In an age of sophisticated computer software that can calculate a hifalutin statistical outcome which only a few mathematical geniuses can understand, one can forget the value of other ways to knowing about peoples and cultures anywhere in the world. In volume 3, issue 2 of the Journal of Plain Anabaptist Communities (JPAC), however, we are reminded of the importance of plain, everyday communication between people as a way to learn.
Karen Johnson-Weiner’s unique article on the value of letters is a reminder that numbers are not the only thing that make up rigorous research. Her JPAC article is titled “Buy that Stamp! Letter Writing and Amish Research: A Personal Reflection on a Research Technique.” Below are excerpts from her article and pieces of her correspondence that illustrate the value of letters for learning about the Amish. ~ Joe Donnermeyer
One technique researchers have at their disposal is to take that pad and pen and build on fieldwork connections with letters. Through letters, a researcher can approach the Amish in a way that equalizes the exchange. The Amish informant is no longer “put on the spot” by a questioning researcher, nor is the researcher rushed to “get everything” during a short visit.
Letters substitute for visiting when geography makes in-person catching up difficult. In the Amish world, circle letters create diverse communities within communities, uniting groups of cousins, sisters, single women, childless women, or parents with twins into communities that cross state, settlement, and affiliation borders. Circle letters are really packets of letters. When receiving the packet, each correspondent writes his or her news, adds it to the packet, and then sends the packet on to the next correspondent on the list. When the circle letter comes back to the first correspondent, that person reads all the other letters, takes out his or her original letter, adds a new letter, and then sends it on to the next person.
I discovered the value of letters when I was researching Amish schools. Traveling with Amish friends, we would stop for a couple of hours to visit each school and observe what was going on in the classroom. The work was fascinating, but I always had too many questions. Further, I found that I had even more questions after I had left the classroom, and by then it was too late to ask the teacher. Early on, I promised to send every teacher I talked to copies of the pictures I had taken (with permission), and I asked if I could write and ask follow-up questions. The response was invariably positive, and I began correspondence with Amish teachers in schools in diverse communities across several states. The correspondence gave me the opportunity to question my observations and impressions from those short field visits. More importantly, the teachers who wrote me back generally gave me far more detailed answers to questions than I could ever have hoped for in short, face-to-face interviews.
This letter from a teacher does much more than answer questions about curriculum.
Here is a letter from an Amish woman writing about Ordnung, change, and fellowship.
Over the years a variety of letters have kept me up-to-date on activities and included me in family and community events in ways I never imagined when I first encountered the Amish. From outlines of children’s hands to show me how the little ones have grown, to invitations to make potato chips…I have received missives I could not have imagined when I wrote that first letter to ask a question.
And then there are the letters with a good sense humor. The first both challenges gender assumptions about the activities of Amish women and acknowledges the author’s joy at taking on the very traditional role of Amish wife. The next letter sent to me jokingly hides the sender’s name.
These letters and many more have informed my research. Through the correspondence in my files, I have been able to let the Amish speak for themselves. In each of my books, letters from Amish correspondents have augmented oral interviews, archival work, and participant observation. In fact, the letters I have received over the past 30 plus years are primary source materials I never expected to have.
Karen Johnson-Weiner has contributed all her correspondence to the Earl H. and Anita F. Hess Archives and Special Collections at Elizabethtown College. If you visit the High Library of Elizabethtown College and access some of Karen’s correspondence, don’t be surprised if you find yourself there at closing time, engrossed in the same fascinating learning curve that informed her research.
Karen Johnson-Weiner is a Distinguished Service Professor of Anthropology Emerita at SUNY Potsdam, New York. She earned a Ph.D. in linguistics from McGill University, Montreal, Quebec, Canada. She was a Snowden Fellow with the Young Center for Anabaptist and Pietist Studies, Elizabethtown College, in the Fall, 2015.
A sampling of her scholarly work includes: The Lives of Amish Women (2020, Johns Hopkins University Press); New York Amish: Life in the Plain Communities of the Empire State (2nd ed, 2017, Cornell University Press); Train Up a Child: Old Order Amish and Mennonite Schools (2007, Johns Hopkins University Press), and with co-authors Don Kraybill and Steven Nolt, The Amish (2013, Johns Hopkins University Press).
The Journal of Plain Anabaptist Communities can be accessed at https://plainanabaptistjournal.org. While there, register (upper right hand corner) for the journal, which takes only a few minutes to complete.