Mediating the Stories of the Muggle and Wizarding Worlds

Social Impact of the Harry Potter Series

Social Impact of the Harry Potter Series

Page Added March 2011 ~ Updates as Noted

Introduction

The Harry Potter series has catalyzed some noteworthy social transformation. We may not see it in full bloom yet, as it has only been about 15 years since the first book in the series was published. But, as a student of “strategic foresight” (otherwise known as “futurist studies”), the knack contained in this perspective is to discern cultural patterns that are driving long-term social change. And, by “long-term,” futurists generally mean trends that significantly change society for at least a 50-year period. This is a different perspective – it’s kind of like being an “archaeologist of the present” … digging through the dust of today and trying to figure out what lies underneath it will look like to people 25, 50, 100, 1000 years from now …

Anyway, I’ll start with some of my own observations and reflections on how the Harry Potter series creates an impact. After that, information about the Harry Potter Alliance – an association of US and international chapters “doing good” based on the constructive social values Ms. Rowling has woven throughout her books. I’ll conclude with some resources that can help us all consider the social impact this series is having.

Some Observations and Reflections

“In the long run, what counts is how the next generation thinks. How far new ideas permeate culture is not measured just by attitude change during one generation, but by what is taken for granted in the next.” ~ Helen Haste, in The Sexual Metaphor: Men, Women, and the Thinking that Makes the Difference (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1994, ISBN 0-674-80282-9, page 149)

Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling has used her influences and finances to engage in many philanthropic activities. For instance, in 2001, she wrote two short books that are companion pieces to the world of Harry Potter: Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them and Quidditch Through the Ages. Proceeds from these books go to Comic Relief, an organization dedicated to “a just world free from poverty.” This interview transcript shows some of what she finds most appealing about the efforts of Comic Relief. Also, Ms. Rowling also instigated The VOLANT Charitable Trust, a foundation for her philanthropic work in the UK. Her chief concerns include funding research into causes and cures for Multiple Sclerosis, and alleviating “social deprivation, with a particular emphasis on women’s and children’s issues.”

I would argue that Ms. Rowling has shaped the course of development for an entire global generation – which means she has changed the course of the future through them. She has accomplished this through both her own consistent charitable work, and through writing her Harry Potter books and stewarding the films and other products to be true to the essence of those books.  Further, I would argue that the values and worldview she personal presents and represents have become an integral part of driving the multi-generational shift we are seeing toward personal participation in social transformation. Whether we love it or hate it, think it’s heavenly or devilish, we cannot deny social tolerance and justice have held a major influence in the developing global culture of the 1990s and 2000s. And if it has already shaped the future that we share, we would do well to consider its past.

The Harry Potter series is to today’s 30-something-and-younger generations when they were in grade school and high school what The Lord of the Rings was to the Boomers as they hit high school and college age. Each presents a first-wave new-to-them universe where imagination could soar and the authors could implant amazing seeds for character development, both embedded in the plot and embodied in the characters. Each of them has introduced characters, concepts, and terms into the worldwide mindset that serve as cultural code words. (For instance: Frodo Lives! Gandalf for President. The world has changed. Middle-earth. Hogwarts. Muggles. House-elves. Dementors.)

The first Harry Potter novel, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, was published in 1997. Ms. Rowling spent five years from 1990-1995 plotting out the entire seven-book series and writing the first book. From there, it took two years to get published. And then the buzz grew and Mr. Potter became a worldwide phenomenon – literally a globalized literary scavenger hunt for clues in each successive novel for who exactly Harry is, what the meaning of his famous lightening-shaped scar is, and what choices he has in regard to his destiny. It took an entire decade for the denouement of those questions, where the final chapters and epilogue of book #7 transformed the series from seven serial episodes into one septological mega-epic. Meanwhile, Harry Potter books have been translated into over 60 languages and sold over 400 million copies worldwide. [The Lord of the Rings has been translated into about 40 languages, with a reported 200 million copies sold by 2007, when Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows was released.]

Overlapping with the craze about the books, the film adaptations began in 2001 and are scheduled to complete with the release of two films for Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows in 2010 and 2011 depicting the action of the massive seventh volume. The first five films alone earned a reported $4.5 billion in theatrical release worldwide, making them the largest grossing film series in history thus far. (Compare that to next few in line: Star Wars six movies, $4.3 billion. The Lord of the Rings trilogy, $3.0 billion. Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy, $2.7 billion.)

The Harry Potter films give a relatively reasonable treatment of the material in the books. Films simply cannot be “documentaries of the books,” because books and movies are very different media; they do not work the same way in our brains. But the films can at least provide a “dynamic equivalent” to translate print into visual. Also, Ms. Rowling gave up having a higher royalties percentage in order to retain more control/approval on the films. This was absolutely essential to maintaining a high level of continuity between books and films in the characters and overall details of the cultures and plotlines involved.

Beyond the books and films, a very selective range of official Harry Potter branded products was authorized. Licensed products include soundtracks, stickers, “potion kits” (i.e., chemistry sets), action figures, plush toys/dolls, photo and postcard books, board games, video games, DVD trivia games, picture puzzles, puzzle books, posters, flipbooks, prop replicas (e.g., wands, masks, Hogwarts clothing, maps), trading cards, casual clothing, lunchboxes, collectible card games, model trains, jewelry, banners, ornaments, bed linens, room decorations, party supplies, et cetera.

The diversity in kinds of digital and “concrete media” means there was something to appeal to the various interests and abilities in every kind of learning style preference. And, as with any story, the availability of such engaging products is part of what reinforces the broadest possible appeal of its characters and plot, and thereby its underlying value system. That’s all a very long-winded way of saying this: Collecting and playing with, trading and imagining with, decorating and celebrating with the Harry Potter stuff is fun! When I teach on learning styles, I have a poem I wrote a decade ago that emphasizes the importance of fun in engaging us through things we play with to connect us with values and ideas we can become passionate about. Here’s a version of it:

Fun-Learning For Our Futures

© 2002 Brad Sargent

It’s hard to unlearn

the things we “fun-learn”

because in the process of play

ideas and valuables

impress us when maleable

and live in our heart and there stay.

~  *  ~  *  ~  *  ~

So wouldn’t it be better

if we taught “beyond letters”

and used multiple forms from the start,

honor those who are “wired”

with others ways that inspire

so our message could lodge in their heart?

In the way I look at things, culture is how we live out a total internal system package that includes at the deepest levels how we connect things; what we value; how we see the world and what we choose to see as important in it; how we organize ourselves in groups of family and friends, and for work and play; and how we live out our life and our lifestyle. Harry Potter suggests all kinds of themes along these lines. For instance, Harry, Ron, and Hermione are not just connected relationally, they are interdependent on one another as deeply committed friends. Also, bullying is never validated and self-sacrifice is an important virtue.

So, with such global saturation of the storyline and products, Harry Potter becomes a “native culture” framework to those who read the books and/or see the movies during their formative years as children and teens. For instance, suppose you described to a Potter fan the employment practices of a business or organization this way: “They treat their workers like house-elves.” The fan will know instantly that it is an unfair and abusive work situation which deserves to be resisted, boycotted, protested, etc. (Unfortunately, I know of organizations where this terrible reality applies, despite their charter and/or  reputation for “doing good,” and once the 20-/30-somethings of tomorrow discover that their leaders treat subordinates unjustly, I suspect they will be highly reluctant to get involved there!)

Finally, I would suggest that such values in Harry Potter as courage, tolerance, friendship, and perseverance are essential to creating sustainable social transformation. That potentially makes the Harry Potter universe a veritable playfield as a familiar-enough case study with parallels for training next generations of social entrepreneurs and social change agents. And, since I have been involved in social transformation enterprises since age 17, I can relate. Perhaps, ultimately, that’s why it was important to me to create a page on social impact and Harry Potter. Maybe I’ll come back to this page sometime to add more thoughts, but for now, it seems like that’s all I need to say …

The Harry Potter Alliance

In Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, Hogwarts students organized themselves into “Dumbledore’s Army,” committing and training themselves to combat the forces of evil in their wizarding world. In that spirit, The Harry Potter Alliance “encourage[s] our members to hone the magic of their creativity in endeavoring to make the world a better place.” It began in 2005 and has grown into an association of chapters – middle-school, high school, university, and community – primarily in the U.S., but with other chapters worldwide.

Besides empowering members as individuals, the Alliance has organized as a series of social change and philanthropy campaigns. Here is their official mission statement, found on their What We Do page:

The Harry Potter Alliance (HPA) is a 501c3 nonprofit that takes an outside-of-the-box approach to civic engagement by using parallels from the Harry Potter books to educate and mobilize young people across the world toward issues of literacy, equality, and human rights. Our mission is to empower our members to act like the heroes that they love by acting for a better world. By bringing together fans of blockbuster books, TV shows, movies, and YouTube celebrities we are harnessing the power of popular culture toward making our world a better place. Our goal is to make civic engagement exciting by channeling the entertainment-saturated facets of our culture toward mobilization for deep and lasting social change.

As a long-time social activist collaborator, project manager, and non-profit historian/archivist myself, there are several aspects of the Harry Potter Alliance that I find particularly intriguing when it comes to training next generations of social innovators.

They use the narrative of the Harry Potter series and the personal character of the people in Harry Potter’s world as a framework for making social activism concepts and campaigns understandable. (We learn in part by relating new knowledge and experiences with what we already know. So, the storylines and character qualities in the Harry Potter series provide a valuable framework for growth. As another part of the What We Do page notes, “The Harry Potter Alliance fights the Dark Arts in the real world by using parallels from Harry Potter. We work for human rights, equality, and a better world just as Harry and his friends did throughout the books.”)

They provide core resources that lay out the basic how-to’s of social activism for making it accessible. (See the pages on resources to set up a chapter and surf the various campaigns to see just how practical the resources are for training in activism.)

They provide a network of relationships – such as chapters and inter-house competitions (i.e., Gryffindor, Hufflepuff, Ravenclaw, and Slytherin) – for making effective participation more fun and more achievable.

They work on a core cluster of issues – equality, literacy, and human rights – to focus energies while encouraging creativity, making the impact more sustainable.  (The reality is, we need boundaries that set up a dynamic tension for our creativity to function at its best. For instance, if I say, “Design a house for me,” that is too vague to spark relevant creativity … although a designer would surely come up with something. If I say, “Design an energy-efficient house for me, and I live where there are lots of rocks to work with,” the design will likely turn out more relevant to my desires plus the place where the house will be built. A focused set of issues, a regularly instigated new and specific campaign … these are the kinds of constraints that can increase creativity as long as participants are given leeway to adapt.)

Don’t mistake me as endorsing all the Harry Potter Alliance stands for or does. However, taken all together, the Harry Potter Alliance demonstrates aspects of a “quadruple bottom line approach” to social enterprises that can benefit people, planet, profits, and personal/social transformation simultaneously, while seeking to harm none. I am an advocate for that kind of overall approach. So, it is worth considering what they do and how they go about it, in order to reflect on the social impact of Ms. Rowling’s values and the impact they are having on social change.

Resources on Harry Potter and Social Transformation

There are probably far more resources available than I’m aware of for how Harry Potter is relevant to social innovation, but I want to suggest three items I think will be helpful. The first is a popular-level primary source about Ms. Rowling herself, the other two are intermediate- to academic-level secondary sources that analyze important psychological and social aspects of Harry Potter.

1. J.K. Rowling: A Year In The Life. This 2007 documentary feature is available on the 2-disc Special Edition version of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. It tracks Ms. Rowling’s progress in completion of the final book in the series, and various events related to that achievement. As a writer, I found her creative and editing processes fascinating. But, as a “culturologist” and futurist, what I found particularly engaging were her interviews with director and narrator James Runcie, her off-the-cuff comments throughout the film, and the segments where she is working on her Volant Charitable Trust. These give tremendous insight into who Ms. Rowling is in her own formation and character, and what she is passionate about and values. (You may find especially enlightening one specific set of free-association type questions where Mr. Runcie asked her to say the first word that came to mind – I won’t quote anything as you need to experience it yourself. You need to hear what she says, take in her facial expression and body language, and think about what these things tell about her!)

2. Prejudice in Harry Potter’s World by Karen A. Brown. This book records the research and analysis Ms. Brown did into “A Social Critique of the Series, Using Allport’s The Nature of Prejudice” (i.e., the subtitle of the book). I have given details on this on the Resource Materials page, in the section on “Issues of Social Justice and of Suffering.” I found Ms. Brown’s work engaging. She explores various characters and cultural situations in the series to create a vivid picture of the social hierarchy of the wizarding world, and suggests the personal and social values that drive both the prejudicial and welcoming sides of that society.

3. Phoenix Rising: Collected Papers on Harry Potter, edited by Sharon K. Goetz. This book provides the papers presented at the Phoenix Rising conference, held May 17-21, 2007. One especially valuable aspect of a “reader” like this is the variety in topics covered and perspectives used in the essays. As such, this volume has essays that address psychological aspects of characters, issues of evil, prejudice, social order in the wizarding world, politics, and ethics. Their collective effect creates broader insight into social situations which call for transformation – in Harry Potter’s world and in our own.

4. Harry Potter and the Millennials: Research Methods and the Politics of the Muggle Generation by Anthony Gierzynski with Kathryn Eddy. This book distills out some of the key ways that Rowling’s series has influenced the value structures and political culture of the generations raised with reading about Hogwarts. [Added December 2013.]

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