As the Harry Potter movie franchise releases its penultimate offering, critics and commentators have started to prepare their retrospective reflections on the social impacts of JK Rowling’s boy wizard. While millions of young (and older) people have enthusiastically read the books, watched the movies and consumed the spin-off merchandise – what might they have learned in doing so?

From a sociological perspective we can see that the Potter series is full of rich insights; it tells us much about family, with Harry’s search for his parents and encounters with various other parental figures being central to the narrative. It also tells us about identity as Harry strives to establish his own sense of who he is, as well as those old sociological favourites of class, gender and ethnicity.  Not only is the world of magic strongly classified – think how the Malfoy’s aristocratic bearing is contrasted with the lowly position of the Weasleys – but it is marked by a rather conventional notion of gender politics. With no end to patriarchal and matriarchal figures, only Hermione representing something of a rebellious ‘tomboy’ distinguishes her from the wives and mothers, and the important distinctions in the narrative between ‘Muggles’ and ‘non-Muggles’, ‘pure-bloods’ and ‘half-bloods’ are indicative of the ways in which racial discrimination flourishes even in enchanted worlds. We also learn much about the management and organisation of bureaucracy in the form of the Ministry of Magic; the iniquities of the criminal justice system and the importance of ethics, norms and values in reproducing societies – and not just in terms of the age-old clash between ‘good and evil’.

Platform nine and three quarters , at Kings Cross station, from the Harry Potter film Copyrighted image Credit: Rob Ford | Dreamstime.com

The gateway between two worlds? An iconic part of the Harry Potter set

In a paper entitled ‘Harry Potter, Benjamin Bloom and the Sociological Imagination’ Joyce W. Fields argues that the Potter series not only has much to tell us about social institutions, stratifications and categorisations, but also about what the sociologist C.Wright Mills famously termed ‘the sociological imagination’. This refers to a characteristic way of thinking that depicts how individual lives are not simply freely chosen, but connected to wider social forces and structures. The individual–society relationship is in many ways the central problem of sociology, and, for Fields, the Harry Potter series provides a useful lens through which to study it. Not only do her own students study the Harry Potter series as a social world in itself, but in doing so, are encouraged to reflect on how the sociological imagination can be used to illuminate their own real (or perhaps we should say ‘Muggle’) worlds.

In this way, the tools of critical thinking and analysis, when applied to Hogwarts, half-bloods and Hagrid, invite comparison with our own stratified and sedimented worlds. Indeed, Open University academics have not been slow to recognise this. Making Social Worlds contains a chapter on Harry Potter which reveals how his exploits can tell us much about the social worlds we inhabit. It highlights in particular how Harry’s search for security in a hostile world is mirrored in the ways in which we as a society place great emphasis on establishing and protecting our security and feel challenged when it comes under threat. Harry Potter is therefore used to analyse the different elements and domains of security – from the personal to the social and the geopolitical – and help us develop the sociological imagination to understand them. 

As you head off to the cinema this weekend, why not add a touch of wizardry and apply some of your own sociological thinking to the screen?
   
Joyce W. Fields (2007) ‘Harry Potter, Benjamin Bloom and the Sociological Imagination’ International Journal of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education Vol. 19 No. 2 pp.167-177.

C Wright Mills (1959) The Sociological Imagination, reprinted (2000), Oxford University Press.