March 08, 2012

Subcultures among Us: The Amish

clip_image001By Karen Sternheimer

Many people navigate living within both the broader society and a subculture that connects people together within a smaller group.The Amish are a unique subculture living in the U.S., in that they generally do not adopt the norms, customs, and lifestyle of the broader society.

As a recently aired PBS documentary detailed, the Amish live much as many other Americans did before the Industrial Revolution, in rural areas typically without electricity or most modern conveniences that many of us take for granted. They wear simple clothing and believe that too great a focus on individuality distracts from the devotion to God; likewise, technology interferes with this devotion as well as family connections. As one member told filmmakers, working the land is the best way to be closest to God, and many of the Amish today as in the past are farmers. (Click here to see a clip from another documentary, The Amish and Us.)

Watch Amish Preview on PBS. See more from American Experience.

On reason the Amish tend to live in separate communities is that they view the outside world as a threat to their religion and culture. The American focus on individualism, consumption, and instant gratification are contrary to the very heart of this group’s practices. While most subcultures are somewhat integrated with people from outside communities, the Amish have worked to avoid this whenever possible.

I grew up within driving distance from some Amish communities. On occasion, I would see vans drive women in plain black dresses and white bonnets into the suburbs to clean houses. Men with black hats, white shirts and suspenders would work on construction sites. Some days it would be hot and I walked by the passing vans wondering what they must have thought of me wearing a t-shirt and shorts. Unlike many other subcultures, the Amish clearly stand out, but because of the limited amount of money families can earn farming, many seek work outside of the Amish community.

In fact, at one point a man who had left the Amish community behind moved in across the street from us with his non-Amish wife and children. Aside from hiring mostly Amish workers to do their remodeling, they blended in with the rest of the neighborhood, and dressed like everyone else.

Though I didn’t realize it at the time, those that choose to live outside of the community—and thus the Amish church—can be shunned. The PBS documentary explains that the Amish fear the corrupting influence of outsiders so much that if a member chooses to leave, they cannot have a meal with their Amish family members unless they repent and return.

One young man featured in the film was deeply conflicted. At age 20, he decided to leave and was working in construction. When asked what his plans for the future might be, he was genuinely puzzled: the Amish culture stresses obedience rather than self-fulfillment. He had gone back to see his family, who were upset by his decision. His father had told him it was too painful to see him under the circumstance, and unless he decided to return to the Amish way of life they suggested he not come back at all.

Contrast this subculture with the many others in which people can be members and also remain part of the larger society. As I note in an upcoming post on language and culture, people who are deaf are often part of a unique community, but they likely have hearing family members they interact with regularly. While those that consider themselves “goth” may dress and adorn themselves in a unique manner, enjoy similar kinds of music and art, they too are likely to have frequent “non-goth” interactions with family and others. Members of some religious groups might be cautioned about aspects of the broader culture and asked to adhere to unique norms and practices while living among the secular world.

So while many subcultures exist among us, the extent to which they are separate from the broader society exists on a broad continuum. Some groups might strive for greater acceptance (particularly members of some minority groups), while other groups might actively seek to disconnect from the larger society. Just as the Amish have a distinct mode of dress, unique beliefs, separate churches and schools, and even a distinct language, subcultures may have all or some of these characteristics.


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I can't imagine not using technology, i mean i am 17 and have been raised in the era of technology. Everyday all i see are people walking around with there ipods plugged in and jamming, simotaneously checking their facebook statuses on their smart phones, all the while planning on what tv shows they are watching that night. I dont live in an area with much diversity, and thus i dont see many Amish people but i find this culture fascinating because it is so different from the norm. They do not want anything to interfere with their religion and their community and too them that is the norm and our iphones and laptops are probably bizarre.

I am also in agreeance with that last comment. I can not even imagine growing up without technology. I mean the advancements in technology just make life so easy. I can never imagine avoiding it and sticking to old ways. I use technology everyday, especially at the work place and it helps so much.

Very interesting observation about the different spectrum of connection of subculture to the greater culture. Could the fact that in Amish, people are born into it have an effect on their strict standards and code? Their children, who didn't make conscious decision to live in that life style would obviously be more susceptible to outside influences.

This is a great site/blog, by the way. I'm glad I found it and will be visiting often.

This is very intersting. I also had my own experinces with the Amish when I was an exchange student in Tennessee. Although they may have not been as often as yours, they too had intrested me greatly. At first, I thought their life was simple, the way it used to be - and I really liked that aspect of it. I want to actually try it for a week or so - it may be relaxing to disconnect myself from the world for awhile.

Most of the Amish I met were very kind and gentle indiviuals - full of respect and dignity. Though, I disagree that most are poor. Most were quite rich from where I was in TN. They spend very little, and are very good with their hands. They usually have a surpluse of their products so they sell them (and most aren't cheap!). But very intresting overall.

In an era dependent on technology, I can't imagine living without it. Every day almost everyone I know uses technology to accomplish a task. The Amish community is a group that a lot of people don't really acknowledge any more. Most Amish people are poor and struggle to provide for their families, but as long as nothing dsirupts their religion and connection to Christ, they will live happy. While our generation see thier lifestyle as odd, they may see ours as odd also. They might wonder why we need to many material objects to get through just the day. We all livein the same world, but we all do it so differently.

The Amish might be considered deviants, not because they are particularly rebellious against society, but because they break the societal norms; they are, to put it simply, different.

Though our culture views the Amish as breaking social norms, as mentioned wearing shorts while the Amish wear dress clothes on a hot day, they may view us as deviants too.

Some may think that what they do is "weird" but they may think the same thing about us, because it is different from their culture.

The Amish are excellent at containing their social control. Most Amish that I know don't try to push it on someone forcefully. I agree that they could be deviant, they do not share the norms that most of society does. Then again pretty close to everyone can be considered a deviant. We all have our own beliefs and norms but most of us conform those to fit others.

I also agree that the Amish could be considered deviant because their norms are very different to our society's as a whole. However, as the above comment states, who is to say which one of our cultures is the "norm"? It is very difficult to define someone as deviant, because everyone sees the word with a different meaning.

Through their tight social control the Amish are probably the most looked down part of American culture. I have seen a video where Amish young adults are allowed to experience the outside world and the result is an excess in they would call "deviant activities." Which aides in showing how they rob their members of individuality a very un-American practice.

The Amish are not like most Americans today, as that they do not participate in an industrial society. They did not conform like the majority of Americans, which is why we think they are strange.

Nice article! I especially thought it was interesting that while some people are separated from the vast majority, they wish to be integrated with the rest, yet some--like the Amish--wish to be different than everyone else. We may find what they do as "strange", but I can guarantee they think we're probably "strange" or deviants as well.

Everyone needs to open their mind to different cultures... closed minded people cannot see how simply they live. I would love to live one day in the amish life.

the documentary is awesome!!!!!!!

I think that now we all live in a world where we can survive one day without our phones, we have to be on Facebook or you tube or we have to send a text while we are out having dinner with family. I think it's important to clear our heads from technology once and awhile and it's important that we remember that there was a time where technology didn't exist. I thought this documentary was very interesting and I think it would be cool to experience the Amish culture for a day.


I think it's fair to say that among introverted Americans, the Amish way of life is inspiring and validating.

For people who feel left out of the rapid technology changes over the past couple of decades, rejecting the toxic influences of social media and violent white nationalism seems like a necessary but daunting task.

Yet here are the Amish, living without these new things as they have for many centuries.
If I learn nothing else from the Amish, it's that a way of life besides our normal is possible in this country.

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