Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Plain Secrets 3

In today's blog on Plain Secrets: An Outsider Among the Amish by Joe Mackall, I'll discuss some of the highlights of this book, which is about the conservative Swartzentruber Amish of northern Ohio.

Mackall deals at length with buggies, which are of symbolic as well as practical importance to the Amish way of life. He points out that there is no more potent symbol of the Amish to the outside world than the buggy. Also, no Amish group, no matter has liberal, has given up the buggy. They may air-condition them, put in modern upholstery and attach headlights, but all groups are wedded to the buggy.

This is not because of nostalgia for an idealized 19th-century past. Instead, Mackall says, the buggy holds the community together. Buggy travel is slow and this keeps the Amish close to home, he says. It keeps them tied to the community. Mackall describes a trip he takes to a Home Depot with his friend Samuel. It takes about two hours to drive the 10 miles by buggy and after they arrive, they spend a long time in the store, both because frugal Samuel has to calculate building supply prices to the penny, but also because the horses need time to rest. Not only does the buggy tie Samuel to his community, it also causes people to adapt to a slower, more natural life rhythm.

Mackall is also critical of the buggy, at least as the Swartzentruber Amish use it. Unlike other groups, they won't put on lights, so the buggies can be difficult to see in the dark. As I remember, they have compromised and will use some sort of reflective sticker, but that can be difficult to see in a fast moving car until it's too late.

As a neighbor, and as himself a parent, Mackall worries about the safety of the buggies on roads increasingly crowded with cars. (My impression is that the roads near Mackall's and the Amish homes are sparsely traveled by the standards of most of America but have seen an increase in cars. The Amish worry about the increased number of cars, but seem unwilling to change their ways. ) Mackall cites statistics about accidents and fatalities with buggies, which are low, but still occur. Mackall is frustrated, because he believes many of the accidents and fatalities could be prevented.

He also worries about the Amish habit of letting children stand in the back of the fragile buggies. Once, he's sees a young child fall out of the back of buggy that is only secured with an X made by two bungee cords. The child hits its head, but the father insists the youngster is fine. Mackall is concerned and again, frustrated that the Amish won't take more precautions.

He notes that Swartzentruber Amish approach medicine somewhat differently from the rest of us, relying heavily on chiropractors. Of course, they have no medical insurance. They do use hospitals when necessary. They're also likely to pull teeth more quickly than we are, taking the practical approach (to them) that lots of costly dental work isn't worth it.

The story of Jonas, who has left the Amish to join the "English" world, is woven throughout the book. We see how very difficult it is for someone with no documentation, not even a social security number, and no high school diploma or GED (the Amish leave school after grade 8), to make it in the modern world. His family, under pressure from the wider Amish community, shuns Jonas in hopes of getting him to cave in and come back. Jonas is also hampered by his own naive views of the wider world. He initially survives only because English friends take care of him. Part of the discussion of Jonas describes a halfway world of Amish "ex-patriots" who have left the Amish community but never quite give up Amish ways. Jonas is both attracted to this half-way world and yet determined to fully assimilate into "English" life.

One of the most interesting aspects of the Swartzentruber Amish is their courtship rituals. While different Amish groups have different rituals, among the Swartzentrubers, young people between 17 and 21 engage in a dating practice in which they will lie awake all night on a bed together.

Mackall touches on the low status of women in the Swartzentruber hierarchy. He worries about Samuel's daughters and their lack of choices in a patriarchal community and wonders if he would feel compelled to help them, betraying Samuel, if they wanted to leave. Yet he sees Samuel's wife as contented with her lot as homemaker and mother of ten children, though he also applauds her literacy and her enthusiasm for reading Amish fiction. I wish Mackall had spent more time on the topic of women's status in the community.

Mackall tries to paint a balanced portrait of the Amish community. A thread of anxiety runs through the book: He fears that it will be perceived as a betrayal by Samuel and possibly get his friend into trouble with the community, where he is a minister.

It's difficult to see how Samuel won't be wounded by the book. The book does raise concerns about the line between friendship and scholarship. Is it ethical to make our friends subjects we dissect and analyze? How do we walk that line? Clearly, it's valuable for the wider world to gain insights into the Amish culture, but at what cost?


Regina said...

Oh, this was interesting, Diane. The courting ritual I had never heard of so they must not do it in the Lancaster County Amish that I am so familiar with.
The Amish in Lancaster have so much to deal with as far as cars go... every now and then you will hear about some buggy tragedy and it breaks your heart. I also place some blame on the part of drivers. They know they are in a buggy travel area and yet they still go too fast. Some of the roads in Lancaster are very curvey and unless you are going slow, you don't know what's around the corner. Most likely a buggy or kids walking- it's up to the drivers, I think, to take extra care when they are in a known Amish area.
Did the author discuss the subject of this book with his friend? Or did he just use the friendship to create this book? That would be unethical in my mind...
What a very interesting book and I am really enjoying your reflections on it, Diane.

Anonymous said...

Most of the Amish I know live in places where the roads have ample shoulders to help avoid car-buggy tragedies. That doesn't mean they don't happen, but it helps. Most Amish I know encourage motorists to pass the buggy rather than follow behind slowly. But passing needs to be done in a way that doesn't endanger another buggy coming in a different direction.

re: scholarship and friendships.

I have developed some great friendships among the Amish after I showed up to "study" them. In fact, I would not have taken up this research interest if I hadn't formed a friendship with an Amish woman first.

re: ethics

I struggle sometimes to present what I want to say to others (e.g., at a workshop) in ways that meet the standards of approval by the Amish narrators I have spoken with. I discuss with them what I intend to say and see how they feel about it. And also, at the end of every interview I review my notes and ask if there is anything in them that is to be considered private.

For the most part, there have been very few subjects that I have been asked to avoid mentioning. I believe people are more open to the idea of presenting their lives to others if you treat them as co-researchers in the quest for an overall greater understanding.

Also, many of the Amish I know really aren't overly concerned with what the English think of them. They do what they do for their own purposes and make no judgments of others outside their faith (almost a direct quote from an Amish man that I have permission to share).

My Meeting is near a university which sometimes sends a class over to observe Quakers at worship. :) I feel ok about this, and enjoy being in a reverse position. It helps to give perspective.

It's hard to know if any given author makes friends in order to do the research--but I do feel that in any ethnographic situation, if you are not treating people fairly, you won't be invited back or you will be given only the most basic info. Most researchers know this.

And there are codes of ethics among antrhopologists, sociologists, etc. Of course, this doesn't mean that someone isn't going to want to run out and write a book about his Amish neighbor, but the more serious scholar will take ethics into consideration.

In the last few years, I have also come to see how these ethical issues apply to the refugees I work with, as well. No grant proposal is worth doing anything that will destroy the good relationships we have or the ways in which we have come to work together for the betterment of the community.

But then, I'm a grassroots sort of person, anyway..... :)


Bill Samuel said...

The dating practice is surprising. Are they chaperoned all night? Is the sense of community so strong that the young people just don't violate community standards? How often do Amish women become pregnant outside of marriage? Does the no documentation include no birth certificate and no marriage license?

Diane said...

Hi everyone,

Joe Mackall did have permission from Samuel and Mary to write about them in a book. They knew what was he was doing and cooperated. It's clear that Mackall didn't make friends with them to write a book, and he says he sidestepped suggestions from others that he write the book for a long time. However, from his speculations in the text about how some of his thoughts will be received by Samuel and Mary, it's clear he didn't go over with them what he was writing.


The Amish youth are not chaperoned during their overnight courtship but the impression I got from the book is that since they are not in an environment that endlessly pushes extra-marital sex, they don't, as a rule, engage in intercourse. They are fully clothed and expected to talk. It's rude to fall asleep. I don't know about birth certificates. I can't remember clearly, but I know Jonas's situation was confused because of something about his parents or one parent being Canadian. I don't know how often Amish women get pregnant outside of marriage but the impression I got about the Schwartzentrubers is that it's not too common. They do tend to marry young. But I'm sure pregnancy outside of marriage must happen.


Thanks for the comments.

Shawna Roberts said...

The custom of "bundling" (spending the night together, fully clothed)used to be done in America in other groups besides just the Amish. I know that some Amish groups now consider it inappropriate.

And on an entirely different topic:
I have just completed my first meme, Diane, and you are IT.

See Here for more instructions!