Sociologists study high-risk populations in low-tech communities

Newswise — Closed religious communities such as the Amish are high-risk populations for the spread of both infectious diseases and public health misinformation, according to sociologists from West Virginia University who are working with data from Amish and Mennonite settlements to understand the COVID-19-related beliefs and behaviors prevalent within their communities.

“We’re interested in how these Holmes County, Ohio, communities are or are not doing things like social distancing. We are examining what their religious services look like and whether or not they are following CDC guidelines,” said Rachel Stein, an associate professor of sociology who leads the research project. “We’re also interested in looking at how health misinformation gets into and spreads throughout the community and how other rituals, like weddings, funerals and visiting have been altered – or not. Visiting with neighbors and friends, in particular, is a ritual that holds Amish communities together. That face-to-face interaction is important in maintaining cohesive community connections.”  

Funded by a $258,719 award from the National Science Foundation and earlier grants from the  WVU Humanities Center and the International Research Network for the Study of Science and Belief in Society, Stein and colleagues Katie CorcoranCorey Colyer and graduate student Sara Guthrie are examining whether the settlements’ closed nature and cohesive organizational connections are associated with more health misinformation and less social distancing. They will use community newspapers, church directories, local health department data and public health policies from the local government to track pandemic-related behaviors, from mask-wearing to rumor-spreading.  Because the Amish do not use modern technology, such as electricity, as part of their community culture, they rely on traditional media such as newspapers.

“The Amish and Mennonite communities produce a widely-circulated weekly newspaper, The Budget. Its articles, prepared by congregational members, present updates on daily life that we will use to identify COVID-19-related information and misinformation as well as social distancing and isolation practices,” Corcoran said. “It’s like social media in paper form.”

As the study begins, the team has already observed some vast differences between the practices of the Amish and Mennonite communities, particularly in how technology is used for group gatherings and communication. The Amish restrict the use of technology as a religious sacrament and are unable to virtually hold religious services, while some Mennonites use Zoom to hold virtual church services.

“We see differences across the Amish in terms of how much they are complying with government mandates,” Stein said. “At the beginning of the pandemic, some congregations canceled church services in line with the mandates from the non-Amish world. There are some congregations who never canceled religious services, groups who continued doing what they were doing pre-pandemic without concern about public health. For the most part, they continued with their services as-is because it was an important part of their community and culture. We have seen a range of behaviors and reactions so far.”  

They are also seeing misinformation from the non-Amish world being shared through gatekeepers like drivers, store customers and family members who live outside the Amish community.

“Some of the perceptions or misperceptions of science from the non-Amish world, including a distrust of science and conspiracy theories surrounding COVID-19 and vaccines, have crept into the Amish community,” Corcoran said. “You might expect that they would have their own unique conversations, and they do to some extent, but there is also misinformation being funneled into the Amish community in unique and sometimes political ways that you wouldn’t expect from a supposedly apolitical community like the Amish.”  

This study builds upon the team’s ongoing research on measles outbreaks in Amish communities. In the future, they hope to draw connections about how the community’s public health practices and responses have changed over time.  

“Right as the COVID-19 pandemic was beginning, we were considering how a 2014 measles outbreak in the same Amish settlement was hitting the community hard, but they were going about business as usual. We were thinking about how a deadly illness impacts a community that isn’t vaccinated,” Stein said. “We began to question whether we’d see the same types of behaviors and reactions in response to COVID-19. It was a natural transition into thinking about how the Amish community is responding to this new illness.”

The project’s findings will provide vital information on the factors driving COVID-19-related health misinformation and lack of social distancing within closed religious communities that restrict technology, informing future health interventions. As the project unfolds, they plan to share those findings with community leaders.

“We want to give back to the community,” Stein said. “Some Amish bishops in Ohio are trying to encourage their congregations to be safe, wear masks and follow the CDC guidelines for social distancing. Those bishops are in the minority. We hope that our work can show how the community is reacting and the impact that it has on their health. We hope that sharing this information with Amish and Mennonite communities might encourage a shift in behaviors that will curb negative health consequences.”

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