Donald b. Kraybill, The Riddle of Amish Culture
The John Hopkins University Press, 2001
The technological age has brought the World Wide Web and high-speed travel, multiplying the number of possible ties individuals might have around the globe. But in other ways modernization is also a process of separation that pulls things apart and partitions whole systems - psychological, social, and organizational—into smaller parts in the name of efficiency.
Many of the social bonds of modern life are abstract, rational, complex, and detached from a particular social context. The fragmentation of modern life is often experienced on the personal level as alienation when ties with meaning, work, and place evaporate.
Modernization often segments social relationships and activities. Working in a factory instead of at home, going away to college, and moving to a retirement center break up family units and separate members. Living in one city, commuting to work in another, and vacationing in a third separates family, work, and play. This pervasive process of separation threatens to rupture the traditional ties of close-knit communities.
The process of modernization also pulls people and things out of their social context. In a small village everyone knows almost everything about everyone else. Modernity decontextualizes. A photograph pulls people out of context. In a telephone conversation, especially with a cell phone, it’s impossible to know the social context of the other person. Television portrays floating images without context. Virtual reality on the World Wide Web literally has no context. On the Internet, lovers are unhitched from social reality. When things are taken out of context, we lose perspective, meaning, and clarity.
Here we have a social system without poverty. Widows, orphans, and the destitute are cared for by the church. The Amish are rarely imprisoned. Here is a society virtually free of crime and violence. Some youth are occasionally arrested for drunken driving, and children are occasionally paddled, but incidents of violent crime and murder are conspicuously absent. Amish suicide and mental illness rates are substantially lower than those in a the larger society. Alcohol abuse, present among some youth, is practically nil among adults. Divorce is unheard of. Individuals are not warehoused in bureaucratic institutions -- large schools, massive factories, retirement homes, or psychiatric hospitals—but are cared for within the family.
Moreover, the generous resources of social capital in Amish society lower the transaction costs—the need for insurance, formal agreements, litigation, legal costs, and third party brokers. Many of the routine exchanges in Amish society are lubricated with trust and integrity, which reduces the economic cost of transactions. Recycling goods, frugal management, a thrifty lifestyle, and a rejection of consumerism produce scant waste.
Energy consumption per capita is remarkably low. Beyond exhaust fumes from diesel power plants and water contamination by manure runoff, the Amish add little to environmental pollution. Personal alienation, loneliness and meaninglessness are for the most part absent. There are, of course, some unhappy marriages, lonely people, obstinate bishops, cantankerous personalities, and family feuds. But all things considered, the quality-of-life indicators for Amish society as a whole are remarkably robust.
The Amish have, indeed, created a humane social system that attends to individual need and generates strong levels of satisfaction.