“The Sociology of Harry Potter” course about culture

Taking advantage of student’s knowledge of the Harry Potter series, one sociology instructor is using “The Sociology of Harry Potter” to teach about culture:

“The basic idea is to have students use sociology to analyze the society of the wizardly world to be able to understand and compare and contrast between the Muggle world and the witching world,” Vandivier said.

About 30 students are taking the course, which Vandivier said is a large number for an online course, but she is glad for the active participation.

“Many of them are big Harry Potter fans. They get into arguments — not online, but when I’ve talked to some on campus — who’s the good guy and who’s the bad guy and who’s the Hufflepuff, and what that’s got to do with anything. It’s just so fun listening to them, and they are really emotionally invested in the different houses, in the different characters, in the different circumstances that happened and where they think things came from. Just all the ideology; it’s almost like a religion,” she said…

“If I were to teach a class on say, the cultures of India, I would first have to educate them on what the culture of India is. But in this situation, they already know, they already have it down,” she said. “And I’m just facilitating a compare and contrast, what’s the theme, what’s the difference, and what does that mean for each society? So that’s the great thing about Harry Potter.”

Why not use what students already know in order to demonstrate sociological concepts? And with the new Harry Potter play in the works, this might be a good time to capitalize on continued interest.

While the sociological study of pop culture may have been taboo decades ago, it is increasingly common today. The impact of such narratives are hard to deny, even as other traditional institutions (nations, families, race and class structures, education systems, etc.) draw ongoing attention.

Harry Potter conference in Ireland cosponsored by sociology department

The University of Limerick in Ireland this week hosted a Harry Potter conference. Interestingly, this conference was co-sponsored by the sociology department.

An International Academic Conference exploring the cultural influence of the Harry Potter books and films entitled ‘Magic is Might 2012’ took place at the University of Limerick this week.

The two-day event, which concluded on Wednesday, featured 20 presentations on papers showcasing international research on multiple aspects of the impact of the Harry Potter series from literature, to education, law to digital media. Speakers from over 10 countries presented their work on Harry Potter and the conference also included the live trial of controversial character Dolores Umbridge in the University of Limerick Moot Court exploring her crimes and debating the severity of her punishment…

“The characters’ relationships, the political and social systems, and cultural commentaries woven into Rowling’s writing are just some examples of what makes the Harry Potter series an exciting framework for academic discourse in a number of areas.  We will encourage intensive and lively discussion and debate around the papers. We are delighted that Wizards, muggles, established academics and postgraduate students have submitted papers, and we will put the collection of papers together into an e-book after the conference. We are also very excited to host the first Harry Potter conference to take place in Ireland” she continued…

The Conference was hosted by UL’s Department of Sociology in collaboration with UL’s Interaction Design Centre and the Department of Computer Science and Information Systems.

I’m sure this is not the first or last Harry Potter conference. Yet, I wonder why the sociology department was behind this. I know I don’t read or see all that sociologists publish but I haven’t yet run across any sociological works on Harry Potter. A few ideas why a sociology department might sponsor such a conference:

1. Harry Potter is a cultural phenomenon and this is what sociologists study.

2. The sociology department liked the idea of being tied to an international phenomenon. In other words, this is good marketing.

3. The series itself has a number of sociological themes (though the same could be said about other media).

I’d be interested to hear more about the consequences for the sociology department…

Quick Review: Universal’s Islands of Adventure & The Wizarding World of Harry Potter

We recently were in Florida and spent a day at Universal Studio’s Islands of Adventure. While this is more of a theme park than the regular Universal, it also includes the 1 year old Wizarding World of Harry Potter. Here are some thoughts on this park with pictures:

1. I’ll start with Harry Potter. This area was a lot of fun: from the ride (more of a Universal type ride than a roller coaster) to Hogsmeade to seeing Hogwarts from a distance, it was exciting. By far the best overall area of the park. In addition to the main ride (which was fun but we only did it once), there are two dueling roller coasters, the Hungarian Horntail and the Chinese Fireball, that were the second and third best rides in the park (and I went on each of these twice).

We spent a good amount of time in Hogsmeade. The scene of a small village in the snow looked good even on a 90 degree day and Hogwarts looks imposing off in the distance. While Olivander’s wand shop was overrated (and the longest wait of the day at 45 minutes), Zonko’s, Honeyduke’s, and The Three Broomsticks were worthwhile. The butterbeer was tasty.

This was the most crowded part of the park and we went there at least four separate times to try to avoid some of the crowds.

2. The best roller coaster in the park is The Incredible Hulk. While it is not the tallest or fastest coaster in Florida, it has some good features: you are shot out of the tunnel, the first turn/corkscrew is great, and it has an interesting part where it goes through some mist and under a bridge. The waits weren’t that long and I rode three times.

3. The park has three water rides which we rode all in a row. The Jurassic Park ride was entertaining (an extended big boat ride with the big drop at the end). The best was Dudley Do-Right’s Ripsaw Falls which was whimsical, wet, and had a couple of small gotcha drops.

4. Other parts of the park I liked:

-Perhaps other parks have this now but all of the rides had lockers that were free and locked/unlocked by your fingerprint. We didn’t have to pay anything for this all day, the lockers were conveniently located near every ride, and we didn’t have to worry about a key.

-The Dr. Seuss area was fun to walk through but the rides are for kids. Humorously, we saw a brochure in the Orlando area that claimed one of the tram rides from this area was actually in Disney World.

-Spiderman was okay – a typical Universal ride with lots of noise, lights, a 3-D screen. Doctor Doom’s Fearfall could have been taller but at least the line was short.

-We saw three shows: the BMX/skateboarding/motorcycle stunt show was fun while Poseidon’s Fury and the Eighth Voyage of Sinbad were lame.

-The food wasn’t bad. We ate at The Three Broomsticks for lunch and Mythos for dinner. Mythos claimed to be at the top of theme park food and I can’t say that I disagree.

5. Some things I would change:

-There are a few areas that need to be spiced up: Jurassic Park and The Lost Continent. Perhaps this has changed recently with more resources and space going to Harry Potter but these areas were noticeably lacking.

-The park needs one or two good rides to be fantastic. Another roller coaster would be fantastic. We had ridden all three roller coasters (and The Hippogriff kiddie coaster doesn’t count) and all three water rides within four hours of being in the park.

6. A note: we stayed in a Universal hotel the night before and it seemed to pay off. Though the hotel was pricey, we were able to get into the park an hour early (and therefore had no line for the Harry Potter ride) and also had an Express Pass so we could bypass some of the lines. The longest wait we had for a ride all day was probably twenty-five minutes and this was to be in the front row of The Incredible Hulk.

On the whole, we enjoyed the day. All amusement parks these days are expensive but I found this to be more interesting than Disney World, Epcot, or the regular Universal Park. Compared to the other nearby options, this park has exciting rides and doesn’t have to rely on characters, tradition, and tricks. With a little bit more, this park could be fantastic and I would then enjoy returning.

Here is the official website and the Wikipedia overview.

(Side note: the Harry Potter souvenirs were flying off the shelves including wands and school robes. With this success, how come some park hasn’t shelled out big bucks for a Lord of the Rings theme?)

Next hot topic in sociology: one journalist suggests Quidditch

I am always interested to see what people in the media think sociologists should study. According to a blog at Time, some sociologist should link the study of emerging adults (and particularly those who ones who delay real adulthood after college) and the growing game of Quidditch:

A sociologist looking to underscore the narrative of Generation Y’s prolonged immaturity would have had a field day with the fourth annual Quidditch World Cup, the Harry Potter–inspired sports competition that drew legions of muggles to midtown Manhattan this past weekend. Quidditch is, after all, an event inspired by a magical sport in a line of far-fetched children’s books that most of this weekend’s competitors read way back in elementary school. Indeed, at the event’s opening ceremony, many of the 700 athletes arrived dressed in costumes, capes and T-shirts, singing songs from 1990s Disney musicals while masses of media surveyed the endless Potter in-jokes proudly scrawled on their attire (“Pwning Myrtle”). The high point of these people’s lives, it might have appeared, was sometime around 1998.

But this sense of nerdish camaraderie came to an abrupt end right around the time of the first gang tackle.

Quidditch is a sport striving for legitimacy.

It wouldn’t surprise me if a sociologist is indeed studying this. This phenomenon has been growing for a few years as I remember hearing about competitions at Notre Dame at least four years ago. (The story suggests it began at Middlebury in 2005.)

But if sociologists did take this seriously (and perhaps there could be some nice ties to ideas about the sociology of sport with leisure games that begin at elite private colleges), would they just be laughed at and become another light viral news story like the recent stories about the sociology class about Lady Gaga?

(A final question: is it really worth playing this game without flying brooms?)

Quick Review: The Harry Potter series

Over this past weekend, I finished reading the Harry Potter series for the first time. Somehow, I managed to know very little about the story coming in. I enjoyed the books and have some thoughts on the seven books:

1.These are books addressing fairly weighty topics. From love to death, friendship to evil, Harry and his friends encountered a lot. Some portions, particularly much of the last three books, were quite dark.

2. Even with weighty topics, the books had a wit about them. There were many small humorous moments that Rowling included. Perhaps it is just a dry British wit or perhaps it was the often funny interplay between the wizard and Muggle worlds.

3. I’m not quite sure what the main theme is that readers should take away from the books. It has a basic good vs. evil theme though it has more nuance since it is the love Harry’s mom has for him as a baby that eventually helps him meet his goals. But where this love comes from (and also where evil comes from) is left unexplored. This could be read as a coming-of-age story as Harry learns who he is and completes his task. It could be a hero’s journey tale as Harry overcomes obstacles to set the world right. Friendship is a major theme, particularly between Harry, Ron, and Hermione. There is a lot here in addition to the main action sequences and it might have been worthwhile for the characters to reflect more on the implications of their actions.

4. The characters are likable. Harry, Ron, and Hermione had a strong relationship and it was satisfying when Ron and Hermione finally came together. I was surprised by the number of school friends who were constant characters including the other Weasley kids, Neville, Luna, and others. The saddest part of the series for me was Dumbledore’s death – of course, it turns out it happened a little differently than it first appeared. Perhaps my only complaint: some of the teenage angst (among Harry, Ron, and Hermione) seemed like overkill. Another small complaint: two of the main female characters, Hermione and Ginny, could have been more fleshed out.

5. The ending seemed somewhat abrupt with the flash-forward sequence. I was left wanting to know more about life for all of them.

6. I’m not sure I want to see any of the movies. Of course, I have seen some images of the actors. But I feel that if I saw the movies, it would change my understanding and mental images of the books. (Looking back, I wish I had read all of the Lord of the Rings books before seeing the first movie.)

My conclusion according to my wife: I shouldn’t have waited so long to read such a great series.

My conclusion: even if I was behind, I still enjoyed reading the series this summer.