As the world began to shift from an economy linked to agriculture to one of industrial influence, so did the daily interaction between human beings. The communal 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-improvement and individualism. In order to maintain a way of life consistent with the principles of yesteryear, certain sects of people began to withdraw from the flourishing of this new type of society. These people established small societies that were generally self-sufficient and emphasized the importance of maintaining close relationships with neighbors and family. In such societies today, the most common example is probably the Amish community. A total withdrawal from all technological aspects of society allows them to focus more on religion and social interaction than modern society can allow.
To define these two types of society, the sociologist Ferdinand Tönnies (1887/1988) classified them as two different styles of society. He applies the term Gemeinschaft to refer to a community focused on intimate social interaction. He asserts that everyone in the community knows everyone and that members of society share a sense of shared destiny. This type of society is kept at bay, 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 find comfort in knowing that they are part of an intimate group.
At the other end of the spectrum is Gesellschaft, which refers to the chaotic society of today’s industrial society. Tonnies pointed out 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 downplayed in light of short-term relationships, individual achievement, and self-interest. Gossip within this type of society is much less effective, because if things go wrong, short-term relationships could end while new ones begin. Formal agencies like the police and the courts replaced the influences of peer pressure and gossip.
Amish communities today are beautiful examples of what Tonnies called Gemeinschaft communities, which he accurately predicted would come into existence as a result of resistance to industrialization. In these communities, weekly meetings on the distribution of goods and the common welfare replace the courts and other agencies of today. All decisions are made based on the needs of the people with whom you share a close relationship. Therefore, every decision is made entirely to improve the community at 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 who live in modernized areas. These laws are often not relevant to communities such as Indian reservations and Amish districts, and therefore 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 argue that to remain true to their faith, they must minimize the distractions produced by modern society. In smaller, family-centered communities, one may put more of their capital into Bible study and worship than into the job market, social acceptance, and other financial concerns.
The importance of preserving the healthy values of yesteryear is higher in the eyes of some. A deeper connection with their neighbors and family members allows for holistic development and a greater sense of security. As Tönnies states, humans will do whatever it takes to maintain strong social ties.