March 9, 2010
WOOSTER, Ohio - Winds of change are rustling through the hills and valleys of Amish Country, challenging traditions and altering lifestyles. This ongoing struggle to interact with the outside world without becoming consumed by it is richly chronicled in An Amish Paradox, a new book by Charles Hurst and David McConnell of The College of Wooster that profiles the internal tensions and the external pressures weighing on the world's largest and most diverse Amish community.
"It's a slippery slope," said McConnell, professor of anthropology at Wooster. "There are still boundaries, but the lines are not as clearly defined as they once were."
The book focuses on the consequences of this cultural clash in five specific areas: (1) religious convictions, (2) family practices, (3) educational choices, (4) occupational shifts, and (5) healthcare options. "The Holmes County Amish are experiencing unprecedented and complex change," said Hurst, emeritus professor of sociology at Wooster. "Our goal in writing the book was to unravel how and why these changes are unfolding across these five institutions."
The project began more than seven years ago when the two professors with adjacent offices discovered they were both studying phases of Amish life. Hurst was examining the role of women in Amish society, and McConnell was looking at Amish education. The two decided to pool their efforts and produce one manuscript, which has just been published by Johns Hopkins University Press.
In the Holmes County Settlement, there are four main affiliations, including the Old Order, which is the largest. Hurst and McConnell gained unprecedented access into the Amish community by building trust through a simple, straightforward, and honest approach to their research. "We were surprised by the openness and the degree of cooperation among the Amish," said Hurst. "We expected a 'closed' community like theirs to be much less forthcoming."
Openness and cooperation weren't the only discoveries that took the authors by surprise. Many other stereotypes about the Amish were overturned during the course of their research. For example, they learned that many Amish women believed they were at least as free as their English counterparts. They also found that well under 20 percent of Amish men in the Holmes County Settlement are still involved in full-time farming, and that most have branched out into flourishing
cottage industries, such as furniture manufacturing, which they have successfully marketed to adoring English consumers. The authors also witnessed the ingenuity of the Amish, particularly their effectiveness in harnessing power for their furniture and cabinetry shops through hydraulic, pneumatic, and solar options, and the dynamic and creative ways in which they have adapted existing technologies.
Education and religion were especially intriguing to Hurst and McConnell. They observed that some Amish struggle with whether to educate their children in public schools, parochial schools, or in their own homes. They also noted that despite the strong emphasis on faith in the Amish community, many who leave the church do so because they want "a more intense and personal spiritual
Other issues dividing the Amish community include rumspringa, a period of time during adolescence when Amish youth experience the world before deciding whether or not to be baptized in the church. This once-accepted tradition has created conflict and consternation within the church. Even more surprising was the fact that despite the attractiveness of the outside world, a large majority of young Amish choose to return to the church and become baptized after rumspringa.
Another surprising outcome of the authors' research was the successful way in which the Amish manage health care through a system of negotiation that results in reasonable and affordable costs from local and regional medical providers.
Despite the apparent serenity of Amish life in Holmes County, there is considerable angst beneath the surface. Hurst and McConnell effectively identify the sources of this anxiety and ultimately lead readers to the conclusion that the Amish face the same temptations and tribulations as the outside world, and that they, too, must find ways to deal with them.
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