First Monday

Exploring ethnographic techniques for ICT non-use research: An Amish case study by Lindsay Ems

This paper explores the ethnographic methods used to study information communication technology (ICT) non-use among a group of ardent non-users, the Old Order Amish. During a multi-year investigation in two Amish settlements, three specific strategies proved essential to gaining access to members of the target population and acquiring relevant and meaningful data for analysis: 1) engaging a principal informant, 2) privileging the body as a communication medium, and 3) developing new personal connections through existing personal connections. By employing these techniques, barriers to access were productively mitigated. The data collected using these techniques yielded rich insights about Amish ICT use, and non-use and what those variable modalities meant for the perceived empowerment of Amish communities in an increasingly high-tech and globally networked world. This study documents a set of techniques, which have been successful in collecting rich ethnographic data to describe Amish ICT use as inherently situated in a complex ecology of socio-technical life. Additionally, it presents a toolkit for studying ICT use and non-use among the Amish, as such toolkits have not been described in previous research. The application of these techniques for researching ICT non-use in other contexts is also discussed.


Barriers to access
Preparing to gain access: The devil is in the details
Techniques for overcoming barriers to the study of Amish ICT non-use




The advantages of applying ethnographic techniques to the study of ICT non-use, have been noted in multiple studies (Ito, et al., 2009; Woodruff, et al., 2007). Common to such approaches is a tradition of understanding technology use and non-use as existing in a complimentary and dialectic relationship (Goggin and Hjorth, 2009). Additionally, converged media formats are seen as interacting and coming together to comprise a media ecology inhabited by individuals (Ito, et al., 2009). This stands in contrast to studies that seek to isolate specific technical characteristics of a medium or the specific impact of a medium on an individual. Instead, it examines the “constellation of changes to media technology” (Ito, et al., 2009). In this type of approach researchers aim to gain an understanding of how non-use is constructed by individuals, what it means to them and how it is shaped by and helps shape specific social contexts.

To do this, researchers often observe non-using individuals and ask them questions about their (non-)engagement with technology (Woodruff, et al., 2007). In a study of Orthodox Jews’ ICT non-use on the Sabbath, for example, researchers learned that non-use often involved automation of domestic electrical devices on the Sabbath. Non-use on the Sabbath was intended to help individuals adhere to religious beliefs and practices, though informants often automated the use of technologies to avoid manual usage, which was prohibited on the Sabbath. DVRs and answering machines, for example, enabled television programs and phone calls to be automatically recorded for later viewing or listening and lights were turned on and off by a sensor. Thus, by studying strategies for non-use, researchers were able to identify complexities (non-)users experienced when negotiating their cultural and religious values in everyday life. These negotiations are significant as they often revealed values important to participants such as preserving religious rituals and connecting with their families through spiritual practice (Woodruff, et al., 2007). In this way, the ethnographic study of ICT use and non-use allows the observation of complex, meaningful situated practices that reveal the negotiation of morals and ethics in everyday life.

In this paper, ethnographic techniques used to study information communication technology (ICT) non-use among a different group of ardent non-users are described. It follows the approach to ethnographic fieldwork, which views the building of relationships with participants as a relational process (Feldman, et al. 2003). It also approaches the ethnographic study of a complex socio-technical ecology where the “circuits” of information exchange are as important to understand as the “packets” (Faubion and Marcus, 2009). The methods outlined here contribute to existing scholarship by positing techniques useful for studying ICT non-use among the Old Order Amish. ICT use and non-use has not been systematically studied among this population since the early to mid 1990s when Diane Umble (1996) examined the adoption of the telephone among Pennsylvania Amish. While shorter, more cursory reports documenting ICT non-use among the Amish have been published since (Ems, 2014; Kelly, 2010; Kraybill, et al., 2013; Murphy, 2009; Rheingold, 1999; Wetmore, 2007), these have not taken the complex ecology of Amish socio-technical life, which is more thoroughly captured via prolonged ethnographic inquiry, into consideration. Furthermore, in nearly all reports documenting ICT use among the Amish, methodological approaches are described casually, if at all.

Therefore, this project contributes methodologically on two fronts. First, though it does not outline new socio-technical ethnographic techniques, per se, it documents a set of techniques, which have been successful in collecting rich data that helps understand Amish ICT (non-)use that is inherently situated in a complex ecology of socio-technical life. Second, it presents a toolkit for studying ICT use and non-use among the Amish, as such toolkits have not been extensively articulated (Kraybill, 2012; Mast, 2012). The ethnographic techniques identified in this article, then, generally enrich a growing body of research that views ICT non-use as a situated political strategy among a distinct community of users and, specifically, it documents strategies for conducting research among the Amish.

The methodological techniques outlined below were used to conduct a multi-year ethnographic investigation of ICT (non-)use in two Old Order Amish settlements in Indiana. The project’s aim was to understand how ICT non-use practices act functionally and symbolically to sustain Old Order Amish communities by protecting their cultural autonomy in an increasingly networked world. At its foundation is a belief that ICT non-use practices shared among group members can be viewed as artifacts that make political ambitions observable to researchers. In the case of this study, interviews with Amish church and business leaders revealed that technology non-use acts as a political mechanism for preserving Amish religious values and traditions and promoting individual social and spiritual health. These participants reported feeling that their collective non-use practices empowered their communities by preserving Amish cultural autonomy in the digital age. This, they felt, made Amish individuals less susceptible to corporate and governmental ideologies promoting individualism, conspicuous consumption, mobility, fragmentation and anonymity. Thus, the ethnographic techniques outlined in this paper, though not an extensive list, can be used to help researchers better understand what role ICTs and their non-use (can) play in achieving the kind of community empowerment a marginal group, like the Amish, envision for themselves. In an increasingly networked society where centralized governments and corporations wield disproportionate cultural and political power, the study of shared ICT non-use practices becomes a particularly illustrative lens.

The research questions motivating this study were

  1. How do the Amish design communication infrastructures that empower them?
  2. How does the materiality of a technology influence the choices available to them in the design of communication infrastructures?
  3. How do the Amish develop rules of behavior that regulate ICT use?




The set of ethnographic techniques described below were developed in situ during the author’s 2011–2014 dissertation fieldwork. Data was collected via field-based observations and by conducting semi-structured interviews with 35 key opinion leaders in Amish communities. Ten additional local non-Amish individuals who regularly engaged with Amish people and enabled their use of ICTs were also interviewed. Non-Amish participants included librarians, advertising, journalism and public relations professionals, Amish employers, etc. In addition, field-based observations in two settlements in Indiana, home to the third largest population of Amish in North America, were conducted. While the Amish are not entirely anti-technology (Kelly, 2010; Rheingold, 1999; Umble, 1996; Wetmore, 2007), their resistance to adopting digital communication technologies makes them an interesting case study for the to explore the macro-level politics of ICT non-use in the digital age.

Generally, the Amish are conservative Christians known for living pre-modern lifestyles (Kraybill and Olshan, 1994). They are American Protestants who have resisted assimilation into mainstream culture for centuries, tracing their roots back to sixteenth century Germany and Switzerland (Nolt and Meyers, 2007). Their belief that individuals should be old enough to decide for themselves whether to be baptized or not made them heretics at a time when baptism was conducted on infants and signaled allegiance to the Church and State (Kraybill, 2001). Because of widespread persecution, many Amish emigrated to North America to evade control over their beliefs and practices by centralized powers. They settled in rural areas, away from the nucleus of state and corporate control, and for the most part, remain there today.

The population of nearly 300,000 Amish living in North America today commonly reject electricity supplied via the public power grid, television, radio, automobiles, and modern clothing fashions (Kraybill, et al., 2013). However, they are currently negotiating drastic economic changes in many communities across the continent (Hurst and McConnell, 2010). The cost of farmland is going up and it has become nearly impossible to make a living on a small farm, as has been the venerated and traditional profession among the Amish since their start in Europe. All things considered, however, the Amish are taking these changes in stride. Their population is growing exponentially and unemployment is virtually unheard of (Hurst and McConnell, 2010; Young Center for Anabaptist and Pietist Studies, 2015). In more progressive communities, in the last 20 years or so, entrepreneurs have ventured into the tourism, manufacturing and cottage industries to make a living (Hurst and McConnell, 2010; Kraybill, et al., 2013; Wesner, 2010). As a result many Amish businesses have begun using fax machines, word processors, cell phones and Web sites to conduct business and attract non-Amish customers (Kraybill, et al., 2013; Ashton, 2015). ICT adoption in these new enterprises is beginning to take off and is spreading into personal spheres as well. In many communities at the moment, the adoption of new technologies like cell phones and computers is very controversial and little research has been done on how the influx of these technologies are changing Amish culture and ways of life (for more on this see Ems, 2014, 2015).

Since the 1950s scholars have studied Amish culture and heritage (Anderson and Donnermeyer, 2013; Hostetler, 1963; Hurst and McConnell, 2010; Johnson-Wiener, 2007, 2010; Kraybill, 2001, 1993; Kraybill and Bowman, 2001; Kraybill and Olshan, 1994; Kraybill, et al., 2013, 2010, 2007; Nolt and Meyers, 2007; Umble, 2003, 1996; Umble and Weaver-Zercher, 2008; Weaver-Zercher, 2005, 2001; Wesner, 2010). These authors often live close to a large Amish settlement and/or have Amish ancestors. Their writings are often general, wide-ranging and accessible to non-academic and academic audiences alike. As a result, only cautiously do they posit generalizations about culture and practice across the diverse Amish population today. Discussions of research methodology in such accounts are typically omitted and communication technology use is not a primary focus — it is often treated as an isolated subject, explored in one chapter in a broader book about many aspects of Amish society, if at all. In depth ethnographies exploring new communication technology adoption have not yet been conducted. They are needed to better understand how members of Amish communities are negotiating socio-technical change as their social worlds are undergoing drastic technological and economic transformation. Such investigations stand to shed light on how ICTs are being adopted (or not) in ways that preserve Amish cultural and political autonomy in the information age.

The existing studies of technology use among the Amish consist of short accounts, often descriptions of isolated visits to Amish communities, where data are gleaned from a convenience sample of a few interviewees (Ashton, 2015; Ems, 2014; Kelly, 2010; Rheingold, 1999; Murphy, 2009; Wetmore, 2007). In describing Amish philosophies about technologies, Jameson Wetmore says, the Amish believe that technologies reinforce social norms and enable and constrain the ways that people interact with one another. For these reasons the Amish feel it is important to regulate their use of technology in order to preserve their culture. Quoting an Amish person regarding their approach to technology, Wetmore reports the Amish feel, “Machinery is not wrong in itself, but if it doesn’t help fellowship you shouldn’t have it” [1]. Popular technology writer, Howard Rheingold, observed a similar sentiment in his investigation of Amish cell phone use in Lancaster County in the 1990s. His interactions with Lancaster County Amish led him to conclude that the Amish are “techno-selectives” and are far from “knee-jerk technophobes.” In his conversations with an Amish woodworker he learned the Amish “don’t want to be the kind of people who will interrupt a conversation at home to answer a telephone” (Rheingold, 1999). For them, it is not just how you use the technology, it is what kind of person you become when you use it (Rheingold, 1999). In his interviews with Amish people, he learned that when deciding whether to adopt a technology, church leaders ask if it will bring the community together or tear it apart. If it brings people together, typically it is accepted. If not, it is likely to be rejected or limits on its usage will be made to accommodate professional or economic necessity. Thus, technologies like rollerblades, trampolines, motorboats and barbeques are often adopted because they bring families together. Televisions, video games, radios and cars are not because they are seen as distractions from family or community time. In a brief visit to northern Indiana, Ems (2014) found that members of the Amish community were creating socio-technical workarounds to facilitate uses of new technologies while still adhering to Amish values. Wetmore, Rheingold, and Ems’ insights suggest that the Amish approach to technology, despite common misperceptions, is not black or white. There are times when technologies are accepted and times when they are not. These decisions often come down to contentious decisions that reflect a desire to abide by and protect religious and cultural rituals tied to a shared heritage, which connect individuals in this group to one another as the environment around them changes.

Diane Umble’s (1996) work on the competing meanings assigned to the telephone during its adoption among the Amish in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania is particularly illustrative for the present investigation. Relying both on historical record and prolonged ethnographic inquiry, Umble explains the changes in social structures and culture that the telephone introduced in many Amish communities during the twentieth century. According to Umble (1996), among the Amish, there has always been a preference for communication to be practiced through rituals of worship, silence, work and face-to-face visiting that are anchored in the home. She found the arrival of the telephone brought new ways of communicating which threatened face-to-face communication and oriented communication away from the home. The telephone, according to Umble, is not merely a neutral instrument. “It intrudes into already-established patterns of communication, potentially reorganizing and reordering practices that have long held ‘the world’ at bay.” [2] The telephone, she says, made the community permeable to new information and introduced new methods for information gathering, association and interpersonal interaction. When the telephone first appeared in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, many Amish felt that “being able to know everything quickly” represented the access of worldly knowledge, which resulted in some calling it a “sinful network” (Umble, 1996). With the telephone, the world was brought to your door, she says. This was a reality welcomed by some and shunned by others. At issue with this technology was that “the telephone decontextualized communication and, thus the Old Order communicator” [3]. Today telephones are found in or near many Amish homes and businesses. It is now largely a settled issue that phones must reside in a small shed, outside the home, so as not to disturb family conversation. The ban on phones inside the home persists still today.

Umble’s study builds on communication technology scholar, Carolyn Marvin’s (1988) philosophy that the study of new media should approach media not as fixed objects with homogeneous effects, but as “constructed complexes of habits, beliefs, and procedures embedded in elaborate cultural codes of communication” [4]. From this perspective, the different responses of social groups to the same technology helps reveal, “issues crucial to the conduct of social life; among them, who is inside and outside, who may speak, and who may not, and who has authority and may be believed” [5]. The Old Order Amish banned the telephone (later a compromise was reached to adopt it but ban it from the home) because they thought it was not a necessity, they saw it as of “the world” and thought it led to association with outsiders (Umble, 2003). They also felt personal ownership of the telephone brought about individualism and pride instead of humility — values they felt were counter to their religious doctrine and way of life.

The Amish make formal decisions about adopting ICTs or not publicly, communally and democratically within a rigidly structured community of church members (Kraybill, 2001). In my fieldwork I investigated the work Amish church and business leaders did to develop and enforce the formal rules and informal norms governing new technology adoption. According to participants these helped members of the Amish community work and live in the modern world, without becoming assimilated into it. Among the Amish, such rules and social norms are conventionally developed and enacted at the church community-level.

A church community, or district, is concretely defined. It consists of 20 to 30 families who all live in close proximity to one another. Church communities are geographically bounded so that it is possible to travel from home to church by buggy, foot or bicycle. Church services take place in members’ homes. So, when a district grows too big to fit into a home, it splits in two [6]. Members of a church district are referred to as “brothers” and “sisters” and seen as extensions of the family. Rule-making processes governing the adoption and use of ICTs are facilitated and enforced by each church’s bishop and ministers [7]. If a person is a member of an Amish church, he or she is expected to abide by its rules. According to participants in this study, church rules are intended to keep individuals rooted culturally, spiritually and physically in the local community. Rules are aimed at strengthening local, close-knit networks of social and economic support and encouraging individuals to live simple, peaceful lives in tune with natural rhythms, which they feel are pleasing to God. Church leaders realize, however, in order to secure essential financial resources for survival in today’s economy, concessions must be made. As a result, ICT adoption and use is currently on the rise in many Amish communities.



Barriers to access

Despite recent changes in technology adoption and growing trends to work more closely with local non-Amish patrons and vendors, the Amish still generally resist non-essential engagements with outsiders. This presented real challenges for studying ICT adoption in Amish communities. In the planning stages of this project, I sought the advice of established Amish studies scholars to help overcome this challenge. They often offered warnings like this

The Amish typically don’t do “interviews,” especially if they think it is for data that will be quantified and reported. Sometimes they will talk with people, but usually they request not to be quoted directly. They are hesitant to “talk” until they know someone and have a sense of trust about whether the talk is to learn to know one another personally, or if it is for the purpose of gathering information. (Bach, 2013)

In the field, I learned that the popularity of sensationalized reality television shows, like Amish Mafia, have amplified this resistance, as members of Amish communities reported fearing they would be wrongly quoted or portrayed in the media. Thus, in general, the literature in the field of Amish studies struggles from access problems and making claims about the population on the whole is extremely difficult. Those who have done so (Hurst and McConnell, 2010; Johnson-Wiener, 2007, 2010; Kraybill, 2001, 1993; Kraybill and Bowman, 2001; Kraybill and Olshan, 1994; Kraybill, et al., 2013, 2010, 2007; Nolt and Meyers, 2007; Umble, 2003, 1996; Umble and Weaver-Zercher, 2008; Weaver-Zercher, 2005, 2001; Wesner, 2010) have studied the Amish first hand and by via participating in a close-knit community of Amish studies researchers (who are often Mennonites, descendants of ex-Amish, ex-Amish themselves or living in close proximity to Amish people) for decades. These authors have acquired an authenticity through their prolonged engagement with, and embeddedness in an Amish community and Amish studies community. This rich body of research shows that being a pseudo-insider is a distinct advantage for gaining access to the Amish (Umble, 1996).

These scenarios, however, do not characterize my association with the Amish. I am an agnostic, unmarried female Midwestern graduate student in my early 30s who is beguiled by social media’s cultural and political impacts. Based on these characteristics, I could not be less fit for achieving status according to Amish schemas: I am a technology buff, I seek answers to worldly questions, I do not have a husband, children, a job, (exceptional) homemaking skills, devout belief in God, etc. Going into the project, I knew I had to work to overcome the cultural barriers that separated me from those I wanted to interview.

Looking back, there were a variety of factors contributing to my success on this front. On a few occasions, I simply happened to be in the right place at the right time. In most instances, though, when potential participants learned about the topical focus of this study, they were quite willing to participate in interviews. In conducting initial field site visits, I learned that the (non-)adoption of new communication technologies was a topic of interest to many of Amish business and church leaders. As I began conducting my fieldwork in earnest, I realized that navigating the influx of new media in Amish communities was a source of much debate. Church and business leaders held a variety of strongly held opinions about how and why ICTs should or should not be adopted. Some anticipated that these could eventually lead to a schism in the church. Those who felt they should not be adopted had a number of reasons for taking this view. For example, Nelson, a southern Indiana business owner told me, “Technologies like cell phones and the Internet are one way to participate in the fast pace of life which results in Christianity being crowded out.” He felt “cell phones were the world’s worst addiction.” Christianity, he said, was like the salt that preserved souls and humanity. Technology, he felt, destroyed the salt. “This stuff (ICT) is crowding Christianity out. When the salt is gone, preservatives are gone and the meat spoils.” Floyd, a northern Indiana minister and business owner, felt that if the Amish, “get more involved in the outside world, [they] will lose [their] culture — and technology is a bridge to the outside.” And Robert, a minister and business owner from northern Indiana, felt “technologies made you independent not dependent on your community.” For him this was problematic because technologies might eventually lead to dissolution of the Amish culture if members of Amish communities were no longer dependent on one another.

In contrast, many participants highlighted virtues associated with ICTs. A few business leaders reported having Web sites for their businesses. For example, Dennis, the owner of a construction company, told me he had computers, a Web site and smartphones and reported owning (but not driving) trucks for his business. He had non-Amish workers, one of whom, his son, drove the trucks and operated the computer. Dennis described multiple vacations he took to Europe, in which he was a passenger on a luxurious trans-Atlantic cruise ship. He and his wife traveled across the Atlantic by boat because flying was against Amish church rules. His wife, he said, also used a smart phone at home to keep in touch with family members who lived far away. His three sons were co-owners of the business now too. The one who chose not to join the Amish church made it possible for the company to own computers and graphic design software, which he used to create advertisements for the company, among other things. When ministers preached against the use of new ICTs, Dennis said, “I let it go in one ear and out the other.” According to Dennis, new technologies were not a danger to the Amish community if used in the “right” way. He said he consulted his conscious to ensure he and his employees used technologies in ways that did not conflict with Amish values. From his perspective new technologies enabled him to live the kind of life he wanted and be successful in business. Members of Dennis’ community realized that “he (and his sons) couldn’t run their multi-million dollar business without these technologies,” he said. From Dennis’ view, ICTs enabled him to share his finances and leadership with the rest of community, resources they also valued and he was glad to be able to give back. “Tradition isn’t everything,” Dennis felt.

Often, before agreeing to talk to me, participants wanted to know what motivated me to do this research. In those conversations, I explained that I understood new ICTs were having good and bad influences on human relationships. Too often, though, I felt we only heard about the good influences. I was there to learn about Amish viewpoints because I wanted to understand how placing limits on technology adoption might also empower groups of people. This seemed to strike a chord with many potential participants.

I discovered we had a common interest in and passion for understanding how ICTs impacted human happiness and well-being. This commonality was helpful in breaking down the cultural barriers that separated us. Indeed, principal informant, 54-year-old Sam, told me he worked his whole life to develop a business that could provide for his workers material needs, social comfort, and spiritual health. In his furniture-making workshop where 45 people were employed, Sam felt his financial success was only one part of the type of success he sought to achieve. It was important to him that his workers had input in, and a sense of ownership over the business. The type of success he strived for involved motivating employees to see they shared a broader purpose that guided and inspired their daily work. For Sam and his employees, their work was an important compartment of life wherein religious values and spirituality were seen as inextricable from everyday work for material gain.

To create such an environment, among other things, Sam reported curating the sounds in the workshop. He did not allow music or topics of discussion that his Amish employees might find offensive or counter to their shared values. Often he set the tone of important meetings by starting with a prayer. This, he felt, reminded workers of their common purpose and goals and made meetings more productive. Sam also enforced specific rules about cell phone use at work. Cell phones were only to be used on break or at lunch and should be otherwise stored in an employee’s locker. Sam said, upon implementation of this rule, he saw his employees become more relaxed and happier. In my conversations with Sam, I learned he spent years thinking about the role that technologies like radios and cell phones played in his social and spiritual well-being. He said he felt so strongly about this that he started his own business specifically to create a workplace where such a culture existed. Many other participants in this study reported having similar aims. For them, visions of success that were too heavily focused on finances and did not consider other important goals, like caring for the spiritual, social and mental well-being of workers, were too myopic. As a result of the deeply held philosophical values and depth of thought already given to negotiating new technologies in Amish daily life, participants seemed open to providing answers to questions about the role ICTs played in their lives. While the fact that this topic was important to participants may have helped overcome barriers to access, additional techniques were also used to enroll and maintain connection with participants who were generally leery of communication with outsiders.



Preparing to gain access: The devil is in the details

Many small methodological decisions were made in the planning stages of this project, which helped overcome barriers to access and make the most of opportunities that emerged organically in the field. These small decisions provided a framework for the development of a comprehensive data collection approach aimed at 1) answering the study’s research questions while 2) accounting for the unique characteristics of the target population’s social world.

The data collection approach used was specifically aimed at finding answers to the three research questions outlined above. In deciding how to recruit individuals for semi-structured interviews, efforts were focused on two understudied, yet large Amish settlements in Indiana (for convenience, “the northern Indiana settlement” and “the southern Indiana settlement”) [8]. Amish ministers and business owners were targeted via a snowball sampling method because they are key opinion leaders and more accessible to outsiders than non-leaders [9]. Being an Amish bishop or minister is an unpaid job so the 35 leaders participating all had other professions and hobbies in addition to their duties as ordained clergymen. This group was very eclectic containing entrepreneurs, farmers, furniture makers, buggy-builders, cabinet makers, mechanical engineers, millionaires, school board members, patent holders, a historian, a manager at a multi-national corporation, a clock-maker, an employee at a business that sells almost two million dollars worth of product on a popular online auction Web site and at least one world traveler. As is conventional among the Amish, these men had only eighth grade educations and were largely self-taught. Additionally, an effort was made ahead of time to learn as much as possible about Amish social structures, history, culture, belief, social convention, and ritual from existing research. This encouraged participants’ social worlds to be understood and approached with sensitivity and and enabled the creation of an environment during interviews that put informants at ease.

Additionally, adhering to Amish social norms and practices (as much as possible) was key to conducting productive interviews. Knowing the interview questions by heart and asking them naturally — as if conversing with a friend — were very useful tactics. Initial research revealed that the Amish do not allow photographs of themselves to be taken because it is seen to create a graven image. Because of this, and to avoid imprinting non-Amish philosophies about ICT use and adoption on interviewees, it was decided not to audio record interviews with Amish participants. Instead, when an interview was over, I went back to my car and immediately recorded a recapitulation of the discussion. With participants’ permission, notes were taken by hand during the interview, which helped in creating an accurate recapitulation later. This took some practice to master, but after awhile it became quite routine and important items were easier to identify when they emerged in conversations and they were highlighted in notes and recordings. These documents were archived for data analysis at the end of a field visit. Data analysis was performed after all fieldwork and interviews were complete. This involved listening to the recorded interview recapitulations and coding them, identifying common themes following a thematic analysis approach (Lapadat, 2010). Knowing ahead of time how the recording and analysis of interview data would be done encouraged a greater researcher focus on connecting to participants and listening to them during the interview. These relatively mundane considerations proved to be exceptionally important as they provided the scaffolding from which more nuanced data collection techniques emerged.



Techniques for overcoming barriers to the study of Amish ICT non-use

In this section, three more nuanced techniques for engaging Amish participants in an ethnographic study of ICT (non-)use are described: 1) Engaging a principal informant, 2) Privileging the body as a communication medium, and 3) Developing new personal connections through existing personal connections. These techniques are tangible components of a data collection strategy aimed at understanding how ICT non-use is inherently situated in context and facilitates social relationships and cultural practices among Old Order Amish informants in daily engagements.

Engaging a principal informant

The first technique involved engaging a principal informant upon arriving in each settlement. In northern Indiana, Noah, a 50-year-old entrepreneur and minister, helped provide access to members of the settlement for enrollment in the study. In southern Indiana, Sam, a 54-year-old woodworker, played a similar role [10]. The importance of these two men to this project cannot be overstated. Noah and Sam’s participation evolved organically as the study progressed. Neither were selected in any formal way, but their interest in the research and the evolution of their relationship with the researcher positioned them naturally to play an essential role in the successful completion of the research. Both were well-respected and well-connected in-group members of the target population and self-identified technology buffs. Noah and Sam themselves were fountains of information and insights, which they generously shared in countless conversations with the researcher over the course of the data collection period. As gatekeepers to the target population, they signaled to their peers that this was a legitimate project and participation would not endanger them in any way.

In 2011, on an initial visit to northern Indiana, Noah was working in his wife’s tourism-oriented retail store on a brisk spring day. His plain clothes, beard and subtle accent signaled his affiliation with the Amish church. His wife, who was working busily behind the store’s counter also wore an apron, long dress, black sneakers and a white bonnet. Electric lights illuminated the store. Sounds of electronic cash registers and ringing telephones filled the space, though only a few customers were perusing the kitchenware items available that day. When approached, Noah was warm and open to answering questions about Amish culture, the local community, his business and their use of technology. As a church minister, he explained how church leaders were chosen by lot, which signaled God’s ultimate power over the church. Conversation flowed smoothly for an hour or so as he explained he had a Web site for his business through which he and his wife sold the same handmade items for sale in the store. The store’s Web site, he said, was in its second iteration and was search engine optimized. He hired a third-party vendor to create and manage it for him. Winter is a slow time for the economy in the region, which relied heavily on tourism. According to Noah, “When it’s dead up here, we rely more on online sales ... It’s becoming a matter of survival,” but not everyone in his community was ready to start adopting Web sites.

Noah remained in contact via e-mail and cell phone. About a year later, we scheduled a meeting, as he offered to introduce me to other members of his community. A few days before, during a phone conversation, Noah, revealed that one of his three businesses (not his wife’s retail store) had completely burned down. “It was a total loss,” he reported. When asked if he would like to reschedule our meeting, he said, “Oh, no. The guys already know I will be with you on Thursday. Besides, it’s likely that the building will be back up by then anyway. There were 50-some people here last night and more are likely to come tomorrow.” As he predicted, two days later, what was left of the old building had been torn down and a new building had been rebuilt in its place. That day, Noah facilitated interviews with four other church and business leaders as planned. While driving through the remote countryside Noah directed me from one stop to the next. His cell phone was plugged into my car’s cigarette lighter as he talked on it, coordinating the delivery of building supplies and workers for the reconstruction of his business. Reflecting on the Amish community helping him get back on his feet quickly, Noah felt, it was “quite humbling to be on the receiving end of so much help.” He said, however, he felt good about also being able to help others in the community when there was a “loss.” This experience, however, really helped him understand how important the tradition of mutual support in moments of crisis among the Amish was now that the help was directed at him. He was clearly touched by all the support he received. The church, according to Noah, had an insurance fund (consisting of members’ contributions) which, provided support for rebuilding members’ businesses in this kind of situation. “It helps get businesses that have suffered a loss back on their feet,” he said.

Throughout this project’s data collection period, Noah assisted in enrolling new participants. He often provided names and addresses of people he felt would provide a diverse array of opinions on technology adoption and use in his settlement. At the time of writing, a year since the project’s data collection was completed, Noah remains in touch via e-mail and social media. In his last missive, he noted an eagerness to read the dissertation report, which he and other participants will receive as a hand-delivered hard copy upon its completion.

On a cold November day in the southern Indiana settlement Sam’s custom furniture-making workshop was bustling with activity. The owner’s wife, Martha, greeted guests as they entered the office from outside. Though, Mr. Vincent Sellers, the director of the county’s historical society and I arrived unannounced, Martha greeted us warmly. Ben, the production floor manager, a lean Amish man with a gray beard, guided us through an extensive tour of the facility where high-end wood furniture was made from raw lumber. Sam’s business employed 45 workers who operated high-tech electric equipment to produce, assemble and finish the furniture. The design of the products, however, was done by hand — with pencil on graph paper by women who sat next to Martha in the office. After the tour, in his private office, Sam explained he was very interested in technology. Growing up, Sam was not sure he would decide to join the Amish church, because he loved technology so much. Before he started his furniture business, Sam was a mechanic at a trucking company. He knew if he joined the church he would have to give up working and tinkering with technology. As the economy has shifted over time, though, he worked with the church (in fact his bishop is one of his employees), to incorporate high-tech electronic equipment in the fabrication of his products. According to Sam, this is because it makes production more convenient and less expensive than the pneumatic systems that many Amish businesses used in the past (and some still do). In order to incorporate and utilize electronic machines, Sam taught himself electronics out of a book, he said. Over the course of multiple conversations with Sam, I learned that the main motivation for starting his company was to create a work environment where members of his community could enjoy working and feel comfortable. He worked to create a “good Christian work environment,” he said.

During my fieldwork in southern Indiana, Sam and I talked in person in his office and via telephone a few times a week. Like Noah, he provided names and phone numbers of people who would be likely to participate in interviews. Usually, he cleared it with the individual first to make sure the person was willing to participate and he would often set up a time and place for the meeting to occur. Over the course of the data collection period, Sam also took on the role of an advocate for this project among members of his peer group. Often he encountered resistance in his community from church leaders who did not want this research to be conducted there and ignored invitations for interviews. According to Sam, ministers in his settlement did not want to participate in the project because they were “reserved” and “afraid.” They were worried that a report published by a representative of a university would reveal “inconsistencies” in church leaders’ opinions about “which way the settlement should go on the adoption of cell phones, which should never happen,” according to Sam. Sam felt, however, that “scripture says we should be able to testify our beliefs ... and we should be willing to say why we take the stand we do.” Sam worked hard to help break down barriers to access in the southern Indiana settlement. In the end, data collection there was indeed cut short, as it became very hard to enroll participants. Certainly, without Sam, though, it would not have been possible to accomplish fieldwork there successfully.

Thus, Noah and Sam played vital roles in the completion of this project. The characteristics that made both men successful in this role included their interest in the topic of the research, the quality and quantity of connections they had to other members of the target population, their kindness and generosity and especially, their openness to engaging with non-Amish people.

Privileging the body as a communication medium

The second technique involved privileging the body as a communication medium, given the variety of communication media available for communication in Amish communities today. Amish informants overwhelmingly privileged the body as an ideal communication medium. Therefore, by simply showing up, barriers to access were mitigated that would have otherwise inhibited data collection. Because church ministers, bishops and business owners most frequently made decisions about technology adoption in Amish communities they were targeted for participation in the study. In interviews with leaders, the decision-making process and experiences with ICT adoption and rejection at a community-level could be accessed. Early on, personalized recruitment letters were sent to 18 church leaders in the southern Indiana settlement. The letters explained the research project and asked for recipients’ participation in an interview at the location of their choice. Not a single response to these letters was ever received. Later in the data collection period, Sam revealed that these men had met and unanimously decided not to respond, nor participate in the research. At the time the settlement was going through a struggle negotiating the adoption or rejection of cell phones, Sam revealed. The church leaders worried that a report highlighting leaders’ differences of opinion would contribute to the misinformation about the Amish in popular culture. “It’s not that they’re saying you’re not legitimate,” he said in one of our phone conversations. “It’s that there’s so much out there about the Amish and we don’t want to add more confusion to it.” Sam’s explanation certainly made sense to me, so I decided not to push too hard for the church leaders’ participation.

This event, however, conveyed that the materiality of the medium used for recruitment mattered for the successful enrollment participants. By limiting their use of ICTs, Amish convention required outsiders to drive, sometimes great distances, to visit them in person. Such preferences, they felt, deterred communication that was anonymous, superficial and unimportant. According to informants, doing the work to plan and have a face-to-face meeting showed that a person respected his or her intended communication partner. It also encouraged the coupling of emotion, expressed via facial expression and other non-verbal cues, with information. And participants reported preferring this over media that allowed for information transfer without knowing the sender or receiver’s emotion, like text messaging. According to a number of participants, it was impossible to convey emotion via text, e-mail or the phone. For example, David, a bishop from northern Indiana, said, “You can communicate via text, but there’s no life in it. Can you feel love in a text message? No. You can’t.”

By encouraging communication with researchers to occur face-to-face, interviews frequently occurred in participants’ offices or homes. This also gave them control over when the interview was over if unwanted topics of discussion emerged. For example, Daniel, a southern Indiana business-owner, essentially shut down an interview in his office when a controversial topic came up. Using verbal and non-verbal cues Daniel and his younger colleague Peter, who accompanied him, conveyed their displeasure with a particular topic of conversation — the Black Box Phone. The beginning of the interview with the two men flowed easily. Daniel answered most of the questions and was polite and engaged. However, at the mention of a controversial device in the settlement, the demeanor of both men changed visibly. At the time, the Black Box Phone was the source of much debate among business and church leaders. Some felt it should replace cell phones, which had already achieved widespread adoption in this settlement. Others felt it was too late and “the toothpaste was already out of the tube.” Proponents of the Black Box Phone felt the device allowed for mobile communication, but better adhered to Amish values than cell phones. The Black Box Phone is essentially a landline telephone that connects to a “black box,” or a modem of sorts, which connects the phone to the local cellular network. This is a particularly Amish socio-technical workaround allows mobile communication, but forces conversations to be visible and public. A Black Box Phone is not easily concealed in a pocket or purse and is intended to be shared among members of a construction crew or family, according to participants. Also, it is revered for its inability to text and access the Internet — modes of communication which are less agreeable with Amish values.

Additionally, face-to-face interactions allowed visitors and their intentions to be immediately and more thoroughly inspected than they could have been via telephone, letter or e-mail. From a participant’s point of view, there was much to learn about someone in a single first impression when standing face-to-face and talking in real time, which could not be learned via phone or online. Participants felt this was a useful way to limit unwanted interactions with potentially dangerous outsiders. When conversing face-to-face, there was no time to manicure a Web page’s appearance or think about how to draft an e-mail or text message. In live conversation it is simply much harder to be someone you are not. Amish participants reported preferring to have face-to-face conversations, especially with strangers, for these reasons.

Developing new personal connections through existing personal connections

The third technique used to complete interviews among the Amish involved developing new personal connections through existing personal connections. On my trips to conduct interviews in the northern Indiana settlement, I was often accompanied by my mother, Christina Ems, a 58-year-old, retired high school teacher and librarian. In the southern Indiana settlement, Mr. Vincent Sellers, a retired college history instructor and the director of the county’s historical society and museum, acted as a liaison to the local community. Previous research suggests that Amish participants seek “to place” outsiders and especially researchers before they commit to participating in interviews. In her research on the adoption of the telephone in Amish communities, Diane Umble (1996) noted that when participants could understand who she was (by examining her personal identity according to familiar schemas and gender roles or by identifying a common ancestor, etc.), they were more likely to open up to her and consent to an interview. That is to say, participants felt more comfortable talking with Umble after they realized they had something in common with her.

Because I knew I had little more in common with Amish participants than my interest in technology, I asked my mother and Mr. Sellers to join me on trips to the field, especially early on, as I was meeting many participants in a settlement for the first time. Both my mother and Mr. Sellers were easier for Amish participants to “place” in identity schemas with which they were familiar than I. For example, my mother was closer to my participants in age, being 58 (the average age of participants in my study was 56). As a married woman, a mother, a Christian and teacher who had an appreciation for Amish values and craftsmanship, there were many topics and points of view over which she could easily connect with Amish participants. For example upon meeting David, a bishop in northern Indiana, my mother’s health helped us ease into our conversation and break the ice. When walking up the gravel path to his workshop and up the stairs to his production facility, I helped my mom up the steps. For many years, she has had joint pain and is unstable walking on uneven ground or going up steps. David noticed and asked if she was alright. She responded that she had joint issues and had recently had her ankle fused. She told him, she also had a hip replacement, an elbow replacement and a knee replacement over the years. He responded, “Well you are basically brand new!” This drew a chuckle out of all three of us. She then explained that the joint pain is a result of her cancer treatment from decades earlier. Chemotherapy both saved her life and damaged her joints. David responded saying, “Well, I’m glad we have replacement parts, then.” This also made us laugh.

Breaking the ice in this way, helped diminish the obvious cultural barriers between strangers who lived very different ways of life. In most instances participants were nervous at the beginning of interviews and it took some time for them to warm up. As conversations began to flow, their responses also became richer and more descriptive. With David, this exchange seemed to establish the type of trust needed to dig into important topics of discussion right away. Perhaps this occurred because knowing about my mother’s illness conveyed a vulnerability or sincerity that helped informants like David connect to us. David’s understanding and appreciation of my mother’s illness and injury (as well as the success of modern medical care) helped put us on a common plane. In general, when she accompanied me in the field, I think it was possible to break the ice and build trust with participants more effectively because they could see that I was a respectful daughter who comes from a caring (if not overly curious), Midwestern family. In this way, together, she and I were easier to place than I would have been alone.

In southern Indiana, Mr. Sellers, who grew up in the area, connected to participants through a shared knowledge of, and appreciation for the local area. This also encouraged the building of initial trust with participants so they felt comfortable sharing their thoughts and experiences with us. Though he is not Amish, he often knew many of the same people participants did, as he went to high school with Amish people and knows many local business owners. He was also able to start conversations with participants by sharing his extensive knowledge of local farming techniques and the county’s history. Additionally, Mr. Sellers provided very practical help for the accomplishment of the research, as he introduced me to the culture of the area and helped me learn to navigate its geography by providing maps and driving tours of settlement landmarks and county roads. He also helped me make direct connections with potential interviewees to solicit their participation by taking me to public workplaces like Sam’s. Often, we would recapitulate interviews together on the audio recorder as well. This was invaluable, especially as I was still becoming acquainted in the settlement. Having two sets of ears in interviews made it easier to objectively and accurately document the participant’s ideas and experiences, especially when it was not possible to automatically record them in real time. Without his help I would have spent my time far less efficiently and perhaps missed some of the most interesting sites/participants in the settlement.

Mr. Sellers and my mother also enriched interviews by adding spice to conversations and asking questions I did not think of in the moment. In one instance, early in the fieldwork in northern Indiana, my mother asked a participant where members of his family charged their cell phones. This individual introduced us to his family and revealed that many of them owned cell phones. They did not have electricity at home, though. In response to the question, the participant took us into his daughter and son-in-law’s bedroom (we were at their house to conduct an interview). On the floor sat a car battery next to their bed. The young couple had a small baby who also slept in a crib in their room. Attached to the car battery was a cell phone charging cord. At night, they connected their phones to the charging cord and charged the phones from the car battery [see Figure 1].


Off grid cell phone charger
Figure 1: Off grid cell phone charger next to Amish couple’s bed.


This was an important discovery as it revealed that Amish individuals were crafting their own workarounds to allow certain, limited uses of ICTs. Over the course of the fieldwork, many instances like this emerged and warranted further analysis in a paper (Ems, 2014) and chapter of a dissertation (Ems, 2015).

With my mother and Mr. Sellers accompanying me in the field, participants could connect to aspects of their identities when it was not obvious that a point of connection existed between us. Through my association to them, aspects of their identities became (however indirectly) associated with my identity in ways I could not have accomplished alone. In a roundabout way, this helped assuage the anxieties participants had in talking with me. Through developing new personal connections through existing personal connections trust could quickly be built with informants in ways it was not possible to do alone. This helped participants feel more comfortable in a limited time frame and increased the likelihood that they would participate meaningfully in the study.




Engaging a principal informant, privileging the body as an ideal communication medium and developing new personal connections through existing personal connections comprise a particular ethnographic data collection strategy aimed at understanding ICT non-use among the Old Order Amish. These techniques were developed in situ as ready-to-hand tools given a specific research context. By engaging a principal informant in each of the settlements studied, it was possible to gain direct access to an otherwise inaccessible population of participants. Fostering relationships with principal informants resulted in the enrollment of additional participants. It also helped break down cultural barriers that inhibited meaningful participation in interviews. By privileging the body as an ideal communication medium, participants felt respected, could better control their encounter with a stranger and convey emotions they felt were inherently coupled with information. Finally, by developing new personal connections through existing personal connections, participants’ skepticism about my status as an outsider was mitigated. Especially by involving individuals who had more in common with Amish participants it was possible to overcome barriers to access and enroll new participants. Additionally, these individuals were invaluable in navigating unfamiliar cultural and geographic terrain, documenting interviews and provoking valuable insights to emerge from interviews.

The techniques outlined here may not be applicable in all research aimed at investigating ICT non-use. However, the process of their development may still be instructive. By making many small methodological decisions and doing extensive background research on the target population before entering the field, a scaffolding was created for the constrained emergence of a targeted and comprehensive data collection approach. This enabled the study’s research questions to be answered while accounting for the unique characteristics of the target population’s social world. In other ICT non-use research projects, this too is likely to be a useful process by which to develop methodological techniques for studying ICT non-use.

Increasingly, ICTs are used as mechanisms for enrolling participants in research studies in a diverse array of disciplines. Engaging and recruiting subjects who regularly use ICTs via new media (e-mail, Web, phone) makes logical sense. However, engaging non-users in similar studies can be more complicated. The techniques and considerations outlined here represent tools for overcoming such obstacles. It is hoped that these techniques are valuable to others interested in studying groups of ICT non-users as well. Indeed, as the Amish and other religious groups have shown, ICT non-use is revealing in laying political, religious and cultural values bare. By highlighting instances of ICT non-use, we begin to understand more about the roles increasingly pervasive communication and control technologies play in human happiness and well-being. Similarly, by observing conscious decisions not to use ICTs embedded in complex ecologies of human engagement, we gain insights about how to successfully mitigate deleterious impacts they may have on our lives. End of article


About the author

In July 2015, Lindsay Ems earned her doctorate in the Media School at Indiana University and is now an Assistant Professor at Butler University. Her research explores communication technology design and use for the empowerment of marginalized communities.
E-mail: lems [at] indiana [dot] edu



1. Wetmore, 2007, p. 12.

2. Umble, 1996, p. xiv.

3. Umble, 2003, p. 152.

4. Marvin, 1988, p. 8.

5. Marvin, 1988, p. 4.

6. Based on the tradition of their ancestors, members of Amish churches still meet for worship in their homes instead of dedicated church buildings. Founding members of the Amish church did this to avoid persecution in Europe.

7. Typically a church group has one bishop, two to three ministers and a deacon. In this paper, I refer to all of these as either ministers or church leaders. These individuals are always male.

8. These two settlements were the large Elkhart/LaGrange/Noble County settlement in northern Indiana and the smaller Daviess County settlement in southern Indiana. While the Elkhart/LaGrange/Noble County settlement has been previously studied by Amish studies scholars, the Daviess County settlement has received less attention. Indiana is home to the third largest Amish population in North America, which, in general, has received much less scholarly attention than the two larger populations in Pennsylvania and Ohio.

9. Amish bishops, ministers, and business owners significantly train socio-technical change to evolve in certain directions. However, they are not autocratic leaders. They curate conversations within their small communities, cultivate the opinions of others and enforce (church leaders) or test the limits (business leaders) of formal, democratically established rules. Interviews took about an hour on average. All but two Amish participants were men. The average age of Amish participants was 56. Interviews were conducted in participants’ workplaces, living rooms and around their kitchen tables.

10. To protect participants’ identities, they have been given pseudonyms and their professions have been slightly altered.



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Editorial history

Received 2 October 2015; accepted 22 October 2015.

Copyright © 2015, First Monday.
Copyright © 2015, Lindsay Ems.

Exploring ethnographic techniques for ICT non-use research: An Amish case study
by Lindsay Ems.
First Monday, Volume 20, Number 11 - 2 November 2015