The power of literacy in J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter: The making/unmaking of the world




Beck, Ann Sandra

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J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter novels continue to be at the centre of debate regarding the value of the series with respect to children’s literacy. Informing this debate are two perspectives: on one hand is the argument that Harry Potter encourages children to read and write; on the other hand is the position that the novels possess little inherent literary quality. Neither side has investigated the novels’ messages about literacy itself. To investigate these messages, this study applies a critical text analysis to the series’ depictions of literacy practices, defined here according to a sociocultural model encompassing reading and writing, speaking and listening, and viewing and representing. Critical perspectives form the theoretical foundation to this study. Critical social theory frames literacy practices within their social contexts; thus, this study organizes literacy practices according to their primary functions for characters in the novels: exchange, notification, domination /empowerment, and restriction. Poststructuralism, informed by Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault, highlights the relationship between social practices and power. This study thus considers how characters undergo or exercise different kinds of power when they engage in literacy practices. This examination of literacy and power exposes the ideological assumptions behind literacy, revealing literacy practices to be sites for characters to experience and contest power. The novels also show that power over literacy is power over access to information, knowledge, and self-expression, and thus, over individuals and the world around them. The series suggests the importance of ownership of literacy, as well as encourages readers to be aware of the ways in which literacy practices can be tools of both oppression and empowerment. Arising from the study are implications regarding the nature of literacy and its relationship with power. Harry Potter shows that literacies are contextual, multiple, and value-laden social practices that participate in the making and unmaking of our social world. This dynamic mediation occurs through the operation of different kinds of power accompanying literacies: individuals experience passive socializing power through their exposure to literacy practices; individuals exercise active power on the world around them through literacies; and potential power residing in all forms of literacy makes other forms of power possible. For educators facing the decision whether or not to include the Harry Potter series in classrooms, understanding the novels’ messages about literacy is a beginning. Awareness of how characters in the series use literacy in the production and exercise of power will give teachers insight into the complexity of the role and function of literacy for children. Adopting a critical literacy approach in the classroom will help teachers encourage children to participate in discussions that specifically address the nature of literacy, its relationship with power, and the ideological assumptions that accompany its participation in society. This study also recommends that teachers specifically increase the presence of viewing/representing literacies in the classroom so as to highlight individuals as active agents of social reform.



Literacy, Education