less restrictions, join a less conservative church, or try to institute change. Where the child is educated, how, and for how many years, is also often not regulated by the Amish Church. This was a surprise to me. I had assumed that the church prohibited more than an eighth grade education but this appears not to be the truth. The many nuances of Amish life are not regulated by the church but rather by the family. This allows for a great variety of flexibility in Amish life which may, over time, lead to small changes in social structure.
As for Amish survival in America, I wished to determine what part volunteer baptism and shunning (excommunication) had on protecting Amish culture. Volunteer baptism, in which the adult Amish person must choose to join the church, Aaron agreed, kept those who would not accept Amish doctrine out of Amish society. By voluntary exclusion, the Amish are guaranteed a relatively pure society devoid of those who would be egregious to Amish society. Shunning or excommunication, when an Amish person is cut off from communication with family and other Amish by the church, Aaron said, was used as a fear tactic in which to keep Amish from breaking Amish doctrine. Social isolation, such as shunning, acts as a strong deterrent to any individual or individuals acting in ways that might be detrimental to Amish society. Thus, ones not only cut off from one's church, but one's family. Other theories and information related to the economy, courting, marriage, and history were all deemed verifiably accurate.
Carrying out an ethnography has many difficulties. The largest, of course, is communication and assumptions. Gaps in education mean that an anthropologist must make an effort to communicate with a culture that is educated in a different matter, translating certain theories into more simplified forms. Vocabulary can also pose a communications problem, requiring the alteration of questions into a more compatible format. Secular ways of thinking also come in conflict when studying a culture that has a sacred world view. An anthropologist must also be aware of his secular biases when studying another culture that is primarily founded on the sacred. Amish social change is not only affected by economics and cultural survival, but is correlated with Amish religious doctrine and the desire to remain biblically as "strangers of the world." Other factors that contribute to Amish social change are the influence of the desire to live a comfortable life with smaller individual influences originating not from church decisions, but from the family. All this information obtained from my ethnography has helped establish my previous paper's hypothesis that Amish society is not static but a dynamic society where change not only occurs, but is expected.
The American Heritage Dictionary, Second College Edition . 1982. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Company
Amish Minister (Name Unknown). 1998. Field Observation. March 23. New Holland, PA:Westhaven Amish Mennonite Church
Barker, Kenneth (General Editor). The NIV Study Bible, New International Version. Grand Rapids,Michigan: Zondervan Publishing House
Westhaven Amish Mennonite Church. 1994. Statement of Christian Doctrine and Standard of Practice . New Holland, PA 17557