The Amish: Microenterprises and a Changing Society

Chelsea Bailey
Elmira College

This paper is an attempt to gain a sense of how Amish society is reacting to increasing dependence on technology in mainstream society, especially in the agricultural realm. It examines the changes that have been taking place in Amish society as larger American society increasingly embraces modernization and the Amish are forced to adopt new ways of living in order to survive economically. It explores the positive and negative attributes of entrance into the business world in terms of the perpetuation of the Amish cultural beliefs and values and speculates as to where the changes might lead their culture.

 “The Amish are a people of separation. Indeed their entire history can be called a struggle to be separate” (Kraybill, 1994a, p. 1). This is one of the most basic and important tenets of Amish religious teachings, and it comes straight from various Biblical versus in which conforming to worldly ways is said to lead one down the road of sin. This idea, perhaps more than any other, shapes Amish culture in relation to that of the larger society. As Hostetler (1963) pointed out, “[separation] colors [the Amishman’s] entire view of reality and being” (p. 49). However, for a subculture living within American society it cannot be easy to remain physically separate from the outside world, and so the idea of separation has been placed mostly into the behavioral, moral, and cognitive realms.

The Amish have settlements all over America and a province in Canada and, remarkably, they have been able to maintain a relatively stable identity and way of life despite the fact that there is no central structure or authority. Instead,  (Kraybill, 1994b) suggested that the Ordnung, or the moral order of prescribed expectations for the Amish, is one of the most influential aspects of Amish life in allowing for the maintenance of strict separation from larger society. This set of guidelines is oral and varies from group to group, but it remains a strong marker of Amish identity and shapes behavior and thought patterns in such a way as to keep the Amish separate from most outer influences. Beyond this, “strong religious conviction, the use of distinctive language and dress, and strong patriarchal authority has helped to preserve the Amish way of life” (Hostetler, 1963, p. 4).

Another very important feature of Amish life that has traditionally kept them separate from the rest of society is their focus on agriculture and a rural lifestyle as the best means to foster a family and community-based society. In addition, according to the Amish, farming maintains a relatively egalitarian community and brings one closer to God through hard work that does not foster individualism. Kraybill and Nolt (1995) explained that farming was not traditionally practiced in the pursuit of profits, but rather “it was a worldview and a way of life – the social hammock for family, church, and community [… it was] bestowed, not strategized – a way of being that wove individuals into a seamless fabric of tradition, church, family, and community” (p. x). While this may feel a bit idealized, and probably is, it is true that the Amish worldview seems to be best supported and is most certainly shaped by an agricultural existence; because tradition is so important in Amish life, the desire to remain a “people of the plow” is a strong force in their society.

However, since the 1970s this adherence to a traditional lifestyle has become more and more difficult for many Amish communities to maintain. As Hostetler (1963) revealed, “most are undergoing radical changes as they come in contact with an expanding machine civilization” (p. 3). Before the industrial revolution, the Amish were not noticeably separate in their way of life from many Americans, as no one had motorized vehicles, electricity, or advanced technology. However, as the rest of America sped toward “modernization” after the turn of the century, the Amish began to stand out, thereby adding a physical element to their separation. As the ideals of American economic and technological progress developed, though, the pressures of outside society began to be felt within the Amish communities. In addition, the Amish population was growing at exponential rates due to high birthrates (children are considered economic assets in agricultural families) and very soon there were “too many babies for too few farms” (Kraybill & Nolt, 1995, p. 29).

Increasingly, the Amish could no longer make enough surplus money to survive on their farms alone. In addition, land prices skyrocketed, making it “very difficult, often impossible, for young families to enter farming” (Kraybill & Nolt, 1994, p. 151). There was also pressure on the farming communities to focus on cash crops alone, as this was the direction large, commercial agriculture was moving; this led to a decline in the traditional Amish system of self-sufficiency. Even further impacting the situation, the rise of suburbanization meant that “cropland was dwindling,” and many Amish families were forced to divide their farms. However, this can only be done once, and soon enough the pressures for farmland grew to crisis levels among the Amish (Kraybill & Nolt, 1995, p. 26).

All of these factors forced the Amish to find alternate ways of earning money. At first, the idea was to either supplement farm income with revenue from another source or to enter a different area of work until they earned the necessary start-up farm costs, which were (and are) on the rise. Three types of work developed due to economic necessity: factory/day labor work, cottage industries, and microenterprises. Factory work, in some Amish communities, happens more often than the other two options, but it is viewed with more suspicion from the church as well. This is partly because most Amish who enter into this trade “experience some conflict between their work schedule and the rhythm of Amish life” (Meyers, 1994, p. 173). Instead of having control over the use of their time, Amish in these positions have their families split up by the absence of the father, which is considered very detrimental due to the centrality of the family in Amish life. In addition, Kraybill and Nolt (1995) asserted that “spouses working away from home also face an array of worldly temptations,” that might lead them to stray from the church and into the sin of the world (p. 30). In addition, the lack of control over their schedules meant that many Amish holidays go unrecognized and community life is undermined by the demands of full-time work.

Due to all of this, the Amish have turned to cottage industries and microenterprises more often than anything else in order to supplement their income. As Olshan (1994a) pointed out, “given the incompatibility of ‘working away’ with the values of separation, self-sufficiency, and family, it is not surprising that many Amish have turned to the alternate of cottage industry” (p. 135). This has been the trend mainly because starting their own businesses from the home allows the Amish to have a certain amount of control and to uphold many of their values in ways that factory work cannot, while still tapping the fruits of progress; it is “an ingenious negotiation with modernity,” as Kraybill and Nolt (1995) noted.

For example, one of the most basic and important beliefs held by the Amish is that children should learn to work at a young age so that they do not become idle as adults. Being raised on a farm means that every person in the family had work to do, including the children, and this scenario also bolstered the importance of the family. The family is viewed as the most crucial social unit; this way, values remain strong and intact throughout generations, and children are kept from the temptations of the outside world. Cottage industries and most microenterprises are able to be run on or very close to the family farm and household. This set up “preserved family values by blending spouses and children into the world of business. Parents working alongside their children could pass on the virtues of Amish life in the context of work,” even if it wasn’t the ideal agrarian work of the past (Kraybill & Nolt, 1995, p.41).

Beyond this, “employment within the context of kin and church reinforced Amish values, fortified the Pennsylvania German dialect, and accommodated the calendar of ethnic holidays and celebrations […it] enabled the Amish to work within the moral boundaries of their faith” (Kraybill & Nolt, 1995, p. 41). Even if entering business challenges many Amish values, which I will address later, it was the most viable option in terms of maintaining a separate cultural identity. If they are controlling their own work hours, they are able to work on the same basic schedule as they did when farming. In addition, the moral boundaries of their culture and the Ordnung shape the type of work the Amish do, meaning the industries still tend to be agriculturally based in addition to being very small (about six employees on average). They would also be able to selectively use technology, which is one of the bigger concerns in the Amish move into the world of business.

The ability to maintain their cultural identity isn’t the only reason business is the most, and possibly only, viable solution to the Amish economic problems, though. Many Amish values leave other money-making strategies beyond the reach of most Amish people. Amish schooling practices, for example, are one of the stronger societal influences keeping people from moving beyond business. In the mid-twentieth century, most public schools were consolidating and the age at which children could drop out of school was rising. The Amish, however, resisted these changes, citing that one-room schools and a cap on education after the eighth grade was sufficient and even necessary for their lifestyle. This incited much controversy with the state, eventually culminating in Wisconsin v. Yoder, the decision of which allowed the Amish to have their own schooling system. Now their school system is used to “propagate their own values, insulate their young from alien views, as well as monitor the school relations of Amish youth with the outside world,” (Kraybill, 1994a, p. 17).

Beyond the role of the schools to continue the separation of the Amish from outside society by guarding their youth, it also limits the educational opportunities of Amish children. Self-employment does not require higher education and in fact, many Amish entrepreneurs have succeeded quite nicely despite the lack of formal education. However, this educational cap also served to keep Amish people from entering the “professional” world of larger society in terms of work as lawyers, doctors, etc. Therefore, Kraybill and Nolt (1995) explained that, “the lid on education channels some of the brighter minds toward business” and “encourages self-employment and entrepreneurship for those who are forced off the farm” (p. 155, 234). In addition, other Amish values such as a spirited work ethic, managerial skills brought over from farm work, frugality, strong community ties, and a rejection of consumerism have all helped the Amish succeed as entrepreneurs.

Without a doubt, this entrance into business will foster great changes in Amish society, especially as time goes by and more generations work off the farm. Although there will most certainly be negative changes to arise from this, one can find, in the manners through which the culture supports entrance into business, many ways that this trend may have positive effects for the Amish. Firstly, Amish-run enterprises encourage social solidarity through the employment of fellow Amishmen. Instead of everyone being forced to work for the English (non-Amish Americans), the Amish continue their focus on community-based work through running shops with fellow church members.

In addition, enterprise encourages Amish innovation. According to Kraybill and Nolt (1995), “innovations have sprung, ironically, from the technological restraints of Amish culture. The same moral boundaries that restrict technology also propel creative minds to find new ways of working within community sanctions” (p. 78). This was first seen when farming practices were being forced to change in order to meet the demands of the newly commercialized agricultural practices in outside society with which the Amish did and do business. The Amish, in recent years, have come to use hydraulic and air power instead of electric powered motors for farm implements, as well as traditionally electric shop products, like cash registers and printing presses. Many of the inventions, especially those that make farm work easier, “reinforce Amish culture and tradition [and] are wholly sanctioned by the church” (Kraybill & Nolt, 1995, p. 79). In many cases, they foster ethnic pride and provide goods and services to the Amish that are no longer available from the larger community, like horse drawn farm implements and the like.

By finding their own Amish ways of using modern technology, the Amish have been able to create a distinctly Amish way of doing business that may also serve to strengthen their sense of community solidarity. They have, in some ways, become closer to the outside world, but their unique way of managing their enterprises has helped keep them markedly separate. Their shops are small and community based, they run on a different schedule than the rest of the business world, they have a selective and very creative use of technology that is not seen in many other places, and the type of work they do undergirds their traditional values.

Even beyond this, business allows the community to continue thriving, whereas if farming was the only occupation the Amish would likely die out. Ironically, entrance into business and the subsequent financial security has been the only way the Amish can keep their farming tradition alive, as the entrepreneurs can now afford to finance new farms (Kraybill & Nolt, 1995, p. 254). Therefore, in some ways, the only option of the Amish was to enter the business world, as it is the only economic option that allows them to maintain many of their cultural values. In addition, in a backward way it allows them to keep their agrarian tradition alive to some extent, when otherwise it may have fallen completely.

Despite these cultural incentives that led the Amish into microenterprises when farming was no longer a viable option in and of itself, their entrance into business has some fundamental incompatibilities with their cultural makeup that have led many Amish people to be wary of the future. First of all, many of the values of the business world taken for granted in larger society threaten Amish values. When English people think about business, they usually think in terms of personal achievement, pride, innovation, and individualism. However, the Amish (and, of course, many English) view these characteristics negatively. The Amish, more than anything else, abhor the possible development of individualism, pride, arrogance, aggression, and greed, all of which are possible (and even probable) outcomes of entrance into business.

Kraybill (2008) asserted that “the most fundamental difference between Amish and mainstream American culture lies in their respective views of individualism” (p. 167). Although mainstream America has a very strong respect for individualism, the Amish view it as a negative trait that serves to undermine the community. Kraybill and Nolt (1995), in relation to this, pointed out that “the core of Amish culture is embedded in the German word Gelassenheit” (p. 13). Gelassenheit, roughly, means “submission.” For the Amish, it emphasizes the importance of self-surrender, self-denial, contentment, and community-focus. In essence, it is “the yielding of oneself to higher authorities” (Kraybill, 1994a, p. 7). With the lauding of competition and success that is very prevalent in business culture, it is hard to fit in the very strict and deep-seated Amish values of modesty, non-resistance, and humility.

Perhaps even more of a threat than this, entrance into microenterprises opens up the Amish community to larger society and puts a strain on their tenet of separatism. As Olshan (1994a) pointed out, “management of interaction with the public has been crucial in allowing the Amish to successfully maintain a degree of separation from the larger society” (p. 140). The Amish as a society advocates face-to-face interaction. In addition, they revere silence for many different reasons and use it in various ways. For instance, silence is used to communicate submission or disapproval and is also used in shunning for punishment. Olshan (1994a) demonstrated how the role of “seller” opposes this. Sellers are supposed to appear outgoing and eager to satisfy, as well as polite (p. 136). The Amish, then, are forced to behave in uncomfortable ways that change the way they interact with the world.

Beyond this, Hostetler (1963) declared that, “language provides familiarity in which individuals find common grounds for understanding” (p. 138). For the Amish, that language is Pennsylvania German, and the use of it traditionally has helped solidify their community life. However, due to the onset of entrepreneurialism, the Amish have had to use English more and more often in their business pursuits. This means that both adults and, more importantly, children have been speaking their native tongue less often. Kraybill and Nolt (1995) predicted that, “if this practice continues, it will not only dilute the dialect but eventually destroy it” (p. 247). As many people know, the destruction of a native language is one of the first steps in the destruction of that particular culture.

Also threatening to the Amish way of life, including their values of simplicity and separation from the world, is the encroachment of technology. In opposition to what most people think, the Amish do not spurn all technological progress. In fact, they welcome technology that will make their lives easier while still maintaining their cultural heritage. They are, however, very suspicious of technology that might eventually lead to sinful behavior or will serve to undermine the church’s teachings. With the rise of business, this problem has become much more acute, especially in terms of telephones and motor vehicles.

Traditionally, the Amish have spurned the use of the telephone because of its potential to disrupt community life. The Amish work on a very face-to-face basis that allows them to be close-knit as a community and to monitor each others’ behavior. In addition, there is a strong cultural norm surrounding “visiting,” wherein neighbors will travel to interact with each other on a weekly basis, also strengthening community ties. The telephone could potentially serve to diminish this practice and thereby fragment the community through people increasingly using it to “visit” their neighbors. In addition, the Amish believe the telephone fosters individualism and links to the outside world. The telephone also undermines the practice of silence by reinforcing verbal behavior patterns (Umble, 1994).

Even with all of these issues, it is impossible to keep the telephone out of the business climate. Therefore, there have been increasing installments of telephones near shops and even near homes in many Amish communities. Thus far, there is a large difference in the Amish mindset between the use and ownership of telephones, as well as other technologies. However, some Amish do fear that, as their children become more used to the telephone, it will eventually be brought into the home, which is considered completely repugnant. The phone may be necessary for business pursuits, but it does open up increased interaction with the outside world, more use of the English language, and a devaluation of community life.

As for motorized vehicles, the Amish have many reasons to fear their use. Many Old Order Amish do not even allow the use of tractors with rubbers tires due to their concern that these will be used on the roads, eventually leading to a desire for cars (Olshan, 1994b, p. 190). However, for many businesses, especially carpentry work crews and shops that need to deliver products, transportation is an almost daily necessity. The reasons that the Amish reject the use of motorized vehicles are in many cases similar to the reasons they look down on the use of telephones. Mostly, they fear greater individualization and the fragmenting of the community. If Amish people have easy access to cars, they are more likely to move farther away and have much easier access to worldly temptations.

In essence, the fear is that these technologies will lead to increased interaction with the outside world and, therefore, more access to forbidden things that will cause people to leave the church. Again, though, there is differentiation between ownership and use, and here one sees symbolic separation overcoming actual separation, which we find in the creation of Amish enterprises themselves in terms of finding new ways to harness technology. The Amish will sometimes lease cars under the name of their business, meaning they do not personally own the car symbolically, while still allowing easy access to the necessary means of transportation (Kraybill & Nolt, 1995, p. 137).

As was mentioned earlier, one of the bigger fears in the Amish community in terms of the move to microenterprises is the force of individualism and pride that it could foster. When a business is successful, it becomes difficult to slow its growth. For the Amish, “arrogant expressions of pride are seen as detrimental to the church and to one’s relationship with God […] Big business is most dangerous because it so easily leads to pride, self-confidence, and a spirit of independence” (Kraybill & Nolt, 1995, p. 147-148). The church only looks gladly upon success if the owner is modest about it.

Related to this issue is the use of entrepreneurs’ funds to lend money to those who desire to buy farmland. Although on the one hand this is very positive and keeps alive the agrarian spirit of the community, there is a large problem associated with it. Kraybill and Nolt (1994) call attention to the fact that “the development of microenterprises is fostering the emergence of a three-tier society” (p. 161). Traditionally, one of the strengths of the Amish community in maintaining its values was its egalitarian system. If everyone is farming then everyone is subject to the same changes and same prices for their crops. In addition, if one farmer does better than another it is not attributed to his own personal ingenuity, but rather to God for making his crops grow.

However, the introduction of business into the Amish way of life is creating a class system based on entrepreneurs, farmers, and day laborers, those Amish who work in the shops of other Amish or in factories. This is due to the fact that the success of Amish enterprise is less easily attributed to the will of God and instead puts the focus on individuals and their business techniques. In addition, the entrepreneurial class will have more access to disposable wealth, leading to obviously better-off lifestyles. These wealthy church members, then, may be able to tip the balance of power away from the church itself, as the wealthy members of a society are often able to take control.

As of now, the wealthy group of Amish people are dedicated to using their resources to the betterment of the whole community. However, one of the main focal points of the Amish reservations about business and other forms of “modernization” lies in the effects they will have on future generations. In terms of the class system, it is feared that the wealthy class will eventually be less willing to donate funds for mutual aid, and it is equally worrisome that those whose parents and grandparents were day laborers will not see business ownership as a viable option. If this occurs, then the relative egalitarianism and wide-spread nature of business enterprises could consolidate, meaning the social class system will be even stronger and Amish values will be completely buried.

Other fears involving future generations are found in the necessity of “working away,” the fear that farming will lose its importance, that their children will get too used to worldly things, and that they will become more and more liberal as time passes. When considering the growth of Amish business in the current generation, there is not too much worry that their children will lose the values of working on a farm, but what about their children’s children? Kraybill and Nolt (1995) highlighted the fact that, “entrepreneurs worry about the fate of their grandchildren, who will grow up without roots in the soil” (p. 25). Traditionally, Amish children have learned about hard work and Amish values from being on the farm and working with their parents. However, the business world does not require such long hours, and “teenagers [have] more leisure time as well as more money in their pockets. This not only leads to new temptations but over the generations will likely foster new attitudes toward work and leisure itself” (Kraybill & Nolt, 1994, p. 162).

This issue also pertains to children’s involvement in their parents’ work. In some cases, children may be seen as a liability instead of an economic asset, and this means that the entire face of the Amish community will change as families become smaller and no longer work together. Two of the most basic characteristics of Amish people are their dedication to the family and to hard work, so if children are no longer exposed to such values they are likely to completely disappear in future generations. Beyond this, the look of Amish society could change entirely as children are no longer exposed to farm work and therefore enter more and more into business. In a few generations, the Amish may no longer even be considered an agrarian community, which will mean unprecedented changes for their society and how they are viewed by the outside world.

Another fear associated with the future generations is that they will become too used to worldly things. Kraybill and Nolt (1995) noted that, “with more and more businesses operating in or adjacent to the home, technology inches ever closer to the heart of the family. Children growing up in technology-filled surroundings may push for greater automation in the years to come, a push that may accelerate the rate of social change in Amish life” (p. 246). In addition, there is also the problem of Ordnung rules not applying to teenagers who have yet to enter the church. For example, in order to get around the taboo on owning a car, some families allow their children to purchase vehicles (Kraybill & Nolt, 1995, p. 134). Amish children are also allowed to pose for photographs, which are not allowed for church members because it reinforces arrogance and individuality (Eitzen, 2008, p. 50). This type of access to worldly technology and values will shape the children of the current Amish population in very different ways than their parents and grandparents were socialized, and this will inevitably lead to a different and perhaps much more liberal Amish society.

The general move toward business is very likely to change how the outside world views the Amish, as well. Traditionally, the Amish have been able to be relatively free of laws set by the government for larger society in terms of insurance, social security, schooling, and other such areas where the two societies are at odds. In addition, the view of the Amish as a simple, agrarian people has benefited them in that there is not a large amount of pressure on them to conform to the larger society. However, as they move farther into the economic world of mainstream Americans, they are likely to lose their aura of innocence. Due to this, they “will likely be subject to the same legal and regulatory restrictions as their non-Amish competitors without the public indulgence they have sometimes enjoyed in the past” (Kraybill & Nolt, 1994, p. 162).

In addition, there is a very imminent threat of the loss of Old Order Amish groups, at least in the traditional sense. In a study done by Jerry Savells (1988), it is mentioned that already some of his “respondents had changed their religious beliefs from ‘Old Order’ to ‘New Order’ within the context of one generation. The latter changes will have a ripple effect for their children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren.” He also sees that, “this rather subtle trend may continue with future generations of ‘New Order’ Amish leaning toward (or becoming members of) a Conservative Mennonite congregation” (p. 127-128).

This trend signifies an entirely new worldview for the Amish. Whereas once the emphasis on separation through economic aspirations and the spurning of modernization in terms of technological innovation were strong-held beliefs, they are now beginning to falter. Separatism is more and more placed into the symbolic realm than the physical, observable one. This is done through the means by which the Amish harness technology (i.e., hydraulic or air as opposed to electricity) as well as the division between the use and ownership of technologies. The Amish, then, are becoming more and more used to working in and around those things considered worldly, but they are still maintaining a degree of separation, at least cognitively.

What is especially interesting in the case of the Amish is how those values that led them into building microenterprises in the first place are those that are the most threatened or have already been changed by the effects of this new economic pathway. Whereas the educational cap once pushed bright young Amishmen into business, it is now viewed by some Amish as an obstacle, and higher education may become a viable option in the future. In addition, the restraints placed on technology led the Amish to create new ways of harnessing the fruits of progress, but it is now feared that technology is moving closer and closer to the home, where it has always been forbidden. In terms of the home, its importance was one of the things that led to business, as the owners were better able to continue including their family in their working lives, and could also still remain community-based. However, the family and the community are undoubtedly threatened by business, as men increasingly work away from their families and the workplace is becoming the center of life, instead of the home.

Despite these unsettling potentialities, it seems that the Amish have in fact found the most viable option in terms of the continuity of their society. If the Amish had continued trying to farm, there is no doubt that their society would have crumbled. In addition, becoming day laborers to Englishmen would mean the Amish would give up control over their community, something that is necessary to their cultural persistence. So, by going into business, the Amish have managed to find a way to ensure that many of their values continue on, even if their lifestyle is changing. It is also questionable as to whether or not the Amish will continue to be a farming community, and whether some of the most traditional values of home life and hard work will persevere. As of now, not enough time has passed to be truly certain of what will happen to the Amish, but speculation is an option.

One possibility is that the Amish community will continue to exist as a staunchly separate subgroup of mainstream America. Their values are so deep-seated and so entirely tied in with their religion and existence that it is not likely that they will give them up. Instead, these values will continue to shape their economic existence, and even if the way they live in terms of work and technology completely changes, the community center will not wither away. This may be a very ideal way to look at it, but it seems that the Amish have enough will to remain a separate group and that they could be able to withstand the forces of individualism that pervade the mainstream business world.

What is obvious, however, is that the Amish have succeeded in what it seems they set out to do in becoming entrepreneurs. They desired to strike a compromise between “modernity” and their own pastoral lifestyle. What they have created is a system in which they are able to nourish their economic health without yielding “their right to manage their own time and resources nor their control of technology” (Kraybill & Nolt, 1995, p. 259). If they had given up these rights, then their society would surely have collapsed, as the most basic way they have maintained a separate identity is through control over their own way of life. However, as Kraybill and Nolt (1995) cryptically put it, this is “a bargain that appears to be a good one, at least for the present generation” (p. 259).

Although it is clear that this compromise has allowed the Amish to maintain their separate society for now, all of the questionable things about this move that were brought up earlier lead one to wonder what will happen in two generations, when the children no longer view the use of technology or the separation from farmland negatively or as an anomaly. Also, is it possible that individualism will gain a hold in Amish communities? These inquiries show that, while the Amish have been able to keep control over their way of life and enter a new economic period on their own cultural and value-laden terms, the real question remains: what will these changes bring to the future of Amish life?



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