Harry Potter's School Houses and the Analysis of Multiculturalism
Harry Potter is probably a name nearly everyone in the world knows by now. The books and movies developed into a global phenomenon that has not only drawn children and young adults into its ban but people from all age categories and even though the series is officially over, the hype about it is not and is a continuously ongoing event.
This article will discuss the multiculturalism shown in the universe of Harry Potter. It will focus on the ‘Hogwarts Houses’ as they ascribe an identity to students and categorize them into groups from an early age onward, and hence work as an act of group formation, which has the consequences of stereotyping. Furthermore, it discusses how this phenomenon got taken over into the real world by fans in order to mark themselves as a fan.
This is important as the phenomenon of parting a society into groups is not only existent in the Harry Potter books but also in real life as fans of the series identify through sorting. It shows that the sorting event, which originally was an imaginary scenario, became one for the real world in order for individuals to ascribe an identity to themselves and feel connected through the worldwide known Harry Potter franchise and build a community on their own.
The boy who lived
Harry Potter is a fantasy novel series, written by J.K. Rowling, and got first published under the British company Bloomsbury in 1997. Since the release of the first book, the series developed into the best-selling book series in the world and has been translated into 80 languages so far. The series has seven parts and three companion books connected to it won multiple awards. It also has movies and a theatre play based on it (Wizarding World, n.d.).
Throughout the book series the reader follows the main character, a wizard called Harry Potter, on his journey to defeat the evil, that is characterized as the wizard called Lord Voldemort. Harry is the chosen one to defeat Voldemort due to his past. Throughout the book the reader sees Harry grow up. So next to training to defeat evil, they also get confronted with the life of a teenage boy growing up and typical topics related to it like friendship, first love, and daily school life.
Harry being the chosen one is connected to an event that occurred when he was a baby. In the world of Harry Potter, a spell exists that is known to kill the one it is used on, which makes its usage illegal. Harry is the only one to be known to ever survive it, making him the most famous wizard in the world. While the whole world knows Harry’s history, Harry himself does not find out about him being a wizard until his 11th birthday, which is a significant age in the wizarding world as one gets their invitation to attend the ‘Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry’ on that day, with which one's fate about whether one is a wizard or not gets decided.
After this, the reader, as well as Harry gets introduced to a new culture, the wizarding world, and the connected boarding school to it, called Hogwarts that Harry will attend from then on to learn about his magic abilities. Together with Harry, the reader learns about the norms and rules of this world, the different groups and sub-groups existing in it, and his ascribed identity that everyone knows about except for himself.
Hogwarts Houses and their way of ascribing identity
In general, Harry Potter shows how easy it is to sort individuals that belong to the same community into different groups. Those groups then also show how the act of getting sorted into one of them automatically makes the people around you look at you and judge you in a certain way, even if they only know this one detail about another.
The main wizard school existing in Harry Potter is a castle which is called Hogwarts and functions as a boarding school in which its students live throughout the school year. On a student’s first day, a sorting ceremony marks the beginning of their school life, which happens in front of the whole school. In it, the student gets sorted into one of the four school houses: Slytherin, Gryffindor, Ravenclaw, or Hufflepuff. This happens through the magic sorting hat that can read a student’s mind and see which characteristics of the student correspond the most with one of the houses to then announce its decision loudly.
Each of the houses has its own living area in the castle to which only its members have access as they are protected through a speaking portrait that will only grant entrance to those who know the password. The houses battle each other throughout the year to collect so-called house points which are obtained by giving correct answers in lessons or doing good deeds but can also be deducted for breaking school rules. At the end of the year, the house with the most points wins the house cup.
As mentioned, the four houses are based on different character traits and beliefs and they also have their own color and emblematic animal, which together form the emblem of the house (see figure 1) and the color of the uniform a student will wear.
The characteristics and emblems of the houses are the following:
Ravenclaw: wisdom, learning, intelligence, and wit. Their emblem is an eagle on blue and bronze.
Slytherin: cunning, ambition, determination, and pride. Their emblem is a serpent on silver and green.
Hufflepuff: loyalty, patience, fairness, and hard-working. Their emblem is a badger on yellow and black.
Gryffindor: courage, bravery, chivalry, and daring. Their emblem is a lion on red and gold.
A clear group distinction is shown from the beginning of the series onwards which also keeps going on throughout the books. The houses are not only something bad though, in terms of creating rivalry, they also create a way of belonging and community for the students from the first day onwards as a form of a second home when being away from their family for so long. Being part of different groups throughout life is a normal occurrence and while we do not have houses in our school systems, there are still different stereotyped groups people imagine schools to have like, for example, the popular kids, the ones known to have good grades or those that maybe belong to a club like a theatre club or an orchestra.
Communities and stereotypes at Hogwarts
‘Enoughness’ is a term used to describe that an individual displays enough characteristics to be considered part of a group (Blommaert & Varis, 2015). This need of being enough is described here as a student needing to have enough characteristics that are part of their identity to be sorted into a house by the sorting hat. Afterward, the student needs to wear a special colored uniform that is connected to one’s house to be identified as part of the group. The uniform hence functions as an identity marker and a salient feature of the community through which others will directly recognize whether another is part of their group or not.
The school universe created by J.K. Rowling is based on communities that form around values and traits that students have in common. After being sorted into a house a student has to meet the normative standards of the house. This form of pressure to conform to norms and conventions might not always be directly presented for the school houses but can be easily observed through Harry being seen as ‘the chosen one’ and needing to quickly live up to the standards of not only the wizarding world but also his ascribed identity that everyone knows him for.
As character traits are what the houses are made of, certain stereotypes quickly build around them.
The school houses as communities are created through salient features that are rigid boundaries, once sorted there is no way to change the house or somehow be part of the other group. As character traits are what the houses are made of, certain stereotypes quickly build around them. Stereotypes form when an individual’s identity gets scaled up to a higher level to represent a larger group. As main traits, Gryffindors are often seen as brave, Slytherins as ambitious, Hufflepuffs as loyal, and Ravenclaws as intelligent. In addition, Slytherin is known as the house of the ‘evil’, this prejudice against Slytherin formed as Lord Voldemort and all of his followers, called death eaters, used to be in it.
This is something that Harry learns quite early onwards and is also an interesting event to observe as the sorting hat first seems to try to ascribe the Slytherin identity to him. Harry, believing these prejudices begs the hat to not sort him into Slytherin, and after a bit of thinking the sorting hat then sorts him into Gryffindor. This shows how easy decisions individuals make in life and events happening to them can influence their future and also the way others will look at them but also that you to a certain degree can influence said decisions. The story of Harry Potter would have maybe looked very differently if he would have been sorted into the Slytherin house.
Another interesting event to look at happens directly before the house sorting in which Harry meets Draco Malfoy, the son of a very famous death eater, who offers his friendship to Harry. Harry denies Draco’s offer though due to the prejudices he has already formed against him. Followed by this decision, Draco turns into a rival for Harry and after Harry gets sorted into Gryffindor and Draco into Slytherin this rivalry also grows to a house-wide level. Hence it is shown how easily communities that hold prejudices against each other based on different beliefs can end up in conflict with one another.
J.K. Rowling created a structured environment in her books. The world of Harry Potter consists of different groups that have exclusive features, which within that world seem to be easily accepted as normality. The elements of essentialism and constructivism are also shown as characters being sorted into a house ascribes them an identity and as these are based on the individual's characteristic traits, they will also naturally act according to them as it is already part of their being.
While Hogwarts is part of a fictional universe, it is interesting to observe that the identification through Hogwarts Houses turned into an identity marker in the real world too, and is now a salient feature to show one’s enoughness of being a fan of the series.
Potterheads and their self-identification
The creation of the four Hogwarts Houses did not only bring a place of community for individuals in the Harry Potter books but also developed into a salient feature for the fans of the series, called Potterheads. There is an official website by J.K. Rowling called Pottermore, on which an individual can take a test to be ‘officially’ sorted into a Hogwarts House. While the houses have hard boundaries in the series, in the real world they are seen as lighter and there is also no rivalry among them. One might subscribe to a house identity by themselves and then take the official test and get ascribed to another but nevertheless, keep the house identity they personally subscribed to.
Fans of the series sort themselves into a house they seem to connect to the most and seem to ‘use fiction to learn about themselves and the groups to which they belong’
As the houses in the real world still have the same character traits as in the books, the stereotypes connected to it are also somehow existing. I self-identify as a Slytherin and also got sorted by Pottermore into it. Even though the world of Harry Potter is an imaginary one, I often get asked why I am a Slytherin because they are ‘evil’. Considering this ‘evil’ does not exist in the real world, it shows how the stereotypes got copied from the books into the real world.
What can be observed is the phenomenon of a fictionary identity marker becoming a part of the real world. Fans of the series sort themselves into a house they seem to connect to the most character-wise and seem to ‘use fiction to learn about themselves and the groups to which they belong’ (Crysel et al., 2015). This is also something Crysel et al. (2015) reviewed in an experiment in which they compared whether a fan’s own sorting corresponded with the house sorting quiz on Pottermore. The results showed that if the desired and assigned houses were identical, participants reported higher satisfaction. Considering this is a still ongoing event even though the series ended in 2007, shows ‘how readers identify with fictional elements, and how these elements could potentially influence readers’ own behaviors and perspectives’ (Jakob, Garcia-Garzon, Jarke, & Dablander, 2019) and ‘that book series can have a long-lasting effect on social attitudes, emotional perception, and personal relations’ (Jakob, Garcia-Garzon, Jarke, & Dablander, 2019).
The house sorting became a form of being seen as ‘enough of a fan’ among Potterheads and as there also is a lot of Hogwarts House-related merchandise, even in real life an individual might show their ‘house pride’ or can identify other Harry Potter fans through it. Hence it can be said that J.K. Rowling created not only a fictional world like anyone else but one that swept over into the real life of those that got devoted to it.
In conclusion, it can be said that the sorting into school houses in Harry Potter shows how easy it is to part individuals from each other and put them into different groups based on their identity. Getting sorted into a house directly ascribes a certain identity to an individual who is connected to prejudices and stereotypes, which is especially interesting to observe considering Harry was supposed to be sorted into Slytherins and not Gryffindor which shows how quickly the way people look at an individual can be decided. Harry Potter also shows the power of fiction and how fans can use elements of the story for identification on not only an individual but also a group level.
The Harry Potter series shows how being part of different groups is an occurrence in the real and imagined world, which shows how important it is for individuals to have the feeling of belonging to a group and be enough to be accepted into it. It also shows that groups always come with a stereotyped view about them but that those are not always true and that an individual sometimes has the agency to choose to be part of a specific group but also sometimes not. Overall, Harry Potter has a lot of multiculturalism connected to it that not only holds a connection to itself but also to the real world, which makes it a relatable and enjoyable series to read.
Blommaert, J. & Varis, P. (2015). Enoughness, accent and light communities: Essays on contemporary identities. Tilburg papers in Culture Studies 139.
Crysel, L. C., Cook, C. L., Schember, T. O., & Webster, G. D. (2015). Harry Potter and the measures of personality: Extraverted Gryffindors, agreeable Hufflepuffs, clever Ravenclaws, and manipulative Slytherins. Personality and Individual Differences, 83, 174–179. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.paid.2015.04.016
Jakob, L., Garcia-Garzon, E., Jarke, H., & Dablander, F. (2019). The Science Behind the Magic? The Relation of the Harry Potter “Sorting Hat Quiz” to Personality and Human Values. Collabra: Psychology, 5(1). doi:10.1525/collabra.240
Wizarding World. (n.d.). Retrieved November 20, 2020.