The Harry Potter series wound up being such a divisive force in the world when it was published and still makes headlines today. It’s been lauded as fantastic literature and condemned for promotion of magical thinking — at least in the minds of those who think magic is of the devil and that any of the spells and charms made up for this series could somehow work in the real world.
For those unfamiliar with the series (there are still some who haven’t read or seen it), Harry discovers he’s a wizard and starts school at the hidden magical place called Hogwarts where he learns how to develop his powers. Wizards and witches are very much a minority on Earth and keep to themselves as much as possible because the ordinary world might not understand what they are and thus might fear them. There is much to fear – Voldemort and his evil plots to take over the world. Voldemort and his supporters are very anti-Muggle and hate the fact that wizards and witches will marry into non-magical families. They call the offspring Mudbloods and it’s a terrible slur.
Voldemort et.al. might be the worst but even the nicest families (and Harry’s school) support slavery in the shape of house-elves tied to the property because they aren’t allowed to own anything. Other species within the wizarding world are also sidelined and seldom seen in polite company. Prejudice and bigotry run rampant and Harry (and his friend Hermione as it happens) come into this from the Muggle outside and see things differently, thus react to it differently.
Several psychologists have found this particular aspect of the series intriguing because it seems that people who enjoy the books wind up with a better sense of inclusion and equality – especially if they can identify personally with Harry and what’s he’s going through.
A couple studies were done in Italy and one in the UK to research this. The Pacific Standard sums up the studies as reported in the Journal of Applied Social Psychology.
For one of them, 34 Italian fifth-graders were given a six-week course focused on discussing the series. They started the kids off with a questionnaire first to record their opinions on immigrants, homosexuals and other stigmatized groups and then met with them weekly to discuss various passages selected from the seven books.
Half of the kids read, and talked about, sections that dealt directly with prejudice; the others focused on sections that discussed unrelated topics.
Afterwards, they again answered questions about their attitudes about immigrants, listed how many Harry Potter books or films they had seen, and revealed the extent to which they wanted to be like Harry.
The results: Those who read and discussed Potter passages about prejudices showed “improved attitudes towards immigrants.” The researchers caution, however, that this welcome reaction only occurred among those who identified with the title character.
It’s hard to know if different responses on a questionnaire translate to different behaviour around minority groups, though, but this is interesting all the same.
The second study featured 117 Italian high school students. They were asked how many of the books they had read; whether they felt an emotional kinship with Harry (or, alternatively, Voldemort); and, in what they were told was a separate study, expressed their attitudes toward homosexuals.
The researchers found those who had read more of the books also had a more positive attitude toward gay people—but, again, only if they felt a personal connection to the title character.
I remember when J.K. Rowling came out and said the Headmaster of the school was gay but I failed to see what difference it would have made knowing that going into the books or, like me, having this revealed after I’d read them all. Like it matters. But, maybe it does in the end — Harry trusts Professor Dumbledore and understands completely that the trust is mutual. If Harry suspected this unexpressed “truth” about his professor, it was a non-issue for him. Before he was Voldemort, the half-blood Tom Riddle also attended the school. He hid his Muggle history and was ambitious and cruel. He was also wary and fearful of Dumbledore, who suspected early on that he was taking a dark road into the future.
The last study mentioned took place in England with college students and their opinions on refugees. The researchers got similar results as the Italians.
here, the key variable was the extent to which participants identified (or failed to identify) with Voldemort. They also discovered the same likely mechanism behind the prejudice reduction: The books’ ability to prompt readers to view society from the viewpoint of a disparaged minority.
“Harry Potter book reading was positively associated with perspective taking toward refugees only among those less identified with Voldemort,” they report. “Perspective taking, in turn, was associated with improved attitudes toward refugees.”
More proof that books have power. The ideas and how they can change a person — that’s where the magic is.