At the 2018 Annual Inaugural Conference, “Disrupting History: Reclaiming Our Amish Story,” Professor Michael Billig gave an impassioned lecture about the value of neutrality in the social sciences. He argued that Amish Studies, a field that claims to explain the intricacies of Amish culture and Amish communities, relies too much on functional explanations, rather than historical ones. More critically, this field carries strong biases from people who believe that they are advocating for the Amish, leading to romantic, oversimplified depictions of Amish life in the existing social science literature.
I graduated from Clark University with a Bachelor of Arts in International Development and Social Change, a relatively rare major which essentially means that I have a background in many different areas of the social sciences (anthropology, sociology, economics, political science, women and gender studies, and history). I am currently in the publishing process for original research conducted during my senior year of undergraduate studies and am a master’s candidate in Community Development and Planning. All of this to say, it is not a flippant opinion when I say that there is immense need and value for advocates in the social sciences.
First of all, studying people, their complex societies, their cultures, and their histories is not like studying rocks or microbes in a lab. Five people could conduct the same research study and produce five totally different findings, that does not mean that any one researcher was necessarily better than the others, but rather, that they each provided a different perspective on this issue. The Truth, if we believe in such a thing, exists somewhere in the intersections of these perspectives.
Bronisław Malinowski, the father of social anthropology who Professor Billig references in his talk was not necessarily wrong, but his findings were limited by his positionality and methods. Annette Weiner’s later research was necessary to develop a more complete understanding of life in the Trobiand Islands. Professor Billing references this example, presumably as a cautionary tale of how Malinowski’s bias blinded him, but fails to reckon with the reality that Weiner’s work had a clear and explicit agenda. Unlike Malinowski, she did not claim to offer the whole picture, but instead, presented her piece of the puzzle, with the recognition that she was able to spot it due to her own life experiences.
The Amish scholars who have so prominently featured throughout Wisconsin v. Yoder and related propaganda efforts by the Christian right are not insidious because they are activists, but because they cloak themselves in the familiar cloak of an impartial witness.
They assert that their perspective (as cisgender, white, straight men with doctorates) is inherently neutral, that they can see the Truth and any contradictory evidence is cherry-picked by those with agendas.
The reality is that all social scientists have agendas, whether they admit it or not. The danger comes when they don’t admit that to their audience, who take their word for Truth. Social scientists should be open and transparent about their biases and trust their audience to decide if what they say has merit. Good scholarship exists in robust discussion and disagreement.
Finally, I will close with an anecdote from a study abroad program in Nebaj, Guatemala. Nebaj was one of the hardest-hit regions during the civil war and genocide which ravaged Guatemala for decades. A frustration that many residents expressed to myself and my fellow students over and over was that students and researchers came into their villages, extracted knowledge and experiences, and shared neither anything of themselves nor gave anything back to the villages.
If social scientists are to move past the colonial exoticism of Malinowski’s time, we have to stop pretending that witnessing is enough.
Summer Intern, Amish Heritage Foundation