Skip to main content


Cultural dreaming page 3

This is a 10 minute video clip presenting the core part of a paper on how I used dream imagery as a part of my ethnographic fieldwork and subsequent analysis. The dreams occurred before during and after my fieldwork in a therapeutic community in England in 1981. The text of the paper is also enclosed on this webpage. The paper was subsequently given in 1996 at the annual meeting of the Society for the Anthropology of Consciousness held in Los Angeles, California.

Dreaming as ethnography

Iain R. Edgar Ph.D

(1) Lecturer, Department of Anthropology, 43, Old Elvet, Durham, DH1 3HN, U.K., Tel: +44(0)191-3742841, direct: +44(0)191-3747524, Fax: +44(0)191-3742870, email: [email protected]

(2) I should like to acknowledge the important and creative contribution of Mike Kingham, of the Faculty of Education, Social Work and Health, at the University of Northumbria at Newcastle, U.K., to the third part of this paper. I should also like to acknowledge the financial support of the British Academy and the University of Durham towards my attending the 1996 conference of the Society for the Anthropology of Consciousness in Los Angeles where I gave this paper.


This paper will be in three parts. The first part will introduce and overview the reported and potential role of both ethnographers’ and informants’ dream imagery in the ethnographic process. The epistemological issues inherent in the possible creative and intellectual use of dream imagery will be explored. The focus on this use of dream imagery will be on its possible value as a source of inspiration, suggestion, hypothesis and problem-solving for researchers in the social sciences field. The second part of the paper will illustrate the potential use of dream imagery with reference to a sequence of dream imagery I experienced during fieldwork and how I subsequently related such imagery to my anthropological project. The third part will propose a structural model for ethnographic dreamwork.

Keywords: dreaming, anthropology, ethnnography, research.

Dreaming as Ethnography

This paper will be in three parts. The first part will introduce and overview the reported and potential role of both ethnographers’ and informants’ dream imagery in the ethnographic process. The epistemological issues inherent in the possible creative and intellectual use of dream imagery will be explored. The focus on this use of dream imagery will be on its possible value as a source of inspiration, suggestion, hypothesis and problem-solving for researchers in the social sciences field. The second part of the paper will illustrate the potential use of dream imagery with reference to a sequence of dream imagery I experienced during fieldwork and how I subsequently related such imagery to my anthropological project. The third part will propose a structural model for ethnographic dreamwork.
Recently the study of consciousness as a particular field in social anthropology has gone hand in hand with several anthropologists exploring their own dream imagery and the role of that imagery in the creation and negotiation of both ethnographic fieldwork and their subsequent written texts. The study of ‘consciousness’ has hitherto been seen largely as the province of psychology, and mainstream social anthropology has been biased towards a view of consciousness as a by-product of collective and social forces. The possible creativity and integrating power of consciousness and its influence on collective representation has been neglected. As Cohen and Rapport (1995: 2) state it:
Consciousness was simply not a problem, and the relationship of consciousness to either culture or social structure barely figured on the theoretical agenda.
However recent work by Cohen and Rapport (Cohen 1994; Cohen and Rapport 1995) has established and recognised the importance of a study of mind, both the minds of the traditional ‘other’ and the anthropologist’s mind. To reach the “..intimate knowledge: knowledge behind the scenes, behind the masks and roles, behind the generalities and abstractions” (Cohen and Rapport 1995) that the anthropologist seeks, s/he must use “all kinds of devices, not least our own consciousness, to imagine and then portray the consciousnesses of others?” (Cohen and Rapport 1995:10). An understanding of the mind of the ‘other’ is then in our reflexive and deconstructionist time, inseparable from an understanding of one’s own mind. Of course there is a big difference in our experience of our own minds and those of others. We have direct experience of our own mind but only indirect experience of that of another. We can only hypothesise about the mentality of the other’s mind based on our experience of his/her narrative and its referential meaning. In contrast, in relation to our own mentation, we have privileged access to the stream of thought, emotion and image that flow across it and will typically use this more intimate knowledge of self-consciousness to make connections and hypotheses to another’s mental state.
This study of the imagination of the other is not quite as impossible as many a researcher has suggested. Whilst it is true that the observer can only study the narrative and the action of the ‘other’ this does not disallow access entirely to the ‘others’ consciousness. This is because narrative embodies image as Lakoff and Johnson showed in their experientialist view of language. Lakoff and Johnson (1980) analysed the metaphorical basis of our rationality and language. They have shown how metaphor fundamentally structures our concepts and thus implicitly our consciousness and actions as well. Metaphor works by “understanding and experiencing one kind of thing in terms of another” (1980:5). Moreover the metaphors that structure consciousness are not arbitrary but based on everyday experience. For instance there is a relationship between the experience of spatial living, ‘spatial/orientational metaphors’ such as ‘up/down’ and human states of well-being and sickness. States of happiness tend to be expressed as ‘being up’ in some form and likewise being dejected or sad is commonly metaphorically described as being ‘down’. There is then a continuing dialogue and relationship between physical and cultural experience and understanding of the world through a metaphorically structured, language-centred, consciousness. Metaphorical thought is therefore the basis of both dream imagery and conscious awareness. As Bourdieu says, “…the mind is a metaphor of the world of objects which is itself but an endless circle of mutually reflecting metaphors” (1977:91). If language is primarily metaphorical in nature and communicates at least partly through imaginative evocation, then the study of narratively delineated image is central to the anthropological task. Fernandez (1995:27) writes:
But these movements in anthropology have not focused as directly on the issue of consciousness in society as we are focusing here. In my view greater directness of focus – that knowing of other minds – can come about by listening to or eliciting some of the key images that, if not actually present in these minds are, at least, put forth by them and/or put into practice by them. In the study of this ‘argument of images’ we may well come as close as we can come to capturing the other’s imagination whether that ‘other’ be the collaborator from the local culture of enquiry or the reader of our ethnographic interpretations of that collaboration. But the issue, as we see, is not only that of capturing the other’s imagination but, as much or more, in having our own captured (1995).
The perception and understanding of the image is then central to both self-understanding and other-understanding. And we experience the image in its purest form in the dream and possibly in vision. This ‘pure awareness’ is of course personally and culturally mediated. For instance, there is the recollection of the dream by the dreamer and the subsequent filtering of the original imagery into what Kracke (1987:36) describes as ‘language-centred thought processes’. This filtration of imagery into thought is an act of translation which begins the construction of meaning. It does this by relating the visual imagery to the cognitive categories of the dreamer’s culture. Such cognitive categories carry implicit ways of ordering and sequencing time and space, person and action that inevitably begin to define and delimit the possible readings of the text or narration.
However, even given this cultural mediation of the translation of image into thought and then into narrative, the experience of the dream may profoundly effect awareness and consequently the ethnographic project. 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. Such synchronicity of dream and reality is similiar to the second dream I recount in my following case-study.

Case study

In this second part of this paper I am intending to explore the relationship between dream imagery and the production of an ethnographic text. I shall present a sequence of my dream imagery whilst engaged in ethnographic work, together with the insights derived from that imagery. I will endeavour to show how these insights are connected to the results of my thesis and to certain aspects of the social and therapeutic world of the community. I kept a dream diary which I integrated into my fieldwork diary, whilst Serematakis (1989) kept separate diaries for her dreams and her fieldwork whilst doing ethnography in Inner Mani, Greece. My hypothesis is that dream imagery is a relevant source of data and that “imaginal thinking” (Kracke 1987:52) in the form of myth, dream and art is a valid form of knowledge.
The community I studied is a therapeutic community for disturbed adolescents in Britain. The community consisted of twenty staff and approximately fifty residents. Residents came from all parts of Britain. Almost all were in the care of local authority social service departments and most had previously been in other forms of residential care, such as children’s homes. Many residents were of above average intelligence and all were defined as being delinquent or socially disturbed. The community defined itself as a therapeutic community and was modelled on principles set out by Bettelheim (1974), Jones (1968) and Kennard (1983). Central to these principles were both an emphasis on psychodynamic theory, and the use of social processes as therapeutic constructs such as democratisation, permissiveness, reality-confrontation and communalism (Rapoport 1960). Small and large encounter groups were a central feature of the community.
I lived in the community for one term in 1981 and subsequently wrote an anthropological thesis specifically analysing the community’s use of myth, ritual and symbol in the construction of the therapeutic milieu of the community. I was alert to the potential value of dream imagery as being indicative of the meaning of external sense data through having kept a dream diary on and off for many years and having studied Jungian theory in the past. Typically I was orientated to viewing dream imagery as providing possible evidence of “emergent possibilities” (Tedlock 1987:5).
However, what is important is the impact of dream imagery on the dreamer, in this case an ethnographer, and the congruence of at least parts of the imagery with central preoccupations of the community in question. With these provisos I will embark on a description of the dreams, seven in all, and indicate the ideas I derived from a consideration of them. Parts of the dream remain unclear to me and I shan’t be exhaustive in my conjectures.
The first dream (18.5.81) occurred two weeks before going to the community. I dreamt,
“I was in France…going up a tower or lighthouse…I was unsure about going up this tower and about the weather and what kind of day it was…I reached the top and found it was an island with a community on it and a small town there…I went into the town…I wanted some coffee but had little money…I went back to the lighthouse…water was coming into the lighthouse…I met a young man who invited me to his house”.
Apart from the anxiety and uncertainty that the dream displays about my going to the community, this dream alerted me to the notion that the community was in some way foreign and an island.
The separateness of the community was an important aspect both with regard to the functioning and identity of the community and to my subsequent involvement and study of it. Geographically and socially the community was quite separate from the rest of the community and this contributed to its distinctive identity. The community was situated in a large Georgian country house three miles from a town. Staff and residents lived on the estate. Interaction between residents and the wider community was highly controlled and normally residents only went into town in groups with staff. They would have to receive special permission to go alone. There were no social or sporting arrangements for residents with the local community. Residents lived in the community either for most of the year or for all of it, depending on the availability of their external familial situation. The social separateness of the community was sustained most clearly in its daily life with the inversion of key social norms through the adoption of a therapeutic community philosophy. An example of this would be the opportunity for residents to say anything they wished to any staff member, resulting in frequent verbal abuse (permissiveness: Rapoport 1960). However this was balanced by the expectation of residents and staff to openly confront residents with how their behaviour was perceived by others in the community (reality-confrontation: Rapoport 1960). Insulation from outside forces was of course not total, but did provide the base on which the distinct identity of the community and the sense of specialness experienced by residents was founded (Edgar 1990). My dream alerted me to the potential foreigness of the community, particularly as I had made no prior study of therapeutic community theory and in that sense was unprepared for the novel experience that living for a time in such a community was to prove.
The second dream (1.6.81) occurred on my first night at the community, and combined with the circumstances of the dream, was very vivid. I dreamt of a,
“…nuclear explosion twenty miles away towards a nearby large town…I ran out of the main community building with the Director and I lay down close to him…I privately prayed and considered running behind a tree…I speculated on the radiation damage being done to myself by the nuclear explosion…Then the shock waves from the explosion reached me”.
At this point I woke to find a huge thunderstorm happening outside, in ‘reality’.
Next day I found out that many residents had been woken by the storm and had spent time watching it. Reflecting on this conjunction of storms I felt that my experience in the community was to be a ‘tremendum’ in the sense that, for me at least, great and deep change would happen. When I reflect on the many outcomes to date of my involvement in that community I can affirm that perception as accurate.
The other inclination I gained from reflecting on that dream was the beginning of an awareness of the importance of the Director to me. He was a friend of the course leader at Newcastle Polytechnic where I had just been appointed and he had been presented to me by that friend as a charismatic leader. My first impressions of him the day before had confirmed my impressions of a powerful person with strong and often iconoclastic opinions. The dream presented a picture of my closeness to him at a time of great threat. My subsequent relationship with him was crucial both for my stay in the community and for the eventual development of my thesis. I quickly developed both an admiration and an awe of him due to his evident powerful ability to work with residents and dominate the staff group, the latter not without some conflict. I listened most carefully to his words, his metaphors and his use of anger in the daily community meetings. He clearly dominated the community and was the most frequent and powerful speaker in the community meetings. Also in his writing, he clearly expressed his belief, called by him ‘focal leadership’, in the importance of the charismatic leader as being a central figure for the adolescent group to work through their transference upon. I have often thought of the psychological nature of my own transference upon this man. In some ways my resulting thesis with hindsight was primarily about his power and influence in the community, through his control of the social identity of the community and in particular his definition of therapy and what was to be considered as therapeutic in the community. In meetings he would often define which residents were progressing well and which weren’t and which relationships between residents were positive. In such ways he was able to control residents’ and to some extent the staff’s own definition of themselves. He had considerable rational-legal authority in many areas of the community’s life, as in appointments of staff and entry/exit of residents.
The above analysis of his influence is by no means exhaustive and I intend to return to this issue later; however it is sufficient to show the import of our relationship at least to my study. As I have detached from the community I have become aware of the contingency of his power and his psychodynamic interpretations. What at the time felt akin to revelation would become in time opinion, and yet the memory of that power was and is crucial to understand his influence on staff and resident.
The third dream concerned a male applicant for a place in the community. I had been the social worker of this fifteen year old boy for the two years preceding his application. I had worked with the problem between the boy and his stepfather until the level of animosity and actual violence led to the boy’s reception into care. Almost straight after finishing my job as a social worker I started my fieldwork stay in the therapeutic community. The boy was by this time placed in an assessment and reception centre where his future was being considered. The dream occurred about ten days before his interview. I knew that an application for him to come to this community was possible but at the time of the dream was neither aware of the interview date nor had I been consciously thinking about this particular ex-client. The dream portrayed,
“The boy as stuck in a spaceship circling the earth seventy-two miles up in space…the boy drops a message to earth which lands at my feet…I go to a nearby Royal Air Force base which sends up a plane to rescue him”.

This dream speaks both of the affinity that I had with this boy and of the boy’s predicament. What I didn’t know at the time was that the boy had in reality been languishing and stagnating in the reception centre and, as so often is the case, he had been increasingly becoming involved in delinquent activities due no doubt in part to the delinquent peer group influence.
This dream has a consequence in that I spoke about it to some staff and residents, and because I had been this boy’s previous social worker, a status reinforced by the dream image, I was invited to his interview. Such an invitation was exceptional as the admission interview for this community was regarded with great importance and normally all categories of short term visitors would be excluded from the interview. So I attended the interview and in the end the boy was admitted. He stayed there for nearly two years.
This dream did not exactly lead to concept formation in my resulting thesis. However it impressed upon me the need of many adolescents for therapeutic opportunities such as this community offered, in contradistinction to the regimes that many children and adolescents experience as being ‘in care’. Personally it also linked my previous work as a social worker with my study of the community. The coincidence of my different roles for this boy were also highlighted by the dream. I had been both his social worker and also involved in his transition into the community, and this combination seemed peculiarly well expressed in the dream image that I have recounted.
The fourth dream (4.8.81) also spoke of coincidence. I dreamt,
“..that one of the female residents was climbing up with me and my family above a seaside Roman fort…It was too steep there and she was knocked down by a boulder and fell into murky water…I tried to save her…I thought I had caught hold of her but found it was only a pillow and she drowned”.
The very next day the daily community meeting, which was an hour long encounter group with all the members of the community present, was concerned with the fact that during the night someone had thrown a cardboard box into this same girl’s room and she had burst out screaming and woken the whole house up. What struck me about this dream was the possible synchronicity of the internal dream image and the external social situation. Obviously there are differences too, but the internal and external situations contain the same person or their image – a fearful situation for that person and either an object (the cardboard box) or a person (the girl) being propelled through the air. Jung’s theory of synchronicity is expressed in several of his writings and he describes it here as:
.. synchronicity, a concept that formulates a point of view diametrically opposed to that of causality. Since the latter is a merely statistical truth and not absolute, it is a sort of working hypothesis of how events evolve out of one another, whereas synchronicity takes the coincidence of events in space and time as meaning something more than mere chance, namely, a peculiar interdependence of objective events among themselves as well as with the subjective (psychic) states of the observer or observers (1951:XX1V).
This dream, like the two two before, made me feel closely related to both the conscious and unconscious life of the community at that time. A further relationship can be suggested between the concept of synchronicity as being helpful in indicating a different order of coincidence, and a mode of therapeutic interpretation used in the community. The community had a basic Freudian orientation. However the community did not analyse residents’ or staffs’ dreams but did seek to make meaningful links out of disparate experiences. Elsewhere I have described the therapeutic stages anticipated for the residents. In the fourth stage which I have described as ‘understanding’ I suggest that:
“There was an assumption that each person’s experience was significant for everyone else in that people share similar emotions and mentalities. Residents’ ability to empathise with each other was developed in this way and links were sought between seemingly disparate events such as the theft of clothes and residents’ fear of the loss of senior residents at the end of the year” (1990:48).
Perhaps there is a link between the suggested synchronicity of my dreaming and community events, and the above mode of interpretation. The Director himself was aware that the relationship between the conscious and the unconscious life of the community was unusually close.
The following three dreams occurred after I had left the community. I dreamt vividly about the community for many nights. I only recollected the one image (fifth dream), “that of taking a table to the community from the East End of London”. The notion of table had particular significance both for the community and for my experience of that community. The dining tables themselves had been specially chosen and made apparently by the only firm that made tables with thick oak table tops with an adzed surface. However whilst these tables were impressive and seemed to be valued by residents in the way that residents protected the tables from cup markings, the tables personified a key element in the therapeutic structure of the community. I have described this aspect of the community’s therapy as the “myth of symbolic compensation” (1990:53). This mythogenesis was:
the continual assertion by the Director that the whole physical environment of the community was imbued with therapeutic meaning for the resident. For example the kitchen/dining room area was described by the Director as replicating, at a symbolic level, the good feeding experience that the fortunate infant experiences with it’s mother. Such replication was achieved through the attention given to the possible meaning for the disturbed adolescent of each and every object and decoration in that environment (Edgar:1990:53).
The tables were especially clear examples of this mythogenesis and were used by the Director, when talking to visitors, as evidence of the special environment of this community. Moreover the layout of the tables was considered important in that the pattern was like a squared ‘S’ shape to assist in continually mixing residents up and prevent small group ownership of particular tables. Just next to these tables was the ‘buttery’ which was the only source of refreshment for both staff and residents outside mealtimes. So the ‘table’ was important in a number of different ways to the community. What was located on the table was also very important not just for nourishment of body. I have already referred to the “myth of symbolic compensation”. Tables were also key objects in the regular community feasts. Feasts were one kind of calendrical ceremony that I have described (1990: 53) as being crucial in the cultural creation and identity of the community.
The above brief analysis of the symbolic usage of ‘tables’ in the community is important in attempting to understand my dream image of ‘taking a table’ to the community once I had left. At the time of the dream image I had not begun my subsequent analysis of the community. Indeed at that time I had not embarked on a higher degree programme. The way I ‘interpreted’ the dream at that time made me aware that I had something to offer the community, although I did not know what that then was. I can now see that my thesis is a description of that community at that time. The idea of my ‘laying out’, as on a table, those symbols for public view seems to me now to fit well with the dream image.
The sixth dream occurred three or more months after I had left the community and just prior to my revisiting it. I had written an initial report on my perceptions of the community and at the time of the dream I was unaware of how favourable a reception my report would receive. Of the actual dream all I was able to recall was meeting the Director and a bright sun shining at our meeting. When, a little while later, I met the Director I well remember our meeting because after he had read my report the Director said how well I had understood the community. His saying this triggered a profound and simultaneous mental image that I recall as being like seeing a ‘golden well of images and symbols flowing through it’. Simultaneously I felt this image of a golden well seemed to represent the creative source of the the dynamism of that community and was in some way linked to the Director’s charismatic leadership.
I resolved to attempt to describe and analyse this creative use of symbolism. Subsequently I chose social anthropology as a subject base for this study, because of its partial specialisation in the study of small-scale societies, using participant observation methods. Moreover social anthropology particularly studies the conscious and unconscious use of public symbolism and ritual practice. I felt that this community resembled an almost pre-industrialised third world society through its geographical isolation linked to its inversion of certain social norms. I was impressed by its cultural creativity, for instance, in its particular calendrical structuring of time. The community had developed its own forms of celebration for Christmas and other seasonal events as well as developing its own ‘special’ celebrations such as the end of term Summer feasts. The origins then of my initiation into anthropology and into writing a thesis, that would attempt to analyse the social constitution of a specialised world of symbols, I can trace to my experience of the above mental image which in turn was pre-indicated by that part of the sixth dream that I can recall.
The final dream (24.8.82) occurred at a time when I was negotiating with the communiy to undertake a further one year period of study of the community. This proposal came to nothing finally due to the Director’s departure from the community. The dream contained images of difficulty in reaching the community by train and that my ticket was not valid due to a strike. Then the Director and I easily walked halfway up a hill. We then went into a Green Dragon pub, after which the ascent up the hill either stopped or became more difficult again. The dream indicated or reflected the more problematic engagement that I had with the community at that time as well as representing the continuously friendly and supportive relationship that I had with the Director.

Evaluating dreamsDreaming in the Western world tends to be denigrated as akin to meaningless fantasy. With the exception of psychoanalysis, dreams appear non-productive. This has not been the case throughout history or throughout the range of present day societies. Historically, Hindu, Muslim and Christian religions have positively evaluated at least some forms and instances of dreaming. Tedlock suggests that a majority of the world’s peoples do not structure their conception of reality “according to the simple oppositional dichotomy of real versus unreal, or reality versus fantasy” (1987:1-2). She suggests that it is:
..a rationalist proposition that dreaming is somehow a lesser…more subjective, false, private, illusory or transient reality than the ‘harder’, more objective, true, public, real, permanent reality of waking life (1987:2).
However the Western world has not had an entirely negative view of dreaming. Freud designated dream thinking as primary process thought which elaborately encoded and metaphorically expressed daytime contradictions. It is a regressive theory of dreaming (Basso 1987:86) in which the dream interpretation is to be derived from the study of the subject’s past. Jungian psychoanalytical theory on the other hand stresses the anticipatory and creative function of dreams:
(Dreaming) is an anticipation in the unconscious of future conscious achievements, something like a preliminary exercise or sketch, or a plan roughed out in advance. Its symbolic content sometimes outlines the solution of a conflict (Jung 1948:255).
Such a progressive theory of dreaming supports my own experience of the value of dream imagery, in my case in developing an ethnography. In the same article Basso, through an analysis of dreaming among the Kalapalo Indians of Central Brazil, perhaps goes even further by suggesting that:
Dreaming is also a performative event because it causes the future by revealing the dreamer’s life as it is encapsulated in current aspirations, moods and inchoately understood motivations and fears of an individual (1987:101).
Dreaming assists the dreamer in his or her orientation to their future and so is not separable from the creation of that future.
Kracke (1987:40) suggests that dreams resemble myths in that both have an integrating function in respect of new emotional experiences. The conscious portrayal of both myth and dream bridges primary and secondary forms of thinking and makes primary process thinking conscious. Perhaps it is a further example of synchronicity that I studied a community that I was to suggest used mythogenesis as a therapeutic form of ‘bricolage’, and I used as part of my methodology manifest dream content as a source of both data and ideas.
In the third part of this paper the following table presents a structured approach with which to think through the concept of ‘ethnographic dreaming’.

TABLE Structural Model of Ethnographic Dreamwork


Column 1 Column 2 Column 3 Column 4 Column 5 Dream Relationships Dreamt PhysicalQualities Dream Imagery Time Column Dream Analysis

Relationship with strangers distance lighthouse
island pre-fieldwork reality
orientation Relationship and security energy
movement nuclear explosion
director fieldwork reality catalysts Relationship and rescue work warmth
movement spaceship
Royal Air force fieldwork reality linkages Relationship and supportive contact gravity climbing
drowning fieldwork reality linkages Relationship and reciprocity space
movement table
gift post-fieldwork reality sensitisers Relationship and power and approval sunlight
director post-fieldwork reality catalysts and prompts Relationship and barriers gravity
resistance train journey
pub uphill
journey post-fieldwork reality blocks

Overall the table aims to chart the correspondences between the key dream imagery and four other dimensions. The table is composed of five columns. Column three represents the key dream images, as perceived by myself. Column one relates the dream imagery to my explicitly or implicitly felt relationship issues at that time. For instance the first dream is related to my concern with foreigness and strangers; the second dream shows my then preoccupation with security and bonding with my key contacts in the field of the community. The final dream illustrates how difficulties and barriers to my future research involvement with the community had emerged but had not entirely blocked my relationship with the Director of the community.
The table also presents in column two the dreamt ‘physical qualities’ and can be used to show how the physical world represented the social world of the community, or at least my experience and perception of it. Space, movement, energy and gravity are key physical qualities that metaphorically represented, in my interpretation, human emotion and social interaction. Sunlight, for instance, in the sixth dream seemed to represent illumination. Physical space can be thought of as representing emotional distance (seventh dream) or the need for safety (second dream).
Column four represents the time dimension of the fieldwork; that is the three phases of the fieldwork: pre, during and post. Column five represents the possible utility of the dream imagery in formulating links between the ethnographic process and the observed and experienced reality. Hence I experienced the first dream of a foreign island as orientating myself to an approaching or emerging reality. The second and sixth dream had catalytic effects on my consciousness that prompted me to embark on new ventures in relation to my study of the community, and indeed to my subsequent academic development as an anthropologist. The third dream linked my experience of the community to the hitherto separate reality of ‘being’ a social worker prior to my going to the community. The fourth dream facilitated my reflection on the issue of synchronicity and the integration and dynamic relationship between the inner and outer aspects of community life. The fifth dream sensitised me to the issue of reciprocity between myself and the community. The relationship themes that I am articulating did not, of course, emerge at once following the various dreams, rather they emerged in my consciousness over some subsequent period of time.

Overall I would contend that these dream images were good for me to ‘think with’ and orientated me to the emerging field of relationships and social structures that I was engaging with in the various phases of my fieldwork and subsequent analysis. Valueing dream imagery is also congruent with a postmodern and reflexive stance towards the anthropological enterprise. “All ethnographers are positioned subjects” as Hastrup (1992: 119) observes, and dream imagery can illuminate the personal and structural features of such a positioned stance.
So, I would argue paying attention to dream imagery can be useful as a way of ‘catching’ emergent realities that are in some sense ‘waiting in the wings’. The dream can be thought of as representing implicit knowledge that can prove informative during the process of ethnography.
Such implicit or repressed knowledge can be theorised using Bourdieu’s concept of habitus to show how the “socially informed body” (1977: 72) contains implicit knowledge. His concepts of habitus and body explain how the social is written into all aspects of our lives and provides a conceptual link between the ‘worlds’ of humanistic groupwork, of which dreamwork is a part, and the social sciences. Bourdieu’s explanation of how social knowledge is unknowingly acquired and internalised by individuals uses a similar notion of the ‘body’ to humanistic psychology. In both, people are viewed as containing within a body, conceptualised as including the mind, dispositions and orderings of experience that are capable of becoming, but will not necessarily become, conscious. Such implicit knowledge may well remain unconscious and unknown without for instance the use of dreamwork. Dreamwork is a method then that provided me with the means to reclaim this knowledge of self and the community studied.
As I commented at the beginning of this paper, anthropologists need to understand their own consciousness to understand the consciousnesses of others, and the dream is a part of that self-consciousness waiting to be understood. Erich Fromm (1955) once described dreams as unopened letters to oneself!


Basso, E. “The implications of a progressive theory of dreaming”.
Ed. B. Tedlock. Dreaming: Anthropological and Psychological Interpretations, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987.Bettelheim, Bruno. A Home with a Heart. London: Thames & Hudson, 1974.
Bourdieu, Pierre. 1977 Outline of a Theory of Practice. Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press, 1974.
Cohen, Anthony. Self Consciousness: An Alternative Anthropology of Identity. London: Routledge, 1994.
Cohen, Anthony and Rapport, Nigel. “Introduction: consciousness in anthropology.” Eds. Anthony Cohen and Nigel Rapport. Questions of Consciousness. London: Routledge, 1995.Edgar, Iain. “The social process of adolescence in a therapeutic community.” Ed. Paul Spencer. Anthropology and the Riddle of the Sphinx: Paradoxes of Change in the Life Course. ASA Monographs 23, London: Routledge, 1990.
Ewing, Katherine. “Dreams from a Saint: Anthropological Atheism and the Temptation to Believe.” American Anthropologist 96.3. 1994.
Fernandez, James. “Amazing grace: meaning deficit, displacement and new consciousness in expressive interaction” Eds. Anthony Cohen and Nigel Rapport. Questions of Consciousness. London: Routledge, 1995.
Fromm, Erich. The Sane Society. New York: Ballantine Books, 1955.
George, Marion. “Dreams, Reality, and the desire and Intent of dreamers as Experienced by a Fieldworker.” Anthropology of Consciousness 6. 3. 1995.
Goulet, Jean-Guy. “Introduction.” Eds. Jean-Guy Goulet and David Young. Being Changed by Cross-Cultural Experiences, London: Routledge, 1994 .
Hastrup, Kirsten. “Writing ethnography: state of the art.” Eds. Judith Okely and Helen Callaway. Anthropology and Autobiography. ASA Monographs 29. London: Routledge, 1992.
Hillman, Dorothy. “Dreamwork and Fieldwork: Linking Cultural Anthropology and the Current Dreamwork Movement.” Montague Ullman and Claire Limmer. The Variety of Dream Experience. Aquarian Press, Wellingborough, 1989.Jones, Maxwell. Social Psychiatry in Practice. London: Penguin, 1968.
Jung, Carl. “General aspects of dream psychology.” in Collected Works of C.G. Jung. Vol. 8. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1948.——- Foreward to the “I Ching.” Trans. Richard Wilhelm, London: Routledge, 1951.Kennard, David. An Introduction to Therapeutic Communities. London: Routledge, 1983.
Kohn, Tamara. “She came out of the field and into my home: reflections, dreams and a search for consciousness in anthropological method.” Ed. Anthony Cohen and Nigel Rapport Questions of Consciousness. London: Routledge, 1995.
Kracke, William. “Myths in dreams, thought in images: an Amazonian contribution to the psychanalytic theory of primary process.” Ed. Barbara Tedlock Dreaming: Anthropological and Psychological Interpretations. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987.
Lakoff, George. and Johnson, M. Metaphors We Live By. University of Chicago Press, Chicago, Ill. 1980.
Levine, Julia. “Dreams of the informant about the researcher: some difficulties inherent in the research relationship.” Ethos 9 1981.
Rapoport, Robert. Community as Doctor. London: Tavistock, 1960.
Seremetakis, C. The Last Word. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989.
Tedlock, Barbara. “Dreaming and dream research”. Ed. Barbara.Tedlock Dreaming: Anthropological and Psychological Interpretations. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987.
Zayas, Luis. ‘Thematic Features in the manifest Dreams of Expectant Fathers, Clinical Social Work Journal 16.3. 1988.