The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight

Review of Harry Potter and International Relations

February 7, 2007

The most recent issue of International Affairs (January 2007) includes a review of Harry Potter and International Relations.

Harry Potter and international relations. Edited by Daniel H. Nexon and Iver B. Neumann. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefi eld. 2006. 245pp. Index. Pb.: £15.99. isbn 0 7425 3959 8.

My first advice for readers of this book would be: do not let the title fool you, this is a serious book. I must admit I requested to review this book with a certain amount of faith that I could while away hours reading about why Voldemort is the epitome of realism and how Dumbledore is a brilliant constructivist (though Torbjorn Knutsen disagrees with this assessment in chapter 9). However, it turned out that my appreciation of how International Relations can shed insight into Harry Potter’s tales of magic is not the sole goal of this book. Rather, the book is an exposition of what J. K. Rowling’s stories about Harry Potter reveal about our social and political world.

In the introduction, Neumann and Nexon argue that International Relations, particularly its constructivist and post-structuralist approaches, is able to provide insights into political choices, statements and cultures by examining popular culture. Culture shapes politics because ‘within popular culture morality is shaped, identities are produced and transformed, and effective analogies and narratives are constructed and altered’ (p. 6). Tracing the effect of culture on international relations is the task of this book and the contributors provide insights into the Harry Potter series and its potential impact on Muggles (non-magic folk) through four different approaches: popular culture and politics; popular culture as mirror; popular culture as data; and popular culture as constitutive.

Popular culture and politics seek to understand how the global success of Harry Potter has changed economic and political processes. One contributor (Patricia Goff ) does this by tracing the global empire that controls the Harry Potter franchise, Time Warner American Online (AOL). Another chapter (Maia Gemmill and Daniel Nexon) looks at the Christian right’s response to Harry Potter and its attempts to ban the book in schools and libraries. Popular culture as mirror seeks to illuminate how Harry Potter’s world reflects elements of our own world. This in turn allows us to question our own assumptions and epistemologies. Popular culture as data discusses how cultural values collide with those coming from ‘outside’. This is exemplified in a chapter by Ann Towns and Bahar Rumelili which looks at how Harry Potter has been received in Sweden as compared to Turkey. Finally, popular culture as constitutive looks at whether our beliefs represent international politics. Wonderfully illustrative of this is Martin Hall’s chapter on how realism reflects an international relations version of the fantasy genre for western civilization.

The constitutive effects, Neumann and Nexon argue, are the most important ones to trace in locating popular culture’s impact on politics. So far, they argue, it is too soon to say that Harry Potter has informed or determined politics through popular culture. For example, Harry Potter analogies have not yet seeped into the official speeches of western officials, unlike Star wars and Joseph Conrad’s Heart of darkness. However, the naturalizing effect of Harry Potter is a very real future possibility—J. K. Rowling’s brilliant series has been able to encapsulate the ‘natural’ way that we understand politics as a contest between good and evil. Popular culture is thus an important empirical source by which to further investigate our political assumptions and question why things are ‘just the way that they are’ (p. 19). Harry Potter, whether liked or disliked, has been a global phenomenon through its economic impact, its translation into a mass of languages, debates over its local interpretation and its complementarity to our, Muggles, appreciation of the social and political world. Best of all, because of the quality of the insights that this book achieves in examining the relationship between culture and international relations, we as International Relations scholars can read Harry Potter and justify it as ‘research’.

Sara E. Davies, Queensland University of Technology, Australia

website | + posts

Daniel H. Nexon is a Professor at Georgetown University, with a joint appointment in the Department of Government and the School of Foreign Service. His academic work focuses on international-relations theory, power politics, empires and hegemony, and international order. He has also written on the relationship between popular culture and world politics.