As the world began to shift from an economy reliant on agriculture to one of industrial influence, so too did daily interaction among human beings. Community life that once hailed the virtues of work ethic and intimate interaction slowly gave way to a society corrupted by the destructive nature of self-achievement and individualism. To maintain a way of life that coheres with the principles of old, certain sects of people began to withdraw from the blooming of this new type of society. Such people set up small societies that were generally self-sufficient, and stressed the importance of maintaining close relationships with neighbors as well as family. In such societies today, the most common example is likely the Amish community. A total withdrawal from all technological aspects of society enables them to focus more on religion and social interaction than modern society can allow.
To define these two types of society, sociologist Ferdinand Tönnies (1887/1988) categorized them as two distinct styles of society. He applies the term Gemeinschaft to refer to a community focused on intimate social interaction. He states that everyone in the community knows everyone, and that the members of the society share a sense of shared fate. This type of society keeps itself in line, because if one deviates, the rest of the community will conspire to damage the deviant’s reputation. Although their lives are largely controlled by the opinions of others, they can derive comfort from knowing that they are part of an intimate group.
On the other extreme of the spectrum is Gesellschaft, which refers to the chaotic society of today’s industrial society. Tonnies noted that the industrialization of the 20th century was tearing at the fabric of simple village life. The importance of personal ties, lifelong friendships, and family connections was effectively belittled in the light of short-term relationships, individual accomplishments, and self-interests. Gossip within this type of society is much less effective, because if things turn poorly, short-term relationships could be terminated while new ones began. Formal agencies such as the police and courts replaced the influences of peer pressure and gossip.
The Amish communities of today are beautiful examples of what Tonnies referred to as Gemeinschaft Communities – which he accurately predicted would exist as a result of resistance to industrialization. In these communities, weekly meetings regarding distribution of goods and the common welfare replace today’s courts and other agencies. All decisions are made based on the needs of individuals who you share close relationships with. Thus, each decision is wholly made to better the community on all levels. In typical society, laws must be passed to appeal to the common good of many sects of people – generally favoring the wealthy and those living in modernized areas. These laws are often not relevant to communities like Indian reserves and Amish districts, and thus have no place in society. In this way, the Amish way of life makes perfect sense.
Another reason the Amish separate themselves from the world is because of a literal interpretation of Christ’s Sermon on the Mount. They hold that in order to remain loyal to their faith, they must minimize the distractions produced by modern society. In smaller, family centered communities, one can put most of his stock in biblical study and worship than in the job market, social acceptance, and other financial concerns.
The importance of preserving wholesome values of old is held more highly in the eyes of some. A deeper connection to your neighbors and family allows for a well rounded development and a fuller sense of security. As Tönnies states, humans will do whatever is necessary to maintain strong social bonds.