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Dr Iain R. Edgar

Department of Anthropology

University of Durham

Anthropology and the dream

Cultural dreaming or dreaming cultures? The anthropologist and the dream

Anthropologists have historically been more concerned than sociologists with the study of dream as an aspect of the social life of the groups they studied. This probably arises from three intersecting factors. First, many of the societies they studied respected the dream and clearly acted upon the insights apparently gained from them. Secondly, therefore, the study of dream became a part of the holistic analysis that partly defined the enterprise of social anthropology. Thirdly, anthropologists were aware that dream and myth had similar features, both being sequences of vivid images and depending upon inner visualisation for communication and impact’ (Kracke, 1947, p.32). Kracke regards myths and dreams as being ‘closely related’, and refers to Burridge’s use of the term ‘myth-dream’ to describe the situation in societies, such as Rastafarian cults, which do not make a clear separation of the two imaginative forms. Myths have been analysed as if they were the dreams of a culture (Abraham,1979, pp.153-210). Moreover, as myth for Lévi-Strauss (1966, p.17) is a form of bricolage, so the dream for Kracke is a form of bricolage in that the dream gathers:

from among the day residues ready to hand, and uses them to express metaphorically an emotional conflict, and to work out (or work toward) some resolution of it (1987, p.38).

Kracke (1987, p.33) demonstrates in his analysis of Kagwahiv Indian Amazonian society that the Kagwahiv Indians make a fruitful exchange between the associations and interpretations made from their myths and the way they explain their dream imagery to themselves. However, as well as similarities there are differences also, as whilst ‘a dream recounted ends as a narrative, a myth begins as one’ (Kracke,1987, p.36).

The development of anthropological studies of dreaming.

Anthropologists have therefore constantly been confronted with their subjects’ concern and different evaluation of dream contents and alternative conceptions of the distinction between objective and subjective reality. Tylor (1871, p.88) perhaps began the cross-cultural interest in dreaming through his understanding of non-literate people’s lack of a hard distinction between reality and illusion (Parsifal-Charles 1986, p.477), and his perception that myth creation, mythogenesis, was a product of dreaming by way of animism. Freud’s work in the early twentieth century stimulated the first main phase of anthropological enquiry into dreaming. Seligman (1921,1923,1924) sought to test the Freudian hypothesis that the latent meaning of dreams was universal across cultures (Tedlock, 1987a, p.20). Colonial workers were invited to to provide manifest dream materials which were analysed to discover so-called ‘type-dreams’. This analysis was conducted without consideration of their cultural and communicative context.
Later, Lincoln (1935, p.22) in his study of North American Indian dreams developed a distinction between ‘individual’ and correspondingly unimportant dreams, and ‘culture pattern dreams’ which were significant for the group and actively pursued. Although Lincoln perhaps is given the credit for the development of a typology of dreaming based on ethnographic research (Parsifal-Charles,1986, p.291), even his results are now considered ethnocentric (Tedlock,1987a, p.21). The 1940s and 1950s saw the development of the content theory of dream analysis (Hall, 1951, pp.60-3; Eggan, 1952, pp.469-485; Hall and Van de Castle, 1966, p.17). This attempt to quantify and consequently to analyse cross-culturally partly reflected the culture and personality school of social anthropology. The culture and personality school of North American anthropology sought to identify and analyse core personality traits as being formed by cultural influences. This has continued into the 1980s with the work of Gregor (1981, p.353). Indeed the content analysis of dreams is still used in psychological research. Catalano (1987), for example, recently sought to prove through content analysis that the dreams of emotionally disturbed adolescents are different from those of normal adolescents.
The voluminous extraction of dream symbolism by these anthropologists allowed the compilation of numerous manifest dream reports and their cross-cultural analysis for personality and cultural variables. Whilst this approach does attempt to value the dream positively as psychodynamically and culturally significant, it is, in fact, an approach that decontextualises dreams. The importance of dream narration, dream discourse and indigenous dream theory is almost entirely ignored. Moreover, Crapananzo (1981, pp.145-158) has argued that the ethnocentricism of the content analysis school of dream analysis is based on an epistemology that reduces language to a merely referential function.
The development of ethnopsychiatry from the 1950s onward by Devereux (1980) is another anthropological landmark in the analysis of dreaming. Devereux (1969, pp.139-168) in his work with North American Indian groups sought to further integrate a Freudian approach into anthropological fieldwork. Devereux (1966, p.213) applied Freudian concepts of transference and reality-testing to dream reports as well as making a critical analysis of the concept of the pathogenic dream. He was concerned particularly with the notion of causality that underpins this concept. In a study of a Crow Indian Devereux (1969, p.139) analysed his Indian patient’s dream within the cultural context of the Crow Indian vision quest and showed how he himself used this cultural context for therapeutic work with this patient. Devereux’s work effectively initiated the subject of ethnopsychiatry or transcultural psychiatry. For instance Devereux was able to use in therapy his Crow Indian patient’s cultural belief that success in the dream world anticipated successful behaviour in waking reality. Devereux (1969, p.165) showed how the Crow Indian incorporated Devereux as therapist within the identity of a Crow Indian Spirit Being. Devereux facilitated the patient’s orientation to reality through the therapeutic use of the patient’s culturally sanctioned and prolific dreaming. However, as Obeyesekere (1990, p.21) has pointed out in his criticism of Devereux’s culturally specific reflexivity, for Devereux the ‘manipulation of ethnic symbols’ may only provide adjustment but not introspective self-awareness or ‘curative insight’.
Another psychoanalytically orientated anthropological approach to the analysis of dreams was that of D’Andrade (1961, pp.327-8) who analysed the function of dreams in sixty-three societies, using material from the Human Relations Area Files. D’Andrade concluded that dream usage arose out of anxiety, and that in hunter-gatherer societies, where there was a need for more self-reliance than in pastoral-agrarian societies there was also significantly increased use of dreams. By the 1970s dreamwork was beginning to be considered within the context of the cultural system of which it was a part. Crapanzano (1975, pp.145-158) analysed the metaphorical usage of saints and jnuns in the dreamworld of the Moroccan Hamadsha. He showed that personal use of particular dream symbols, and their performative function in terms of conflict recognition and possible solution, were firmly embedded within the ‘implicit folk psychology’ of the culture.
I have already noted that the similarity between myth and dream is an abiding theme in social anthropology. Kuper (1979, pp.645-662) and Kuper and Stone (1982, pp.1225-1234) attempted to apply the structuralist method of analysis of myth, developed by Lévi-Strauss (1963, pp.206-231), to dream. Kuper considered that the similarity between myth and dream was that both are attempts to cope with problems of reality. These authors proceed to analyse certain dreams and dream sequences as if they constituted a systematic argument which used an ordered set of transformations to reach a resolution. In their analysis they attempt to show that the binary rules that structure mythical thought can be transposed to our understanding of dream content. Whether a structuralist approach of this kind marks a major breakthrough in the understanding of the dream in society is unclear. Tedlock recognised that Kuper had succeeded in discovering ‘underlying linguistically coded analytical rules’ (1987a, p.27) within the dream narrative. However she and others have raised various criticisms of this approach. The observance of rules does not imply that such rules generate the dream material. Kracke (1987, pp.50-52) as we have seen, argues that myth and dreams are also essentially different in that myths move from verbal narration to sensory imagery whilst dreams move from imagery to narration. Hence the narrative texts of dreams and myths, whilst related as we have already seen, are still dissimilar.
A structuralist approach, which is concerned with the analysis of the ‘latent’ analytical binary structure of the dream, can then be a part only of the cultural understanding of dream material, particularly as it is not concerned with the importance of the communicative context of the dream report itself.

A communicative theory of meaning

Anthropologists have continued to develop the concept of the dream report. Tedlock suggested that the manifest dream content:

should be expanded to include more than the dream report. Ideally it should include dream theory or theories and ways of sharing, including the relevant discourse frames, and the cultural code for dream interpretation (1987a, p.25).

Tedlock describes this perspective as a communicative theory of dreaming. This theory has to consider the dream narration as a communicative event involving three overlapping aspects: the act and creation of narration, the psychodynamics of narration, and the culturally bounded group (emic) interpretive framework. Such a theory considers the analysis of dream as more than that of an hermeneutically based text. It is also a social and cultural process or activity with expressive and instrumental outcomes. When this takes place then, we may take seriously Herdt’s proposition:

that culture may actually change experience inside of dreams, or that the productions of dreaming do actually become absorbed and transfomed into culture (1987, p.82).

The communicative theory of dreaming then, alerts us to the importance of the psychodynamics of the social setting and the interpretive framework of the participants. The social anthropologist is concerned with the analysis of an interpretive framework which necessarily structures both narration and interpretation. The Tedlock (1987) volume seeks to redefine the boundary between the psychology and the social anthropology of dreaming. The customary distinction between psychology’s field being the intra-personal and anthropology’s being the social is broken down. Psychology needs to understand how the dreamer uses concepts and language which are, of necessity, culturally based to narrate dreams. Anthropology, on the other hand, has to recognise that the communication and framing of dream narratives are always dependent upon the dream theory of the culturally bounded group.
Such an overview of the continued interest of social anthropology and the dream would not be complete without brief reference to Jedrej and Shaw’s edited work on the role of the dream in African social and religious life (Jedrej and Shaw 1992). This collection of essays makes both theoretical and ethnographic contributions to our understanding of dreams in human affairs through its wide-ranging consideration, both historical and contemporary, of the often prophetically-understood use of dream imagery in this continent.


Abraham, K. (1979), ‘Dreams and Myths: a Study in Folk Psychology’ Clinical Papers and Essays on Psychoanalysis, Hogarth Press, London.
Crapanzano,V. (1975), ‘Saints, Jnun, and dreams: an essay in Moroccan ethnopsychiatry’, Psychiatry, 38.
Crapanzano,V. (1981) ‘Text, Transference and Indexicality’, Ethos, 9: 122-48.
D’Andrade, R. (1961), ‘Anthropological Studies of Dreams’, in Hsu. F. (ed.), Psychological Anthropology: Approaches to Culture and Personality, Dorsey, Homewood, Ill.
Devereux, G. (1966), ‘Pathogenic dreams in Non-Western societies’, in Grunebaum, V. and Caillois R. (eds.), The Dream and Human Societies, University of California Press, Berkeley.
Devereux, G. (1969), Reality and Dream. Psychotherapy of a Plains Indian, New York, International Universities Press.
Eggan, D. (1952), ‘The manifest content of dreams: A challenge to social sciences’, In American Anthropologist vol.54.
Gregor, T. (1981), ‘A content analysis of Mehinaku dreams’, Ethos vol.9.
Hall, C. (1951), ‘What people dream about’, In Scientific American, vol. 184, no. 5.
Hall, C. and Van De Castle, R. (1966), The Content Analysis of Dreams, New American Library, New York.
Herdt, G. (1987), ‘Selfhood and Discourse in Sambia Dream Sharing’, in Tedlock, Barbara (Ed.), Dreaming: Anthropological and Psychological Interpretations, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.
Kracke, W. (1987), ‘Myths in Dreams, Thought in Images: an Amazonian Contribution to the Psychanalytic Theory of Primary Process’, in Tedlock, Barbara (ed.), Dreaming: Anthropological and Psychological Interpretations, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.
Jedrej, M. and Shaw, R.(Eds.) (1992), Dreaming, Religion and Society in Africa, Brill, Leiden.
Kuper, A. (1979), ‘A structural approach to dreams’, Man, vol. 14.
Kuper, A. and Stone, A. (1982), ‘The dream of Irma’s injection: a structural account’, American Journal of Psychiatry, vol. 139.
Lévi-Strauss, C. (1963), ‘The structural study of myth’, in Basic Books, New York.
Lévi-Strauss, C. (1966), The Savage Mind, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, Ill.
Lincoln, J. (1935), The Dream in Primitive Cultures, William and Wilkins, Maryland.
Obeyesekere, G. (1990), The Work of Culture, University of Chicago Press, Chicago.
Parsifal-Charles, N. (1986), The Dream: A Critical, Descriptive and Encyclopaedic Bibliography, Locust Hill Press, West Cornwall, Ct.
Seligman, C. G. (1921), ‘Notes on dreams’, Sudan Notes and Records, vol. 4.
Seligman, C. G.(1923), Type dreams: a request’, Folklore, vol. 34.
Seligman, C.G. (1924), Anthropology and psychology: Presidential Address, Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, vol. 4.
Tedlock, B. (1987a), ‘Dreaming and Dream Research’, In Tedlock, Barbara (ed.), Dreaming: Anthropological and Psychological Interpretations, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.
Tylor, E. (1871), Primitive Culture: Researches into the Development of Mythology, Philosophy, Religion, Language, Art and Custom, John Murray, London.

If you are interested in how anthropologists have used dreams of their informants and even their own dreams then go to cultdream2 for a summary and references.

link to cultdream2

If you are interested in seeing my 10 minute video clip of my presentation of a paper on my use of my dreams during my fieldwork in a therapeutic community then go to:

link to cultdream3

If you are interested in the subject of how dreams contribute to myths and identities of nationalisms, such as Zionism and Serbian national identity then go to cultdream.political

link to cultdream.political

For further information about dreamwork go to the Association for the Study of Dreams websites

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