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Jedi Mind Tricks

Can Star Wars actually influence your political views? One student wants to search your feelings to see if it’s true.

With all the hype surrounding the new Star Wars film, "Star Wars: The Force Awakens," we thought we’d share how one ONU student is blending her affinity for the saga into research for her senior thesis.

Kristen McKell, a senior from Chillicothe, Ohio, majoring in political science, criminal justice and sociology, is interested in learning how widely accepted popular culture phenomena affect the political attitudes of consumers. Now, to be clear, she’s not talking about passing fads or flavors of the week. She’s talking about pop culture royalty, universes unto themselves that explore complex social, political and philosophical themes. She’s talking about the boy who lived and the boy who brought balance to the Force. She’s talking about Star Wars and Harry Potter.

"I knew I wanted to look at Harry Potter because it had such a huge impact on my life. It has created its own little subculture, and it is something that was a part of everyday life for millennials as we grew up,” she says. “Star Wars was the same, just one generation before."

Now, perhaps more than ever, pop culture is everywhere. Movies, television and literature are dominated by stories that mirror society in fantastic ways rather than reflect it directly. In Star Wars, Harry Potter, the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Hunger Games and even The Walking Dead, consumers are entertained with extreme examples of the dilemmas real people face on a daily basis. Should you stay home and do what you’re told, or should you fulfill your destiny? How do you respond to true evil when you are faced with it? What do liberty and freedom truly mean? Are brains really that delicious?

McKell wants to learn if fantasy can influence reality. Even though pop culture occupies so much of 21st-century life, McKell maintains that there is still a lot that we don’t understand about its correlation to the real world. So she created a survey that she hopes will shed light on whether being a fan of either of these franchises actually affects our society.
“I really want to learn how much the things we read/watch affect us. We have tons of research about the media’s affects on different social elements, but we have little that looks at these huge media creations,” she says. “Both Star Wars and Harry Potter have political and social themes in them (some of them on purpose, some not). My thought is that these influenced the audiences’ values and ideals because they were such a huge part of life at such a critical age.”

McKell based her research on a study by Dr. Anthony Gierzynski titled “Harry Potter and the Millennials” that looks at the political socialization of individuals born between the early 1980s and early 2000s. Other research she found shows that adolescents will tend to have more favorable opinions of the themes presented to them in the form of mass media. Her survey attempts to correlate affinity for Star Wars or Harry Potter and their respective themes with political beliefs or actions. It  consists of four different parts. The first measures one’s opinions on social issues. The next two sections deal with establishing the depth of one’s knowledge of the Harry Potter and Star Wars sagas. The final section measures demographic information.

McKell emailed the survey to ONU students, faculty and staff members. She also posted the survey on Facebook, where it has taken on a life of its own. She had hoped for a sample size of 200 participants. She currently has more than 1,200.

I have been getting emails and calls from across the U.S. and all over the world. It’s amazing, but also a bit overwhelming. I never expected this much interest,” she says.

The survey is particularly relevant because of the excitement over the new Star Wars film and because it asks participants to weigh in on the 2016 U.S. presidential election. A reoccurring question lists candidates and asks the participant to rank them based on his or her likelihood of voting for the candidate to become the president of the United States. And while it’s not a true political poll, McKell’s survey does resemble one. And it’s fun to juxtapose the “real” candidates (Ben Carson, Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, Donald Trump, etc.) with heroes and villains from our childhood (Harry Potter, Albus Dumbledore, Luke Skywalker, Darth Vader and Obi-Wan Kenobi).

It will be some time before McKell analyzes all the data from her survey and is able to definitively make any conclusions about the voting habits of Muggles. She hopes to present her research at an academic conference this spring and perhaps later submit it for publication. But there is one question that doesn’t require any data analysis for her to answer: which of the two sagas she likes better.

“While I was raised a Star Wars fan, I’m part of the Harry Potter generation, and my heart belongs to J.K. Rowling,” she says.