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Ethnographic research and dream

Recently anthropologists such as Hillman (1989) have begun to value the dream in their professional practice. Two anthropologists have described the value of informants’ dreams on their understanding of their field. Levine (1981: 276-93) analysed the dreams of three of her informants for transference material concerning her own relationship with these informants. She was able to gain an increased awareness of issues such as power, asymmetry between herself and informants, poverty and dependence and the degree of gender support she was offering to one informant during her marital difficulties. Goulet (1994:22) found that ‘knowing how to dream’ was essential for his study of Guajiro (South America) culture. Kohn (1995) writes about the value of the dreams of her principal informant during the time when this informant, Kamala, visited her in England. Coming from a remote hill village in Nepal, Kamala’s awareness of cultural change seemed heightened by her experience of travel and, unusually, she shared several dreams of her homeland with Kohn. Kohn relates how “..ideas about the cosmos which many hours of taped interviews had not uncovered in the field..” (1995: 48) were shared through the dialogue about her dreams in Durham, U.K.
Recently two very interesting articles have appeared dispelling the silence around ethnographers’ dreams. Ewing (1994) described and discussed the impact on her belief system of her dream experience and her recounting of her dream. She was studying Sufism in Pakistan and seemed to experience a Sufi, regarded as a Saint by his followers, having foreknowledge of both her dream and its meaning for her. This experience of the Saint’s foreknowledge led her to question the anthropological tradition of observational scepticism with regard to data-collection in the field. Based on this experience she began to value the possibility of belief in aspects of her informants’ world-view co-existing with rigorous anthropological enquiry.
The fear of being labelled as ‘going native’ by the anthropological community similarily kept undisclosed George’s (1995) experience of dreaming during fieldwork. George describes in detail her experience of dreaming during fieldwork among the Barok people in Papua New Guinea. Her experience of informants manifestly ‘knowing’ the content of her dreams on several occasions, and therefore their meaning, profoundly shook her cultural preconceptions as to the dichotomy between public and private experience. On one occasion (1995: 23) she presents a divinatory dream she experienced which indicated where to dig to find the remains of a sought-after clan house. Again she experienced an informant having prior knowledge of apparently the content of her dream. The fourth and final dream she recounts is of her giving birth, followed, most unexpectedly, by the reality of a woman in the Solomon Islands giving birth in the canoe she was in.