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Do we need a sociology of dreams?

By Montague Ullman, M.D.


Dream Appreciation Newsletter Vol. 4 No. 2, Spring 1999

For sociology, interested only in man awake, the sleeper might as well be dead.”  This is a quote from the late distinguished French cultural anthropologist Roger Bastide. 

Based on his studies of dreams in transitional cultures in Brazil, he raised the question:  “. . .whether the sociologist is right to ignore the other half of our life, to envisage man standing and sitting, but never asleep and adream” (“The Sociology of the Dream” in G.E. Von Grunebaum and Roger Caillois (eds.),  The Dream and Human Societies,  1966).

In primitive societies in the early stages of transition, there is a unity between the world of myth and the sacred as reflected in the dream and in waking reality with easy passage in both directions.  Western society lacks the institutions that foster this exchange.  The door to the dream world is closed to society at large.  It remains open on a small scale as the container of one’s personal problems to be worked through in private with a therapist.  We live in a dream-deprived society. 

The failure to recognize the necessity of institutionalizing dreams in a way that makes the function more visible, has led Bastide to conclude that sociologists look upon any such institution as dealing with a “waste product” and would not be “within the competence of a sociology worthy of its name - a kind of social sewer service.”

Dreamers make use of images available to them at a given moment in history.  Remolded into metaphorical visual imagery, they convey information of some significance to the dreamer.  It seems to me obvious that just as they contain personal referents, they might from time to time contain social referents.  That is to suggest that unresolved social tensions also play a role in shaping subjectivity and surfacing in a dream just as more personal tensions do.  As Erich Fromm, Trigant Burrow, and others have pointed out, there is a social unconscious at play that takes its toll so long as it remains unconscious.  In the following quote, the sociologist Robert S. Lynd describes one over-arching source of social blindness.

“Liberal democracy has never dared face the fact that industrial capitalism is an intensely coercive form of organization of society that cumulatively constrains men and all of their institutions to work the will of the minority who hold and wield the economic power; and that this relentless warping of men’s lives and forms of association becomes less and less the result of voluntary decisions by “bad” or “good” men and more and more an impersonal web of coercions dictated by the need to “keep the system running.” (R.S. Lynd, “Business as a System of Organized Power” in A. M. Lee (ed.),  Readings in Sociology,  1951)

Here are three examples of this warping that are encountered in dreams.

#1  When a young woman in therapy, suffering from frigidity, makes a reference in her dreams to her own sexual organs as a head of lettuce encased in the empty shell of a cantaloupe situated on the shelf of a supermarket, she is saying something about her own personal sexual problems and at the same time making a statement about an aspect of social life. 

The personal referents are of interest to the clinician.  Her sexual organs are seen as objects separate from her functioning self that can be bought and sold in an impersonal way.  Might the social referents be of interest to a sociologist?  We do live in a society where attributes of individuals such as brains, beauty, talent, and sex are treated as objects that can be bought and sold in the marketplace.

#2  Racism raises its ugly head when a young white woman dreams of a black man as a threatening predator.

#3  In Sweden the struggle for equal rights for women began much earlier than in the United States.  There were signs of successful women in all spheres of life.  In the eighties I came across a Swedish magazine article commenting on the dreams of three very successful women in politics and the business world.  Sexism seemed to be a thing of the past.  Yet in each of the dreams the self-image of the woman was that of a cow who, along with other cows, was there for the benefit of the farmer.

Freud repersonalized the dream.  Might psychohistorians not benefit from a resocialization of the dream?

Reprinted with permission from Clio’s Psyche, Vol. 5, No. 2  September, 1998.  Clio’s Psyche is a publication of The Psychohistory Forum.