Academic journal article Mennonite Quarterly Review

Research Note: Understanding Defection among the Former Amish

Academic journal article Mennonite Quarterly Review

Research Note: Understanding Defection among the Former Amish

Article excerpt

Recent research on the Amish has noted their ongoing, rapid growth--throughout the twentieth century the Amish population has doubled every twenty years, a pattern that seems to have continued in the opening decades of the twenty-first century.(1) Large families are a major source of this growth; but scholars have also noted a remarkably high rate of retention of young people. Most individuals brought up in Amish communities remain there. At the same time, however, experts have paid far less attention to the approximately 15 percent of the Amish who do choose to leave the community and enter "English" society.(2) Although this group has gained notoriety in the mainstream media in published memoirs and cable television shows such as TLC's "Breaking Amish" and National Geographic Channel's "Amish: Out of Order,"(3) the scholarly literature on Amish defection remains quite limited. The research that does exist includes primarily quantitative examinations of Amish directories or genealogies that examine factors associated with leaving the Amish--like gender, birth order, father's occupation, and other demographic characteristics.(4) There is less research on how and why people come to the decision to leave, and, to date, this research generally lacks theoretical grounding.

The absence of theoretical grounding may be due to the distinctive nature of the Amish experience. Amish traditions shape all aspects of individuals' lives; therefore, leaving the Amish involves crossing a formidable social and cultural border as well as a religious one. Sociological theories of religious defection may illuminate the broad pattern of such decisions among the Amish, but they are likely to require further specification and elaboration to account for these experiences. Likewise, perspectives from the sociology of migration may provide a helpful complement for understanding the social and cultural border crossing involved, but they cannot fully explain these experiences. The distinctive nature of Amish life compels us to begin a theoretically-driven examination of defection with an exploratory analysis of narratives of religious exit. This approach problematizes the process by which several former Old Order Amish living in and around Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, left their community and helps set an agenda for future theoretically-grounded research on this process.

LITERATURE REVIEW

For decades, scholars have considered Amish defectors worthy of attention, but the bulk of this research has not focused on their motivations for leaving or processes of exit.(5) The standard comprehensive monographs on the Amish all provide brief, largely descriptive, discussions of Amish defection while drawing a detailed portrait of the complex and varied lives of those who choose to remain Amish. In general, these authors have identified a desire for more intensive religious experiences, aspirations for educational and occupational advancement, dissatisfaction with lifestyle restrictions, and issues with dysfunctional families as key factors in the decision to leave the Artush.(6) While these works provide keen insight into the Amish in general, their discussions of Amish defection do not involve theoretically grounded analyses of the motivations for and experiences of leaving the Amish.

The process of leaving the Amish is complex. The border that separates Amish and non-Amish (or English) is marked not only by religious beliefs and rituals; it also indudes different social networks and cultural traditions, practices, and ideologies, such as language, styles of dress, modes of transportation, and values. Any attempt to understand this process, then, requires insights from more than one field of inquiry. For this exploratory analysis, we consider the ways in which theoretical perspectives from the sociology of religion and the sociology of migration may apply to the former Amish. Furthermore, we consider how baptismal status shapes the experiences and attempt to identify factors these theories may overlook. …

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