Proposing a Harry Potter and Anthropology Course

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  • posted byLeah McCurdy
  • dateApril 20, 2016
  • comments1
CategoryMain Story

In Part Three of an ongoing series on teaching anthropology and popular culture, Leah McCurdy (University of Texas, San Antonio) provides some suggestions for creating an anthropology course around Harry Potter.

HP4I am a Harry Potter fan! In fact, I am a proud Hufflepuff, sorted by the original Pottermore sorting quiz developed by author J.K. Rowling. As I mentioned last month, many academics bring Harry Potter into the classroom, using the seven-book series along with its accompanying media as a “shared text” (Granger 2008) for references which are likely to be widely understood by students populating most college-level courses today. The forthcoming Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them film series will no doubt enhance this likelihood.

My discussion last month centred on the emerging trend for developing disciplinary courses in concert with popular culture themes. The possibilities for relevant and insightful connections are as endless as the imaginations of fiction authors, screenwriters, musicians, and other artists. In this post, I want to delve deeply into a course at the intersection of popular culture and anthropology that certainly would have held my attention as an undergraduate. Here, I propose a Harry Potter and Anthropology course that uses Harry Potter as a gateway to discussions of the important themes of four-field anthropology.

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 to refresh on the series (if necessary) and to become familiar with anthropological topics. The original seven novels, as well as the “Hogwarts Library Books” would be the primary sources for HP information. Other sources such as the films, serious podcasts, and academic works 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 describe several examples of discussion topics.

Our Own Hogwarts Sorting and Identities

Every Potter fan secretly waits for their Hogwarts letter to arrive and for their opportunity to don the sorting hat. Thus, every course involving HP must begin with a sorting to start off with a bit of fun and pay tribute to the books. 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, as well as the ways that we attach or separate ourselves to particular identities for a variety of reasons. We may delve into a 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. The situation of house elves in the Wizarding World can also serve as an interesting platform to explore constructed identity, inequality, and stratification.

Mudbloods, Death Eaters, and Social Prejudice

HP1Social prejudice is rampant in various sectors of the Wizarding World. Lord Voldemort and his Death Eaters function on premises of social superiority, the perceptions of status, and stratification. 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 discussions 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” as opposed to modern. 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 a 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.

“Eceltricity,” Plugs, and Technology

One of the keystones of modern anthropological thought concerns technology and challenging traditional conceptualization of technology as tools. 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, there are also serious issues of mistreatment and exploitation 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 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.

Centaur Tribes, Giant Chiefdoms, and the Wizarding State

HP characters and social groups can enliven discussions of social complexity and classification schemes used in 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. 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, Bureaucracy, and Politics

The sometimes ridiculous bureaucracy demonstrated by the Ministry of Magic is often seen as an intentional comment by 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. 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.

Expelliarmus, Accio, and Linguistics

Rowling carefully chose the incantations for the spells she created to animate her brand of magic. For example, the expecto patronum spell quite literally calls forth a patronus or a protector when needed by the caster. Such examples could prompt detailed discussions of technical linguistics as well as social linguistics and the contextual use of spells in duels versus classrooms or at public events such as the Wizarding World Cup versus 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.

The Department of Mysteries and the Questions We Continue to Pursue

HP2Wizards in the 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 investigatory pursuit, 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?

I hope this excursion into Harry Potter and Anthropology has been interesting and, in the least, enlightening about HP themes and their broader relevance. I’m certain any Potter fan can build many more insightful connections to help students through their first forays into anthropological topics (such as illness and the stigma of medical conditions, the role of goblins and capitalism in the Wizarding World, wizarding folklore as told by Beedle the Bard, animate plants and non-human animacy/agency, and even gillyweed as a potential tap into epigenetic change). In addition to the Department of Mysteries activity above, there are many other ways to build active learning and HP into introductory level courses (see below under Bonus Material). Leave a comment below if you want to know more or are interested in brainstorming new ideas.

As mentioned in my previous post, teacher Clay Morgan suggests, “Let them tell you about their world and you’ll have a much easier time telling them about yours” ( 2013). Harry Potter is part of the world of many current and upcoming undergraduate students. Using HP as a lens through which to explore anthropology can be a way to tap into their world and bridge to ours. Further, these bridges may ignite a spark of passion for anthropology that is fuelled by and potentially eventually burns brighter than their interest in Harry Potter.


Granger, John. (2008). Book Binders: What I Learned about the Great Books & Harry Potter. Touchstone 21 (10).

Pryor, Gregorys. (2008). Using Pop Culture to Teach Introductory Biology. The American Biology Teacher 70 (7).

Staff Writers. (2013). Cool Teachers’ Guide to Pop Culture in the Classroom. Retrieved February 20, 2016.

Bonus Material

In addition to the Department of Mysteries activity above, here are some short bits of HP fun which you can integrate into many introductory level courses (without transforming your whole course) or into an HP dedicated 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.

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, as well as genetic inheritance.

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.

An Ethnoscience Evaluation of Fantastic Beasts

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.

Social Classification and Complexity in Harry Potter

Students could conduct a survey of the usages of terms to describe society types (and associated terms) 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).

Magical Leadership: “Daft or Dangerous?”

Rowling 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.

Incantations and the Power of Language

Students could 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).

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