Carolyn Erhart | Ethnography

Technology in the Wizarding World of Harry Potter

How Technological Differences Shape and Change the Intrinsic Makeup of Wizard and Muggle Societies

Life in the Harry Potter novels is divided into two worlds. The first world is one very similar to our own; a world where lawns are orderly, theoretical education is valued, and societal norms come before all else. The setting of this world is in modern day England beginning in the year of 1980 and ending in the summer of 1997. Rowling, a native of Britain herself, provides her characters in this world with all the modern conveyances of the day. Indeed, the setting of this first, English world is filled with computers, televisions, escalators, parking meters, and a myriad of other technological solutions to modern day problems. This world full of technology and modernity is also populated by non-wizarding citizens, more commonly known as Muggles.

The second world in the Harry Potter novels exists in parallel with the first, but is largely unknown and undetected by the Muggle population. This second world is filled with wizards. In contrast with the Muggle world, the wizarding world has very few examples of modern technologies. In the wizarding world, rooms are heated and lit by fires and candles, messages are delivered by owls, carriages are pulled by horses. For the most part, the wizarding world lacks all examples of Muggle technology. In the wizarding world televisions, cell phones, computers and movies do not exist. The only methods of advanced technology present are those for various methods of transportation; wizards travel through fireplaces by Floo-Powder, disappear and reappear instantly through Apparition, and travel through space by holding onto bewitched magical objects called Portkeys.

The worlds of Harry Potter are incredibly interesting to examine from an ethnographic standpoint as they are parallel in time and location, but entirely separate in technology and society. Indeed it is because of these technological deviations that the intrinsic makeups of both the Muggle and wizarding populations differ. Technology, and its lack thereof, influences the members of both societies to the point that it changes the values and the characteristics of their worlds.

According to author David E. Nye, this process of societal change and value differentiation comes about through the process of standardization. Nye states that “For more than 100 years, sociologists argued that industrial technologies were homogenizing people, place, and products. As the assembly line produced identical goods, it seemed to erase difference. Workers became interchangeable, and consumers with identical houses and cars seemed interchangeable as well. As technical systems became more complex and interlinked, the argument ran, people became dependent on the machine and had to adjust to its demands. Technology shaped the personality and dominated mental habits” (Nye 68). In short, the wizarding world and the Muggle world were shaped by divergent evolution based on the process of standardization. While a homogenized society is ideal in the Muggle world, the exact opposite is valued in the wizard world. It is through these technological differences of the basis of society that change the values and characteristics of each world.

Technology in the Muggle World

As stated previously, the Muggle world is one very similar to our own. Children attend compulsory education until the age of 18 and then proceed individually on to university educations or secondary schools. The school systems are theoretical in nature and base their standards on the socially acceptable education practices of their day. Children are taught to analyze, calculate and process facts in figures in the areas of science, math, English and history. “In the Muggle world-our world, people are constantly digging into the soil to understand the world around us. Many of us Muggles do not take these matters on faith, assuming that the mechanisms that make our world work are knowable…This is part of what science classes try to impart to students-the underpinnings of how to discover the mechanisms underlying our world” (Rosenberg 6). Along with a basic understanding of education and knowledge, hard work and monetary gain are both equally valued. Material objects bring prestige and disorder is looked down upon. While our view of Muggle individuals is sadly limited in the novels, one family who exhibits aspects of all these traits is Harry’s adopted family, the Dursleys.

Petunia and Vernon Dursley live in a perfectly respectable suburban neighborhood a few hours outside of London. Petunia and Vernon have a son named Dudley and Petunia’s vocation is primary caregiver to him. Vernon works for a firm named Grunnings, a drill manufacturing company. Their house is large and modern and filled with all the technological comforts of the day. The Dursley household is packed with televisions, computers, refrigerators, dishwashers, Playstations etc. Petunia’s favorite past-times are obsessively cleaning and spying on her neighbors. In the life of the Dursley’s, societal standing is paramount in their daily lives. The neatness of the lawn, the look of the agapanthus bushes, the size of the car, all these things play a major role in the happiness of the Dursley family. As a whole, Vernon and Petunia are obsessed with how their neighbors view them. Having Harry in their house throws a wrench into the works of their prefect suburban lives and as such he is subjugated to abuse and cruelty at their hands.

The Dursleys are fierce advocates of technology and of all the societal prestige afforded to them with each new purchase. They are also firm believers in the normality of their world and the base fact that everything should act as it was meant to. They do not tolerate jokes or flippant remarks about phenomena or happenstance. “The Dursley’s worst nightmare is the kind of unexplained phenomena and violated expectations likely to elicit questions and investigations” (Engel 24). The Dursleys and their regimented, materialistic society lack both imagination and creativity in their attempt to fit in and excel in comparison with their neighbors. As quoted by David Nye in his book, “Technology Matters” Alexis de Tocqueville states that “the [Englishman] want to be like his neighbor…The [Englishman] only feels spiritually safe in what has been standardized” (Nye 68). While wanting to be like them, the Dursley family is not particularly friendly with their neighbors; Vernon constantly complains about Mr.-Next-Door having his sprinklers on at three in the morning and Petunia spies on her neighbors and criticizes the way they raise their children. In the lives of the Dursleys, there is a distinct lack of community among their neighbors and friends. This is because technology in the Muggle world provides for a large level of isolation in its society.

With the invention of telephones, electronic mail, pagers and cell phones, members of the Muggle world rarely have to have face-to-face interaction with others. Muggles do not have to leave their houses to purchase food or clothing as shopping online or through catalogs is popular and common. When needing to go out into the world to make a purchase for immediate use, the sheer amount of stores and shops in the Muggle world practically guarantees that social interaction between shoppers is fairly non-existent. The gross number of cars, trains, buses and planes available to the members of the non-magic community allows for a widespread living area allowing little to no sense of community. Members of the Muggle world do not have to live near their places of employment, nor do they have to work with their neighbors or schoolmates. Technology in the Muggle world provides isolation and separation of its members. There is a distinct lack of community or unity of its people.

Technology in the Wizarding World

As stated above, the wizarding world is far behind the Muggle world in terms of modern technology. In contrast with the Muggle world the wizarding world has no telephones, no televisions, no computers, no electronics of any sort. Communication is slow and outdated. The wizarding word communicates mainly by owl post; letters written on parchment with quills and ink which are then tied to an owl’s feet and then delivered. Houses are warmed by fires, rooms are lit by candles. Education is incredibly limited, both in location and in variety.

Young wizards are educated beginning at eleven years old at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Before their entrance into Hogwarts, young witches and wizards are educated at home. Subjects in wizarding education vary greatly from their Muggle counterparts. Instead of the traditional R’s (reading, writing, arithmetic) wizard children are educated in subjects such as transfiguration, potions, and defense against the dark arts. “For example, the closest students come to mathematics is the class of Arithmency, an unpopular elective, regarded as challenging and unnecessary. Those born into the Muggle world, such as Harry and Hermione, learn the basics in Muggle school. Even if Hogwarts did offer classes in reading and mathematics, it is hard to imagine that they would be favorites. How could calculus class compete with Care of Magical Creatures of Transfigurations?” (Kalish 60). Almost all of the classes taught at Hogwarts are empirical and practical, not theoretical like in the Muggle world. “Though we do not have a complete syllabi for the courses at Hogwarts, we get a pretty good sense of what the curriculum is like. The classes are very hands-on and applied. The students learn how to do things: feed hippogriffs, transplant mandrakes, levitate cups and brew all sorts of potions” (Kalish 61). It is with this hands-on knowledge that wizarding children are taught to think differently, to be more open and creative in their thought processes. The possibilities truly are endless when you can transform a rat into a water goblet or a tortoise into a teapot. It is through the technology of education and teaching methods that teach wizard children to be creative and imaginative with the world around them.

Another aspect of the lack of technology in the wizarding world is the small number of buildings, businesses and schools in the magical world. With one school of magic in England, almost every child with magical ability comes to study at Hogwarts. Parents are free to educate their children elsewhere, but the choice to do so is not popular. In this manner, almost all of the wizarding families are connected as children form friendships, intermingle, date and eventually marry members of their classes at Hogwarts. This aspect of how technology plays a role in the wizarding world is arguably the most restrictive. With only a small pool of applicants available, inter-personal relationships in the wizarding world are very limited. In the Muggle world, the number of individuals one could choose for a romantic partner is unlimited. In the wizarding world, the people who you must form lasting relationships with are decided by your age and neighborhood or workplace. Wizards marry wizards, some with more emphasis than others on blood status, but eventually, everyone becomes related by blood or by marriage. While wizards are interconnected in their love lives and in their personal affairs, wizards are also very connected in their shopping and day to day activities.

There are a small number of buildings associated with the British wizarding world. There is Hogwarts and the surrounding village of Hogsmeade and there is Diagon Ally. It is here in Diagon Ally that almost all of the witches and wizards of this community come to shop and perform business. There is one known bank in the wizarding world, Gringotts.

Gringotts is interesting in that it is more of a vault than a bank. Without any technologies or electronic banking, all monetary transactions in the wizarding world take place with coins for currency. Coins are held in money bags and dispensed by goblins that retrieve the gold in carts from personal vaults deep underground. A customer would need his own personal key to open a vault and how much gold a person may take out is limited to how much one can carry at one time. There are no credit cards, check or debit cards. Nothing can be bought using our concept of credit or on a credit account. The coins, Galleons, Sickles and Knuts, are heavy and jangle. As this is the only option for banking, all of the members of the magical community store their gold and other valuables here. Technology is virtually unknown in this aspect of wizarding life.

The same is true for other purchases as well. Everyone buys their schoolbooks at Flourish and Blotts and everyone buys their wizard’s robes at Madam Malkins. Without the technology to build massive amounts of buildings and large communities, the entire wizarding population is forced to shop in the same places and to buy the same things. It is through this lack of technology and lack of diversity in shops that forces the wizarding community to become very close knit.

Indeed, it is through these building technologies that makes the wizarding society such an insular one. Almost every student at Hogwarts has a relative who works at the Ministry of Magic. With wizarding communities being separate from their Muggle counterparts, houses are closer together and neighbors are friendly with each other. When wizards are forced to shop together, work together, live together and learn together, the community tends to become very isolated but in a much more pleasant way than in the Muggle community.

Technology is obviously very different in the wizarding world in comparison with the present day Muggle world. After taking a closer view at the technologies present or absent in the Muggle and wizarding societies, we can see how large a role technology plays not only in the development of each culture, but in their day to day interactions with their fellow members of the society as well. In accordance with Nye’s view of standardization, each society is affected and evolves separately. So many aspects of modern life such as banking, commerce, and communication are influenced by technology. The difficulty of functioning without having these specific technologies is highlighted by contrasting a society like our own to one in which technology is not present. The contrasts between this fictional world and are own are dramatic in comparison. It is through this comparison that we are able to see how much we take technology for granted in our own Muggle world and how the wizarding world is so different without it. As Nye would say, technology matters.

Works Cited

  1. Engel, Susan. "Harry's Curiosity." The Psychology of Harry Potter: an Unauthorized Examination of the Boy Who Lived. Dallas, TX: BenBella, 2007. 19-32. Print.
  2. Kalish, Charles. "Hogwarts Academy." The Psychology of Harry Potter: an Unauthorized Examination of the Boy Who Lived. Dallas, TX: BenBella, 2007. 59-71. Print.
  3. Nye, David E. Technology Matters: Questions to Live with. Cambridge, MA: MIT, 2006. Print.
  4. Rosenberg, Robin. "What Do Students Learn from Hogwarts Classes?" The Psychology of Harry Potter: an Unauthorized Examination of the Boy Who Lived. Dallas, TX: BenBella, 2007. 5-18. Print.