Harry Potter & Anthropology Course

Based on my interest in developing “pop culture courses” for anthropology, I am developing a course titled Harry Potter & Anthropology. In an article for the University of Toronto Press’ Teaching Culture site, I briefly outlined this course and many activities that involve Harry Potter themes. Here is an expanded description of how I envision the structure of this course:

Harry Potter and Anthropology

I envision each class meeting as an exercise in making connections from Harry Potter (HP) characters, events, and plotlines to anthropological concepts. This course will be almost fully discussion-based and require a good deal of reading on the students’ part to refresh themselves on the Harry Potter series (if necessary) and to become familiar with anthropological topics. The original seven novels, as well as the “Hogwarts Library Books” (Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, Quidditch Through the Ages, and Tales of Beedle the Bard written by J.K. Rowling) would be the primary sources for Harry Potter information. Other sources such as the films, serious podcasts, and academic works based on the series would be secondary sources. There would also be room to entertain tertiary sources such as FanFiction, fan websites, and theme parks, though with important caveats and associated discussions about the suitability of sources in scholarly research as well. Below, I introduce a variety of topics and describe their relevance to anthropology. This list may be viewed as a draft for my course schedule. I include ideas about active learning exercises or group-based activities when relevant as well.

Our Own Hogwarts Sorting and Identities

Every person who falls in love with the HP series secretly waits for their Hogwarts letter to arrive and for their opportunity to be sorted by the sorting hat. Thus, every course involving HP must begin with a sorting, to start off with a bit of fun, pay tribute to the books, and open up the critical evaluation of identification and segmentation. In an anthropology course, a Hogwarts-style sorting is an excellent opportunity to discuss real-world social assumptions regarding identity, the essentialization of individuals that occurs in everyday life (and the Wizarding World), as well as the ways that we attach ourselves to particular identities for a variety of reasons. We may delve into discussion of Dumbledore’s lament that “I sometimes think we sort too soon” in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows to explore how the development of identities early on in a person’s life is a crucial part of socialization but can also lead to division, extreme segmentation, and classism. The rivalry between Gryffindor and Slytherin within Hogwarts becomes a microcosm of broader divisions within the Wizarding World and may be helpful for students to build analogies to segmentation and stratification in their own experience.

House elves, Social Stratification, and Cultural Relativism

The Wizarding World in the HP series is based on class (and status – see below) distinctions. One of the most apparent divisions of this society is that between wizards and house elves. Several scholars writing about themes in the HP series consider house elves as representations of slaves, or oppressed servants. There are quite clear connections to historical circumstances of enslaved groups and also general ideas relating to social stratification and the degrees to which stratification can lead to extremely unequal social relations. Alongside this major theme of inequality, there may also be threads of ethnic (or species) discrimination to facilitate discussions about the predominance of inequalities across human social systems.

The ways that Harry, Ron, and Hermione engage with house elves over the course of the story can also provide an important analogy to the fundamental concept of cultural relativism. Some fans suggest that Hermione’s activist “house elf liberation front” approach does not necessarily stem from an emic understanding of house elf culture (if I may be so bold). Ron represents the broad Wizarding perspective of ignoring the problem of injustice and maltreatment while Hermione wants to go full force against Wizarding tyranny without considering the nuances of the house elf situation, in light of individuals such as Winky and others very reluctant to follow in renegade Dobby’s footsteps. Some would say that Harry’s approach to the house elves is more akin to cultural relativism, approaching them on their own terms and accepting that each individual is distinct in their views of oppression.

Mudbloods, Death Eaters, and Social Prejudice

One of the most resonate topics in the HP series relates to the force which Harry and his friends challenge. Lord Voldemort and his Death Eaters function on premises of social superiority and stratification (as mentioned above). The mantras and propaganda of this dark group include naming wizards and witches of non-magical parentage as “mudbloods” or those with “dirty blood” as we first learn in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. The emphasis on “blood status” (pureblood, halfblood, mudblood) is probably an important reflection of historic prejudices based in heritage discrimination, principally associated with the Nazi movement of WWII. This obvious illustration of deep and institutionalized prejudice could prompt discussion of many forms of social prejudice as studied anthropologically, particularly as a topic which many applied anthropologists attempt to tackle through their research. The Death Eater’s dark mark could also invite discussion about body modification.

Gilderoy Lockhart, Gender, Dumbledore as a Gay Character, and Heteronormativity

Many characters throughout the HP series, such as Tonks or Professor McGonagall, have been heralded as ‘feminist’ characters. Further, more ‘traditional’ characters such as Molly Weasley can be viewed as representatives of strong female choice to be ‘traditional.’ There are many examples from the entire series which could facilitate an intriguing introduction to the waves of feminism for students new to these concepts.  Male characters such as Gilderoy Lockhart can also serve as examples of non-heteronormative individuals and bridges to discussion of sex versus gender and the social context of gender. Further, the implications of J.K. Rowling’s ‘outing’ of Dumbledore as a gay character can spark discussions of sexuality in general as well as the social response to non-heteronormative sexuality and homophobia.

Magical Maladies, Injuries, and Medical Anthropology

One of the very well-known allusions included in the HP series centres on Remus Lupin as a werewolf. His lycanthropy may be a representation of the effects of HIV/AIDS or other debilitating diseases such as multiple sclerosis, from which J.K. Rowling’s mother suffered. Further, other diseases possibly alluded to in the books include Alzheimer’s (Neville Longbottom’s parents), autism (Arianna Dumbledore), and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (Mad-Eye Moody). While potential linkages to real diseases are interesting and may inspire specific discussions regarding anthropological approaches to HIV/AIDS, for example, there is also an opportunity to consider the broad implications of social response to illness, concepts of “normal” or “natural” as they relate to afflictions, as well as what may be considered a health care system centred at St. Mungos Hospital for Magical Maladies and Injuries.

Weasley’s Wizard Wheezes, Occupations, and Economic Relationships

While I would love to spend a class session (or two) considering all the fun magic and innovative products created by the Weasley twins for their joke shop venture (with potential connections to production or technological studies), it would be more effective to consider Weasley’s Wizard Wheezes in the economic context of the Wizarding World. For example, the shops and dynamics of Diagon Alley could inspire interesting discussions regarding capitalism and market-based economic systems, perhaps with connections to Knockturn Alley and the development of illicit trades and black markets. Further, the goblins and their edifice of Gringotts Bank could underpin explorations of corporate and/or organizational anthropology themes. There may also be opportunities to make analogies to political economy, as we investigate it now and in the past, through the nature of occupations in the British Wizarding World, which are almost exclusively tied to the Ministry of Magic and thus the bureaucratic system.

“Eceltricity,” Plugs, and Technology

One of the keystones of modern anthropological thought concerns technology and challenging traditional conceptualizations of technology as tools, etc. What better way to introduce students to thinking about technology in non-traditional ways than through Arthur Weasley and his neophyte perceptions of “eceltricity” and the functions of spark plugs. There are also many muggle devices employed by wizards in interesting ways which may help students to conceptualize technologies as more than circuit boards and touch screens. For example, the wizarding wireless is basically a magically-enhanced muggle radio but its use by Ron in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, for example, demonstrates the social importance of the radio as an object as well as the service it provides in supporting the communication of information and the connectivity of dispersed people.

Hagrid, The Forbidden Forest, and Ecosystems

“Fantastic Beasts” and creatures of all kinds populate the Wizarding World. These creatures along with magical plants such as the Whomping Willow and dirigible plums contribute to the diversity of the magical ecosystem. While this diversity seems to be celebrated by many in this universe, there are also serious issues of mistreatment and exploitation of creatures which can spark discussions regarding broad conservation issues, pet-trades, and the importance of ecological diversity. For those who love Luna Lovegood, the crumple-horned snorkack may be a very intriguing entry point into discussions of poaching, black markets, and conservation solutions. Further, Rubeus Hagrid, the groundskeeper of Hogwarts and liaison to the creatures of The Forbidden Forest, represents the wild man stereotype. As a half-giant, he sits at the boundary between the untamed and the cultured. He may be an interesting character to employ in discussions of nature/culture, traditional ecological knowledge (TEK), ‘naive natives,’ and views of indigeneity. Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them could be a source for an activity to illustrate the principles of ethnoscience and ethnoclassification. Students could consider the classifications schemes employed in that ‘textbook’ as bridges to real-world investigations of TEK and differential perception.

Beedle the Bard and Ancient History

J.K. Rowling infused a sense of history, folklore, and myth into the Wizarding World through The Tales of Beedle the Bard as well as back-story on the four founders of Hogwarts, for example. Beedle and the cohort of Gryffindor, Ravenclaw, Hufflepuff, and Syltherin can serve as a bridge to considering human folklore, the power it can have in historic and modern life, and the means by which anthropologists attempt to reconstruct or understand the meaning of such cultural elements. This may also serve as an introduction to various aspects of archaeology including the use of textual evidence and/or the influence of myth upon the archaeological imagination. It would also be interesting to consider how myths such as The Tale of the Three Brothers relate to magical ‘artifacts’ and thus how notable ancient/historic objects often feature in legends regarding their users or makers. For a related activity, it would be interesting to facilitate ‘magical artifact analysis’ whereby students conduct seriations, function analyses, or formal analyses on various collections of wizarding artifacts. (Consider the fun students could have analyzing the “regurgitating toilet” Arthur Weasley laments about in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.)

Centaur Tribes, Giant Chiefdoms, and the Wizarding State

HP characters and social groups can enliven discussions of social complexity and classification schemes used in archaeology and cultural anthropology. There are many specific uses of the terms ‘tribe,’ ‘chief,’ and ‘state’ in the novels, with varying degrees of correspondence to the ways that anthropologists employ these terms to describe human social groups. Students could conduct a survey of such usages within the text and determine how the anthropological understandings of such terms may or may not be represented in this type of imaginative fiction. (This would also be a very interesting study for another series such as J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.) This may also provide an interesting opportunity to engage students in an activity to pick out and describe the features of state-level complexity evident in Wizarding Britain as an application of readings on archaeological research of social complexity. Further, and most importantly in my opinion, the challenges faced by the Centaurs and the issues with Giant social formations as ‘lived’ in the Wizarding World can prompt discussions of essentialization and ‘meta-historical’ concerns with society type classifications.

The Ministry of Magic and Politics

The sometimes ridiculous bureaucracy demonstrated by the Ministry of Magic is often seen as an intentional comment by J.K. Rowling about the absurdities of modern British bureaucracy. Here is some interesting fodder for considerations of Durkheim’s descriptions of bureaucracy and its uses across various areas of anthropology. Further, connections to political institutions and the nature of political strategy studied anthropologically and archaeologically could be found in the Ministry of Magic as a political arena and stage, as well as its relationship to the Daily Prophet (as the press). J.K. Rowling also provided a supplemental list of all Ministers of Magic on the Pottermore website, with quite colourful descriptions of the corrupt, the beneficent, and the downright lazy. Students could use this trove of ‘historic’ information to conduct a study of political leadership addressing possible considerations of gender differences, the influences of current events, and/or the relationship of leaders to populations. It would also be interesting to take a Foucauldian look at the Voldemort-infiltrated Ministry during the later books to engage students in discussions of surveillance and the discourses of hegemonic and totalitarian governance. Foucault’s work on prisons and confinement could also tie to discussions of Azkaban Prison, the struggles of “The Prisoner[s] of Azkaban,” and the dementors as guards who literally suck the soul right out of you.

Professor Sprout, the Hogwarts Greenhouses, and Agriculture

As a Hufflepuff, I am particularly intrigued by the horticultural and agricultural exploits of Professor Sprout and the other herbologists in the Wizarding World. The Hogwarts greenhouses are home to a wide variety of mundane and experimental plants as well as those which are ornamental or medicinal. For example, Professor Sprout’s crop of mandrakes played a key role in the treatment of petrification in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. There may also be broader ways to consider herbology such as from the perspective of plant-human relations, or nature-culture relations more generally. For example, on the popular Alohomora! podcast, produced by Mugglenet.com, host Noah Fried is famous for asking “is it alive?” Particularly, he wondered whether Mandrakes (with their root-formed baby faces) should be considered as “alive” or not, and thus their slaughter by Professor Sprout for un-petrification purposes may have moral implications. Broadly, this may be a very interesting way to introduce the topic of non-human animacy and universal agency.

Expelliarmus, Accio, and Linguistics

J.K. Rowling carefully chose the incantations for the spells she created to animate the magic of the Wizarding World. For example, the expecto patronum spell quite literally calls forth a patronus or a protector when needed by the caster. Such specific examples could inspire an engaging activity in which students research the origins of a particular spell, present their findings through discussion with the whole class, and work through other linguistic studies related to the social contexts of such spells (and language in general). This could lead into a broader discussion about the nature of linguistic derivation. For example, this could be an opportunity to discuss the contextual use of spells in duels versus classrooms or at public events such as the Wizarding World Cup or at home in the Burrow. Further, discussions of proxemics could arise from considerations of the physical nature of spell casting, or the principles involved in duelling as described in Harry Potter and The Chamber of Secrets.

Gillyweed and Biological Evolution

This connection is admittedly a bit tenuous and thus may not be advisable to attempt but it is intriguing nonetheless. During discussions of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, discussants on the Alohomora! Podcast considered whether gillyweed, the substance that Harry uses to be able to breathe underwater during the second task of The Triwizard Tournament, could relate to evolution. One might theorize that gillyweed magically affects the user through artificial epigenetic manipulation for the expression of areas of the neck (from which gills can sprout) and the formation of the hands and feet (to create webbed versions). This is not to suggest that such a process is feasible (this is fantasy fiction) but can provide a bridge to the discussion of epigenetics as well as the basic evolutionary trajectory of life on earth. Also, this would be a very interesting way to jump into discussions of the misconceptions inherent in statements such as ‘evolution says humans come from fish’ (as Harry’s transformation included acquiring several fish-based characteristics) or the more common statement: ‘evolution says that humans come from monkeys.’ Further, this could be the starting point for discussions about the distinctions between creationism and evolutionary explanations of human development.

The Department of Mysteries and The Questions We Continue to Pursue

Wizards in Department of Mysteries conduct research and investigate various important (and mysterious) components of the magical universe. Harry and crew’s journey through the rooms of that department in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix could spark discussions about experimentation, science as an investigatory discipline, archival disciplines, the research process, and even science and technology studies. Further, this could be an opportunity to open discussion regarding the current frontlines of anthropological research. An interesting activity could involve students investigating a couple top journals of each sub-discipline, conducting surveys of the most commonly published topic areas, and presenting to the class in response to the question: What topics would captivate a ‘Department of Anthropological Mysteries’ today?


In addition to the activities described by topic above, here are some short bits of HP fun which can be integrated into many introductory level courses (without transforming the whole course):

The Half-Life of Voldemort’s Soul

To spice up discussions of radiometric dating techniques used in archaeology and paleoanthropology, you may consider using the decay of Voldemort’s soul as a way to illustrate exponential decay and the half-life of radioactive isotopes. There is a fan theory that Voldemort’s soul reduced exponentially as a result of his horcrux making. Fans suggest that the first time Voldemort made a horcrux with his school diary that act consumed and transferred half of his original soul. When he made the horcrux using the Gaunt ring, he would have transferred a half of that half, or ¼ of his original soul. Thus, Voldemort intentionally enacted the exponential decay of his soul and artificially created its very short half-life.

The Black Family Tree, Kinship, and Inheritance

J.K. Rowling has provided several hand-drawn family trees which were the foundation for the tapestry Harry and Sirius Black discuss in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. This and other family trees for the Weasley and Potter families may make interesting sources for asking students to practice making kinship charts or for discussions about kinship relationships and networks. Further, this information could be the inspiration for interesting activities about genetic inheritance (in the vein of Mendel’s peas) using ‘magical’ genetic traits or more tongue-in-cheek phenotypes to fill out punnet squares (such as (H) for hook-nosed and (h) for non-hook-nosed to predict the facial features of Severus Snape’s children [had he not died – SPOILER!]).

The Weasley Family and Biological Fitness

For an activity similar to the “The Evolutionary Fitness Challenge” described by Pryor (2008) (as mentioned in my post last month) which seeks to address the misconceptions of what “fit” means in an evolutionary sense, you might ask students to assess how “fit” several characters in the HP series are compared to others. Molly and Arthur Weasley would certainly compete well in the biological fitness challenge, as opposed to Dumbledore, Snape, and Peter Pettigrew (as far as we know). You might also consider the implications of ‘hybridization’ through Hagrid’s parents’ relationship.