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From my observations of the Potterverse, that society seems to be quite dated, looking at the attire and architecture in the magical world relative to the muggle world. An exception to this is the Ministry for Magic, however even that could be argued to be somewhat reminiscient of the 1940s or 50s with the fashions and and architecture also.

We can also extrapolate that, not just in England, but at least some other parts of the magical world still observe relatively dated technologies and fashions, as demonstrated by the Durmstrang ship and the (albeit flying) horse and cart from Beauxbatons. So, in some respects, the Potterverse society seems to be quite dated.

Yet, in other areas it seems that the magic society has is more advanced compared to what would ordinarily be expected of a society exhibiting such almost medieval fashions. For example, women's rights - the fact that there are female teaching staff, and quite senior ones at that, indicates some development beyond a medieval time. So some areas seem to have progressed.

So my question is this: has the Potterverse society actually stagnated in some aspects, for example architecture, technologies and fashion, as suggested by props and settings depicted in the novels and films? I am looking for authoritative sources to support or contradict this notion.

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    Why do I get the feeling this is going to be a controversial question... ;) – Often Right Jun 10 '15 at 6:33
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    Also in the real world most famous universities are very old (at least their main buildings). The same goes for government buildings in old cities. The rest like the ship and cart seems to be just for nostalgia sake; or just for style. A plane or a submarine wouldn't be magical enough. – Thomas Jun 10 '15 at 8:17
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    Bear in mind that Beauxbatons and Durmstrang wanted to make the most impressive entrance possible. Even if the magical carriage/ship wasn't very practical or often used, it would be worth getting it out of storage for the trip to Hogwarts. – Royal Canadian Bandit Jun 10 '15 at 13:00
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    Also, in the real world, the "equality" of men and women changed all the time. They had quite similar standing in your typical medieval village. It might simply be that the division between the magical and non-magical society started in a region and time when (near-)equality was the norm. Your example with teachers is actually very typical - most of the schooling you got was from nuns, which were obviously women. The medieval period was a lot more diverse and "modern" than you seem to think :D – Luaan Jun 10 '15 at 13:08
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    I'm surprised no-one has mentioned the widespread corruption present in the Wizarding World. It's repeatedly brought up throughout the books, and to me indicates a high level of ideological and societal stagnation. Huge facets of that world smack of complacency. The majority thinks the system works fine, meaning few people work to correct injustices and make progress, leading to stagnation and corruption...I think there's a quote by JK about how Hermione (or Kingsley?) "shook up" the Ministry after the 7th book. – DavidS Jun 11 '15 at 9:18
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In terms of technology (at least, those found in the magic world that overlap with their muggle counterparts), I think it is safe to say that magic world has somewhat stagnated, but they have a good reason for that.

Compared to muggles, the wizard community is fairly unrestricted: they can travel vast distances in a short period of time without (apparently) using up any fuel, trivially perform menial labour that for muggles would require hours, communicate with anybody anywhere fairly easily (eg, floo network, patronus messages, Sirius's mirror, Hermione's coins, etc). The muggle world needed technological developments (such as electricity, for example), precisely due to these limitations, hence the higher amount of development in these regards. Wizards would have no interest in developing, say, electricity, because they already have an easier way of doing anything that electricity would allow them to do. Not investing their time in understanding electricity then implies not having developed any kind of gadgets that work on electricity. Their society thus does not revolve around the same technological development as the muggles and this also shows on their culture, architecture and clothing. Thus in these, I would say, yes, they did stagnate compared to the muggles, but they had their own good reasons for it. They didn't have the will, nor any reason to pursue the same technological goals as muggles.

That being said, it is not like the wizard society didn't develop in any way at all, while the muggles did. An example of this is the status of women in their society, as you already pointed out in the question; senior teaching staff at Hogwarts (Prof. McGonagall) as well as senior Ministry officials (Umbridge). Their super human abilities over the muggles allowed them to focus their development on aspects other than technology. For instance, although all wizards consider muggles to be lesser beings than themselves as a matter-of-fact, they still consider them humans and hence their equals (sure there are criminal organizations like the Death Eaters but they do not represent the mainstream wizarding world ideology). Some of the younger generation such Hermione are even open to improving the social status of such creatures as house elves, which wizards do not consider much more than a beast of burden.

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    I am not sure it is fair to say they stagnate, their progress just looks different, since their "technology" is magic. Let's say we find a society that's just like ours, but instead of having worked on Internet and Big Data, these people have no Internet, but a working Fusion Reactor that powers their stuff - did they stagnate? Did we? (Don't take the example too serious if it bothers you, just choose whatever - no vaccines but ability to heal cancer, no airplanes but self-driving cars,...) – kutschkem Jun 11 '15 at 13:30
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Harry Potter takes archaic elements which really exist in modern British society, and exaggerates them a little for dramatic effect.

Hogwarts is based on British boarding schools, many of which are quite old and deliberately maintain archaic uniforms and customs. For example, here is a photograph of students at Eton (attended by Prince William and Prime Minister David Cameron, founded 1440):

Students at Eton

Note the age of the buildings as well as the uniforms.

Even horse-drawn carriages are used on some ceremonial occasions, for example the state opening of Parliament:

Royal carriage
enter image description here

Most of HP is set in and around Hogwarts, which is an old educational institution similar to Eton, or to Oxford and Cambridge Universities. So it is not surprising that it has an archaic feel.

In these institutions, tradition coexists with modernity. The opening of Parliament is surrounded by archaic ceremony, but the House of Commons is a democratically elected legislature which conducts its day-to-day business much like any other. Regarding the questioner's point about female teachers at Hogwarts: Oxford and Cambridge Universities are fully open to women as students, professors and administrators. For example, Oxford University will be led by a woman starting next year.

In literary terms, JK Rowling revived a somewhat obscure genre: The boarding school story. Many of these date back to well before 1950. So the archaic feel of Harry Potter may also be a nod to its literary predecessors.

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    Not to mention that Rowling noted that modern technology (and electricity in particular) don't play well with magic. In the choice between keeping magic and using muggle technology (which they know very little about), they simply chose magic. – Luaan Jun 10 '15 at 13:05
  • Your link about Oxford University seems to say that it will have a woman as second-in-command starting next year. If I read it correctly, the top boss will still be a man -- at least I think "Lord Patten of Barnes" is male. – Henning Makholm Jun 10 '15 at 22:21
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    @HenningMakholm: Not so. The Vice-Chancellor of a British university is in charge of all serious decision-making. The Chancellor's role is basically ceremonial. The relationship of Vice-Chancellor and Chancellor is approximately similar to that between the Prime Minister and the Queen. (I realise the terminology is somewhat misleading, but that's how it works.) – Royal Canadian Bandit Jun 10 '15 at 23:53
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    A year or two back, our vice-chancellor adopted the additional title of "President" specifically so that Americans would be able to understand what his job was. :-) – Harry Johnston Jun 11 '15 at 0:36
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    Or: the vice-chancellor is like the chief executive of a charity, whereas the chancellor is like the charity's celebrity patron (if it has one). – Steve Jessop Jun 11 '15 at 12:50
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You're assuming that physical shapes reflect stagnation.

In a modern context, you can visit any drag strip and find hundreds of cars that look like Model T Fords. To assume that the Model T Ford is still the best car available would be a major mistake, as would assuming that the car has any similarity to a Model T Ford beyond its shape.

R&D is clearly still ongoing in spells, potions and magical artifacts though. But most of the attributes of our modern world (communication, transport, labour-saving devices, complex structures enabled by super-strong materials) are things the wizarding world has had for centuries, and a lot of them will still be going perfectly well.

Going back to your example, someone had to invent the Floo network, and someone somewhere has a wizarding factory making Floo powder by the ton. (Unless wizards make it themselves, but a time investment still puts a value on someone else doing it, for the same reason there's a value on having someone do your vacuuming, decorating or gardening.) Since there will be millions of fireplaces in the world, there also has to be some kind of ICANN-type administration.

(There's a separate question of why there's a Floo network, given that almost all adult wizards can Apparate, so the target audience for a Floo network would be pretty damn limited. But that's just one of the many bugs in JK Rowling's world creation - she was more concerned about it as a context for story-telling and not for economic soundness.)

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    I always figured the Floo network was for security, that areas such as the Ministry of Magic, Diagon Alley, and other wizarding hotspots all had anti-apparation charms on them to prevent people just 'popping' in. Using the network created a set of definite entry/exit points to an area. – MistaGiggles Jun 10 '15 at 11:18
  • @MistaGiggles: Not to mention splinching, and families traveling with small children. – Wayne Jun 11 '15 at 12:31
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Technological progress has already been addressed, but I'd suggest that societal progress has also stagnated. It was just never in as bad a situation as our society. There is evidence scattered throughout the books for at least the last thousand years. For example Hogwarts was founded by four people, two men and two women. There are no comments about this fact, no looking down on houses founded by women, or in fact any other commentary upon it.

There is other supporting evidence scattered throughout the novel. It's a very equal society from that regard. I can also hypothesize how this came about although there is less evidence for this theory.

Medieval society respected strength. Men ruled because they were stronger, and that fact reinforced itself over time. In the wizarding world though witches are just as strong as wizards. A medieval man may beat his wife. If a wizard tried the same though his wife has an even chance to be stronger than him. Without the power distinction gender would become a far less important measure and other things, such as strength of magic, would instead be the determining factors used for prejudice.

  • and other things, such as strength of magic, would instead be the determining factors used for prejudice. And they were and are. Non-magical children born to magical parents are basically disabled, and are treated as such - they may be loved by their parents, but there's complete recognition that they'll never be able to do what other people can, and that excludes them from much of their society. And Muggles are a sub-human race, Muggle-born magicians notwithstanding - the analogy of an African or Indian going to a European school in the 1800s would be fairly appropriate. – Graham Bartlett Jun 11 '15 at 11:30

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