Harry Potter and Magical Thinking

One Sunday this summer I had the opportunity to do something new that was very rewarding for me. I gave a sermon! I’ve included the text of it here. It’s a long read (I had 20 minutes to fill), but if turning cultural relativism into a religion is your cup of tea you might enjoy it. What a treat it was for me to deliver it.


If you’re anti-authoritarian but still nostalgic about church, if you’re interested in your spiritual well-being but can’t stand rules, if you don’t mind a little New Age hugging then check out your local UU. You’ll meet a lot of misfits, hippies, New Englanders, and people who for whatever reason had to walk away from other religions. As my friend Ayla, who grew up in the UU, describes it, “It’s a little bit of Christianity, a little bit of rock and roll.”

Chances are you’ll find other anthropologists, scientists, and professors too. For example my minister has a PhD in physics from Princeton. When I shared with him this story about how some Christian fundamentalists reject Set Theory he said, “Well then, they must object to Godel’s incompleteness theorem as well.” UU’s are a bunch of smartypants.

This sermon was part of a month long series on the theme of Harry Potter…

Harry Potter and Magical Thinking

I must admit I was a little baffled at first when I was invited to give a sermon on the theme of Harry Potter. Why me? Had I lost some kind of bet? I am a cultural anthropologist by training and if there’s one thing we anthropologists are good at it is not feeling uncomfortable in places where we don’t belong and muddling our way through things we have no business doing. “Just figure it out along the way,” is the anthropologist’s maxim.

Imagine that the inhabitants of Hogwarts are like some far-flung tribe and after an exhausting journey from Newport News to this hidden and out of the way place; after having successfully navigated a humiliating and Kafka-esque gauntlet through the Ministry of Magic’s bureaucracy of customs and inspections you, the anthropologist, have arrived in khakis and pith helmet to study this community you know nothing about. You are lonely, far from your friends and family, your bed is hard and the food here tastes funny. You’re a stranger to everyone and can’t seem to make it through a single day without embarrassing yourself by transgressing some to you as yet unknown code of conduct.
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Variation in affinal relations

As we saw in this week’s readings different cultures around the world have different ideas about who counts as family and what different family members’ rights and obligations are relative to others. Some of these kinship systems can be very different from the ones we are most familiar with. In this assignment use the required readings to reflect on how your life might be different and how your outlook on the world would change if you lived in a different culture that had a different definition for the ideal form of marriage.

In the article “Polyandry: When Brothers Take a Wife” we learn about marriage among the indigenous peoples of Tibet where one woman takes multiple husbands. While polyandry (one woman, multiple men) is quite rare, polygyny (one man, multiple women) is considered the ideal form of marriage in many cultures. How would you like to be a participant in a poly marriage? What might be some of the benefits of such a lifestyle? What drawbacks do you foresee? Do you think this form of marriage is unacceptable in the modern US? Why?

In the article “Family and Kinship in Village India” we learn about arranged marriages in India where the parents of the bride and groom negotiate the union among themselves with a limited amount of input from the couple to be engaged. The traditional marriage in India is also a contractual exchange accompanied by a dowry (property paid by the bride’s family), which contrasts with another common practice, bridewealth (property paid by the groom’s family). How would you like to be a participant in an arranged marriage, accompanied by a formalized exchange of property? What are the pros and cons of such an arrangement? Do you think this form of marriage is unacceptable in the modern US? Why?

Your assignment is to leave a thoughtful reply in the comments section below. In the space of about 300-500 words address one of the two articles mentioned in this post (or do both if you feel ambitious). The point of the assignment is to prompt you to see things from another culture’s point of view and to reflect about your own cultural behaviors. This is not an exercise in right or wrong. It will be given a completion grade. Queer and gender-nonconforming students can interpret the scenarios above creatively. Approach the problem in whatever way seems most appropriate.

Deadline is 9am Friday, November 1st. After I drink my coffee and drop my kids off at school I’m logging to grade this so you better be done by then.

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Primates in motion


Lemurs are of course known for their unusually “leaping” behavior and fondness for licking rabbits.

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Rasta poetics

Anthropologists use the term “poetics” to refer to all manner of creative self-expression. Since how we express ourselves is based on our sense of self and identity, you can learn a lot about what people in another culture think about themselves. One important way people lay claim to power (particularly if they’re in a subordinate position in society) is through the production and maintenance of identities. In the case of the Rastafari those identities are always bound up in opposition to what they perceive as mainstream society.

Take for instance this image, drawn from the ethnography Soul Rebels:

Rasta last supper

Lewis notes that some Rasta, “freely used Christian imagery to sustain belief in Rastafari.” In this folk painting depicting the Biblical last supper (a common Christian image with a long history in European art traditions) all the persons represented are Black men with dreadlocks. What might be the political and religious significance of this painting for the Rasta? What does its racial and colonial inversion say about Rasta culture and how they see themselves?

During his visit to the most destitute Rasta who squat on the beach beneath a pier, the author engages in a reasoning session, this time with David and Lion, in which the following exchange takes place:

The light fades. More silence. The bay water slaps against the pilings. A rat tears across the planks and startles me. I jump. Lion, however, admonishes me with a reminder that the rat is only a creature.
“The barber shop is the mark of the beast. Comb and razor conquer. The wealth of Jah is with locks, in fullness of his company.”
All nod in agreement. I mention that my understanding is increasing.
“Be careful with words, brother,” Lion says, “overstand not understand. I people are forward people not backward.”

Lion seems to be talking in poetry here. The Rastas are well known for taking mundane everyday things and making them into political and religious statements. What do you think Lion is getting at in the figurative language of his command to “overstand not understand”? How is this play on words also a reflection of his beliefs and worldview?

In the comments section below, offer your reaction and interpretation to either of these examples. What do you think is going on here? How can the study of poetics provide another avenue for exploring cultures different than our own?

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Language and thought

Much like our method of studying culture, the study of language in anthropology is broad and inclusive of multiple perspectives. The assigned readings cover the definition of language (not an easy task), its evolution as a biological and cultural phenomenon, and sociolinguistics – or the way that we use speech in various ways depending on social circumstances.

Of course its impossible to get inside someone else’s head and know what they’re thinking, but by means of language anthropologists can directly interact with and query people from other cultures to learn why they do the things they do. Language is such an important window into people’s inner lives that the linguists Edward Sapir and Benjamin Whorf suggested that language itself structures how people think.

The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis argues that like the grooves in a vinyl record, different language predisposes people to thinking and acting in particular ways. Today this has become something of an old fashioned idea, but it is still provocative to contemplate.

In this short animated lecture, MIT psychologist Steven Pinker suggests that the relationship between language and thought can be understood in the way veiled language is used to mediate diverse social relationships by playing with mutual knowledge.

Are we constrained by language, or aren’t we?

In the comments section below respond to the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis or Pinker’s modern update, addressing either is sufficient. Is our thought structured by the syntax of the language(s) we speak? When you hear your mind’s voice in your own head I presume it is in English. Does that mean you are thinking English thoughts right now?

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Better off dead

Imagine that you are dead and your loved ones are preparing to bury you in the ground. What do you think those surviving you will put in your grave with you? How will they express who you are and their relationships to you in material items. Think about your family and your friends, both your old friends and your college friends.

Items such as these are termed “grave goods” and archaeologists can learn a lot about a culture based on the kinds of grave goods they provide to their dead. How might future archaeologists interpret the items you’ve chosen to be buried with?

Leave a thoughtful response in the comments section below. The due date is Thursday, March 7 at noon.

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Humans: unique or not?

Here’s a brief lecture by Robert Sapolsky, a neurobiologist at Stanford who also studies baboons and other primates. In this lecture he talks about aggression, theory of mind, the golden rule, empathy, anticipation, and culture as examples of human behaviors that also overlap with animal behaviors. Then after showing you how animal-like our behaviors really are he highlights how humans abstract or elaborate upon each of these behavioral qualities in ways that exceed animals.

He’s a great story teller and speaker! You’ll enjoy this. It’s only about 30 mins. You can watch it on your phone if you want. Cue it to 4’50” in and you can skip the guy who comes out to introduce him.

Now, your assignment is to leave a remark in the comments section below. The website will prompt you to leave your name. Be sure to do this! That is how I will see you’ve completed the assignment. The deadline for leaving a thoughtful comment is Monday morning at midnight.

I want you to reflect on the place of humans in the natural world.

  • Which do you think is more significant? Our similarities to the other animals, or our differences?
  • How does it make you feel to consider that humans are not so different from the rest of life on earth?
  • What do you think about Sapolsky’s conclusion that humans are defined by the ability to hold contradictory beliefs? Can you think of a better essential difference?
  • Is there anything in this video that confuses you or doesn’t make sense? What point do you want to be better explained?

Feel free to share web links in your comment if they’re relevant to the point you’re trying to make. I look forward to reading your responses.

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