Reviews / Comptes rendus - Karl A. Peter, The Dynamics of Hutterite Society: An Analytical Approach

Reviews / Comptes rendus

Karl A. Peter, The Dynamics of Hutterite Society: An Analytical Approach

Robert B. Klymasz
Canadian Museum of Civilization
Karl A. Peter. The Dynamics ofHutterite Society: An Analytical Approach . Edmonton: The University of Alberta Press, 1987, xxiii + 232 pp., 13 tables, notes, bibliography. Cloth $27.50, ISBN 0-88864-108-7. Paper $16.95, ISBN 0-88864-109-5.

1 There are perhaps 20,000 Hutterites in Canada today. Over the years they have attracted only limited probing by social scientists who tend to find other minorities more pressingly problematic. After all, what could possibly go wrong in a culture that focuses on "the knowledge of God, the suppression of man's carnal nature and the acquisition of faith" (p. 90)? Karl Peter's book penetrates this veneer with such know-how that the reader suspects that this sociologist is a native son with firsthand knowledge of life among the Hutterites. The monograph indeed represents something of a personal odyssey marked by twenty-five years of study. The bulk of the work is a compilation of Peter's article-length publications, some of them dating back to the 1960s. Thirteen "chapters" are arranged under five main headings, as follows: "Religion and history," "Social relations and social structures," "Demographic dynamics," "Contemporary social changes" and "Ethnic relations." Acutely attuned to the variables that have shaped the Hutterite experience, Peter is always aware of ambiguity, inconsistency, dysfunction, paradox, plain luck and "historical accidents" (p. 23). Occasionally this awareness surfaces as disaffection for the Hutterites' "religious imagery or mythology which...prevents...critical mental processes" (p. 69). Elsewhere Peter is filially concerned over "the adaptive changes that Hutterites must make in the near future to maintain their internal cohesion" (p. 134). His true strengths, however, lie in a profound sensitivity to the intricacies of his subject matter, in his dual insider/outside approach and in his disciplined forays into history, theology, economics, statistics, genetics, biology and even neurology. His insight into the subtleties of culture change are perhaps best reflected in chapter 12 on the changing role of Hutterite women and the pressures produced by individual, family and communal concerns.

2 In general, Peter is at his best when exploring the contemporary situation with its signs of individualization, religious defection (chapter 3), anti-Hutterite sentiments — "an ethnic struggle over scarce resources" (p. 221) — and preachers who "are perceived more as secular business leaders than spiritual shepherds" (p. 50). He mentions (without supporting references) "the death of two young men indicted into the U.S. army and dying as a result of torture while refusing military service" (p. 214) and occasionally becomes preachy: "A sober reflection on how this sect has been treated in the past should teach us a number of valuable lessons about ourselves, our motives, and our behaviour" (p. 223). Material culture is peripheral to Peter's concerns although not totally ignored (on page 223, for instance, he laments the "unfortunate loss of material culture").

3 To sum up, Peter's book gives an important, up-to-date overview of the Hutterite experience and its many crucial aspects. For any studies on Hutterite material culture in Canada, the work provides indispensable background information. The author is not slavish to the theoretical formulations of earlier sociologists but uses his own findings to develop considerations that are directly relevant. The work's only irritations are editorial in nature. Repetitious moments, for instance, seem to remain (in spite of avowed efforts to eradicate these); the bibliography should have listed the late Gabrielle Roy's descriptive account of her visit among the Hutterites in Manitoba in the early forties. And, finally, an index, a German glossary and photo-illustrations could have enhanced the book's value considerably.