Society, Politics & Law

Wizards are people too: The sociology of Harry Potter

Updated Wednesday 17th November 2010

With the release of the penultimate Harry Potter instalment - Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows - Dr Mark Banks explains why the films are an ideal lens through which to view the relationships between people and society, and asks what have we learned from the story so far?

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 Icon Copyright: 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.

 

For further information, take a look at our frequently asked questions which may give you the support you need.

Have a question?

Other content you may like

Happy Birthday Harry Potter! Creative commons image Icon Sas Amoah under Creative Commons BY-NC-SA 4.0 license article icon

History & The Arts 

Happy Birthday Harry Potter!

July 31st is the birthday of everyone's favourite wizard (and coincidentally Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling). To celebrate, we're going potty about Potter with our free learning resources. Mischief managed!

Article
Not so flash with the cash: Oligarchs and the other side of entrepreneurial culture Creative commons image Icon David Shankbone via Wikimedia under CC-BY licence under Creative-Commons license article icon

Society, Politics & Law 

Not so flash with the cash: Oligarchs and the other side of entrepreneurial culture

The oligarchs in former Soviet states are finding new outlets for their wealth beyond chunky watches and spending sprees. Alan Shipman suggests why - and what it might mean.

Article
What does toilet paper teach us about poverty? Creative commons image Icon paul under Creative Commons BY-NC 4.0 license article icon

Society, Politics & Law 

What does toilet paper teach us about poverty?

The purchasing pattern of a bathroom staple has a lot to teach us about how poverty works. Atif Kukaswadia explains.

Article
Retiring lives? Old age, work and welfare Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Used with permission free course icon Level 3 icon

Society, Politics & Law 

Retiring lives? Old age, work and welfare

Retirement, pensions, care homes old age may not be as rosy as we think. This free course, Retiring lives? Old age, work and welfare, looks at old age, taking us from the Workhouse to the basic state pension. Why are people expected to stop work at a certain age and what impact does this have on their lives?

Free course
10 hrs
article icon

Society, Politics & Law 

Lifestyle managers - made to measure?

A tongue-in-cheek look at some current developments in technology and lifestyle.

Article
Identity in question Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Used with permission free course icon Level 1 icon

Society, Politics & Law 

Identity in question

Why is identity important and how are identities formed? This free course, Identity in question, looks at the many different ways in which identity can be categorised. By examining the requirements of the state, how a child views gender, and the importance of race or place of birth, you will start to understand how each individual can have more than one identity.

Free course
12 hrs
How we talk about Savile Creative commons image Icon William Starkey / Ian Macman under Creative Commons BY-SA 4.0 license article icon

Society, Politics & Law 

How we talk about Savile

The coverage of Jimmy Savile's criminal activity shows a media clinging to a sexist perspective, says Professor Karen Boyle

Article
Since when has corruption not been compulsory? Creative commons image Icon Yannic Meyer under CC-BY-NC licence. under Creative-Commons license article icon

Society, Politics & Law 

Since when has corruption not been compulsory?

With MPs' expenses hitting the headlines, Richard Skellington asks whether Britain is fundamentally corrupt.

Article
Is violence declining across history? A discussion on The Better Angels of Our Nature Creative commons image Icon B Tal under CC-BY-NC licence under Creative-Commons license article icon

Society, Politics & Law 

Is violence declining across history? A discussion on The Better Angels of Our Nature

Steven Pinker discusses his book, which claims that there has been a broad historical decline in rates of violence throughout human existence.

Article