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Cultural Relativity and Elfish Welfare in the Harry Potter Series

Updated on June 29, 2011

An essay applying the anthropological concept of cultural relativity to episodes in J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter Series

DISCLAIMER: The thesis of this essay is meant to apply an anthropological concept to the fictional race of elves, NOT to state or imply that any group of human beings desires or may be rightly kept in subjugation.

Any discussion of race and racism in the Harry Potter series is not complete without discussion of the fictional creatures invented by Rowling for the series, especially considering that one of the main examples of racism in the books concerns the abuse of house-elves. However, this presents many problems in an anthropology paper. Does house-elf abuse truly constitute racism? Are house-elves, giants, centaurs, goblins, and other nonhuman classifications truly races? Can other species be discussed in an anthropology paper when anthropology is defined as the holistic study of humankind? In this paper, I hope to answer all of these questions, followed by a discussion of house-elves and the ethical issues that their situation raises.

Before truly discussing race in the Harry Potter series, one must first define the term. According to Kottak, a race is an ethnic group formed around a supposed biological commonality. Since only humans have the capacity for culture, only humans form ethnic groups, and thus only humans are classified by race. Other species, such as dogs are classified using other terms, like “breed.”

However, the Harry Potter universe poses challenges to this logic, because in the Harry Potter universe, humans are not the only species with the capacity for culture. Giants, for example, have their own language and live in the mountains in tribes lead by a village head called a “Gurg.” Goblins also have their own language, known as Gobbledegook, and a unique system of ownership in which the true owner of an object is its maker. Centaurs are extremely ethnocentric and predict the future through astrology. House-elves constantly refer to themselves in the third person and place great value on loyalty and service. All of these species, while not human, possess their own unique culture.

If, however, we called giants, goblins, centaurs, house-elves, and other Rowling-created species “races,” that would offset our current system of calling the subdivisions within a species “races,” rather than using the term “race” for the species itself. It also poses a problem because most anthropologists consider race to be a social construct, based on a perceived biological connection, rather than a scientific difference. Species arebiologically different and notculturally defined. Thus, for the purposes of this essay, I will still refer to these magical species as “species.” When I call them “species,” however, I mean species that are also ethnic groups, complete with a capacity for culture, and species which, in spite of not being human, may be discussed in anthropological terms because of that capacity for culture, which makes them extremely similar to humans.

Because these species are extremely similar to humans, I would say that that they are entitled to “human rights,” or some synonymous, but more accurately phrased term, such as “elfish rights” or “goblin rights.” Among the rights generally acknowledged as universal human rights are the right not to be enslaved and the right not to be injured. House-elves in the Harry Potter series are commonly denied these rights, living in unpaid service to frequently abusive wizarding families. The first house-elf introduced in the series is Dobby, the servant of the Malfoy family, who forces him to slam his ears in the oven or iron his hands for indiscretions. Dobby longs for freedom, which is eventually granted to him when Harry tricks Lucius Malfoy into giving Dobby a sock, setting him free.

Later, in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, another house-elf, Winky, is freed by her master as a punishment and falls into an alcoholic depression. Hermione, upset at the injustice of Winky’s treatment, creates an organization called the Society for the Protection of Elfish Welfare, or more commonly, S.P.E.W. As the only active member, she leaves hats, scarves, and other clothing hidden in the Gryffindor common room for the elves to collect and free themselves. After this, the house-elves, none of whom desire to be freed and most of whom consider Dobby a kind of insane oddity, refuse to clean Gryffindor Tower.

The house-elves’ intense desire to serve and happiness with their enslaved condition did not sit well with me when I first read The Goblet of Fire. It seemed almost like a racist (or perhaps speciesist) deception to portray a people as wantingto live in slavery. The helpful, obliging elves with diminutive names like Winky, Dobby, and Hokey reminded me of racist stereotypes of black slaves in the United States, depicting them as dull, docile, good-natured, and completely happy to serve their masters. Even Dobby, happy to work for wages, strives to do all he can for Harry Potter, whom he practically claims as a de facto master. This did not ring true to me. No group of people can be truly happy living in slavery.

That is what my ethnocentric American viewpoint told me, anyway. Cultures sometimes think and operate in ways that are difficult for outsiders to understand. Just because a practice seems repugnant to someone from one culture does not mean that it is wrong for another culture. Before trying to impose foreign values on other cultures, one must adopt a culturally relativistic mindset and consider whether or not the practice is actually damaging to the group involved, lest the other culture be harmed instead of helped. One way of making this assessment is through Edgerton’s criteria, a set of three questions that helps to determine if a practice is genuinely harmful:

  1. Does the practice injure individuals or groups in the society or harm the society’s ability to reproduce?
  2. Does the society recognize the practice as harmful?
  3. Are there alternatives to this practice?

When I answer the three questions in Edgerton’s criteria, I am forced to conclude that house-elf slavery is not in itself a harmful practice. Unless the owner of a house-elf is abusive, it does not harm the elf and does not interfere with elfish reproduction. The elves greatly approve of the practice and are usually traumatized if freed, and the alternative of being paid for their work is seen as extremely offensive to house-elves. In spite of my own aversion to house-elf slavery and the enthusiasm with which the house-elves accept their bondage, I cannot say that it is a practice that should be abolished. Were it abolished, the house-elves would be devastated. If Winky fell into an alcoholic depression even after finding an alternative service position at Hogwarts, then the house-elf reaction to being totally unable to serve would likely be devastating. Thus, instead of crusading to free the house-elves, Hermione should have focused her efforts on reforming the existing institution of house-elf slavery, as the abusive treatment of house-elves is obviously injurious, and thus a harmful practice according to Edgerton’s criteria.

In conclusion, it can be fun to apply anthropological ideas to fictional worlds. It forces analysis of the terminology being used and, frequently, redefinition of certain concepts and ideas, thus providing an opportunity for thinking outside of the proverbial box. The Harry Potter series gives readers ample opportunity for rethinking perceptions of race, species, culture, cultural relativity, and ethics.


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    • pbsandwichofdoom profile imageAUTHOR

      Kathryn Lamoreux 

      5 years ago

      This post was actually originally written as a paper for an intro anthropology class where the assignment was to apply one of the vocabulary terms (in this case, cultural relativism) to a work of fiction. The situation of the house elves stuck out to me because Hermione reacts to them by applying her own cultural values in an effort to help (values that I think most of us share) and is unsuccessful as a result.

      To be honest, though, the house elf story line in Harry Potter always made me a bit uncomfortable. Since so many concepts applied to magical races in the series serve as an allegory for real-life situations-- like discrimination against Muggles and "Mudbloods" as a representation of racism and even genocide-- it's hard not to read the house elves as a bizarrely inappropriate comment on slavery.

      So, I definitely can't tell what J.K. Rowling might have been trying to say here. I suppose all I can say is that I do NOT think that human beings are ever happy or somehow "better off" in bondage, and I do NOT support any kind of nonconsensual or coercive relationship between a labor force and its employers.

      Additionally, while the other house elves enjoy their servitude, it is notable that Dobby himself is miserable as a slave. Perhaps this shows that the consent of the house elves is necessary to ethically employing them? However, it seems unlikely that a creature magically bound to its master can give meaningful consent, and this explanation unfortunately bypasses the uncomfortable fact that the other elves are so enthusiastic to be slaves.

      A quick Google search brings up this article, though, which you might find interesting: It seems to be saying that the house elves' enthusiasm for slavery represents not a cultural preference to be respected, but a kind of internalized racism, a sign that their oppression has effected the way that they see themselves and relate to the world.

      Sorry this was so long-- You just pose a highly relevant and uncomfortable question.

    • profile image


      5 years ago

      I feel as if I'm reading an apology for slavery. What was the point behind Rowling's creation of house elves in the first place?


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