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Harry Potter and the Nature versus Nurture Debate

“There’s not a witch or wizard that’s gone bad that wasn’t in Slytherin.” In this post, Sarah Michele Ford uses the world of Harry Potter to examine the question of nature versus nurture. Is everything about us determined by our genetics, is social contact the only force shaping us, or is there an interaction between the two that sets each individual on their path?

The Sorting Hat
The Sorting Hat by ~sahinduezguen

In the world of Harry Potter, one of the first experiences students at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry have is the “sorting”, in which a sentient, talking hat decides which of the four school houses each student blonds in. Each house has its own character – Gryffindors are said to be brave, Ravenclaws smart, Hufflepuffs loyal, and Slytherins power-hungry. Enormous weight is put on which house a student is sorted into; they are told that while they are at school, their house will be “like family”. For those of us who have spent the last 15 years immersed in J. K. Rowling’s fantasy world, this all makes perfect sense. Those of you who have managed to avoid the media juggernaut might be shaking your heads and wondering how on earth this could possibly relate to sociology.

Underneath the trappings of wizards, witches, and magic, the Sorting Hat taps into a fundamental question that both sociologists and psychologists ask about human beings: what is the relative influence of our genetics versus the influence of our social environments on things like our personality, intellect, etc.? This argument, known as the “nature versus nurture debate”, has been ongoing for decades. As the hat is placed on each new student, it assesses what’s “in their head” and uses what it sees there to decide which House will be the best fit.

It seems at first that the Sorting Hat is tapping into something essential about the student that destines them for one house or the other. This represents the NATURE perspective of human existence. In this point of view, everything about us is set at birth – our personalities, our likelihood of becoming a criminal mastermind, our intelligence – thanks to biology. At the other end of the spectrum is the belief that genetics play NO role in human development. In this tabula rasa perspective, which dates as far back as Aristotle but whose modern expression is credited to John Locke, humans are seen as a “blank slate” and everything must be LEARNED.

A closer examination, however, leads us to a more sociological point of view. When Harry Potter puts on the Sorting Hat, it waffles about which house he belongs in, telling him that he’s brave but that it also sees a thirst to prove himself, and that he would do well in either Gryffindor or Slytherin. Based on Harry’s whispered “not Slytherin, not Slytherin, not Slytherin”, he is sorted into Gryffindor. This perspective represents a middle ground between pure nurture and pure nature. Harry’s inherent nature means that he has the potential to do well in either one of those two rival houses; the rest is up to his social environment.

While at first this may seem like a question that is of more interest to psychologists than to sociologists, it has huge implications for issues of inequality, particularly in the areas of race and gender.

The 1994 book The Bell Curve by Herrnstein & Murray argued that a combination of intelligence (arguably, nature) and environmental factors (nurture) determined a range of individual outcomes from educational success to fertility to criminal behavior. Herrnstein and Murray took their argument one step farther, though, and argued that racial minorities generally had lower IQs than did caucasians.

Similar arguments to those about intelligence and race have been made about gender and nurturing. It has been argued that women are “naturally” better suited for parenting than are men, and this difference has been used to justify gender inequality. Feminists who took the view that there was a biological component to gender differences, as NOW founding member Alice Rossi did, were denounced as enemies of the cause.

So, while the Sorting Hat may be a seemingly silly device in a fantasy world, it also can help us understand a long-running intellectual debate.

Dig Deeper

  1. Why should sociologists care about genetics?
  2. Which side of the nature versus nurture debate do you think is most correct? Why?
  3. Is it really possible to disentangle our biology from our social environments?
  4. Imagine that you are developing a universal child care policy. How might that policy be affected by your beliefs about nature versus nurture and parenting?