In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Dreaming

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Journals, Special Issues, and Professional Organizations
  • Early Classics
  • Psychological and Psychoanalytic Anthropology
  • Structuralist Analyses
  • Cognitive, Evolutionary, and Neuroscientific Studies
  • Dreaming, Self, and Identity
  • Dreams and Reality
  • Histories of Dream Interpretation
  • The “Dreaming” of Australian Aboriginals
  • Oneiromancy among Amerindians
  • Dreams and Drug-Induced Visions of Amerindians
  • Access to Supernatural Agents
  • Dreaming as Revelation in World Religions
  • Dreams and Cultural Change/Continuity
  • Cross-Cultural Studies of Dreaming
  • Dreams and Dreamwork in Modern Western Culture

Anthropology Dreaming
Gordon Ingram
  • LAST REVIEWED: 10 March 2015
  • LAST MODIFIED: 10 March 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766567-0120


The topic of dreaming was relatively marginalized by most anthropologists for much of the 20th century. Since the 1980s, however, interest in dreams as an object of anthropological study has grown enormously, doubtless helped by the growth in size and popularity of the International Association for the Study of Dreams, which has facilitated the exchange of ideas with psychologists, neuroscientists, and dream therapists. Anthropological research on dreaming was dominated in the postwar period by the “Culture and Personality” school of North American psychological anthropologists, who were influenced by Freudian psychoanalysis. Aside from a few interesting structuralist analyses, European anthropologists showed less interest in dreams. Things changed in the 1980s and early 1990s, with the appearance of new anthropological researchers who focused on dreaming, and the injection of new theories from psychology, cognitive science, and even evolutionary biology. An increasingly self-confident anthropological paradigm has developed, which defends the view of dreams as an alternate but (at least) equally valid means of apprehending reality that is held by many non-Western peoples. Many ethnographers have viewed such a private but real-feeling experience as contributing greatly to individuals’ sense of self and identity. Most have also recognized that understandings of dreaming are closely bound up with understandings of time, because dreams are commonly seen as both reaching back to a timeless past of ancestor spirits—for example, in the Australian concept of “the Dreaming”—and reaching forward to predict the dreamer’s future (a practice known as oneiromancy). Dreams in many cultures are inseparable from deliberately induced visions: both are seen as granting direct access to supernatural agents (especially ancestor spirits). Similarly, dreams are seen as an important source of divine revelation in all the world religions. Because of this privileged connection to supernatural power, dreams are often deployed by visionary leaders in attempts to persuade others to engage in or resist dramatic cultural change. Cross-cultural psychological studies, while admittedly sparse, have tended to find more similarities than differences in the content of dreams between cultures. Even in modern Western society interest in dreaming has never really gone away, and is currently burgeoning, resulting in some fascinating recent auto-ethnographies on dreams and dreamwork (a kind of dream therapy).

General Overviews

As yet, despite the recent proliferation of anthropologists who study dreams, there is still no single- or joint-authored textbook on the anthropology of dreaming. There are, however, several important edited collections, of which Von Grunebaum and Caillois 1966 is the earliest (though it is not limited to cultural anthropology). Research on dreaming in the 1960s and 1970s was dominated by the US school of psychological anthropologists, and relevant studies up to that point were summarized in Bourguignon 1972, in its contribution to an influential edited collection of psychological anthropology. A small revolution in the anthropological study of dreaming took place in the late 1980s—exemplified by the collection of articles in Tedlock 1987 (along with the literature review in Tedlock 1991)—as anthropologists sought to diversify their range of psychological and philosophical influences beyond Freudian psychoanalysis, which had been the dominant theoretical paradigm for psychological anthropologists. Some edited collections, while theoretically diverse, are limited to a certain geographical region of study: Tedlock 1987 mostly to the New World, Lohmann 2003 to Melanesia and Australia. However, Bulkeley 2001 is a very useful reader that pulls together classic anthropological articles on dreaming from all over the world, some of which appear elsewhere in this article and some of which do not. Finally, two articles help to draw connections between dreaming and other, more extensively studied areas of anthropological research: Bourguignon 1972 was very influential in developing an “altered states of consciousness” approach which viewed dreaming (as most non-Western people do) as closely related to the phenomena of ritual trance and spirit possession and, most recently, Galinier, et al. 2010 argues that the relative anthropological neglect of dreaming is just one example of the ethnographic privileging of public, daytime experiences over private, nighttime ones.

  • Bourguignon, Erika E. 1972. Dreams and altered states of consciousness in anthropological research. In Psychological anthropology. 2d ed. Edited by Francis L. K. Hsu, 403–434. Homewood, IL: Dorsey.

    Argues that dreams form part of a continuum with trance-induced visions and spirit possession, with not all languages distinguishing semantically between these phenomena. Many cultures see all three as offering genuine access to supernatural agents, differing only in the social context of their production.

  • Bulkeley, Kelly, ed. 2001. Dreams: A reader on religious, cultural and psychological dimensions of dreaming. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

    A collection of classic articles on dreaming, drawn from religious studies and psychology as well as anthropology. Includes anthropological works by Kracke 1981 (cited under Psychological and Psychoanalytic Anthropology) and Lohmann 2000 (cited under Dreams and Cultural Change/Continuity). There are also articles on the significance of dreams in Buddhism, Islam, and ancient Egyptian and Mesopotamian religion.

  • Edgar, Iain R. Anthropology and the dream.

    Iain Edgar’s academic home page is a brief and freely accessible overview of anthropological approaches to dreaming, with bibliographic references and links to several other pages covering various research topics on dreaming in more detail.

  • Galinier, Jacques, Aurore Monod Becquelin, Guy Bordin, et al. 2010. Anthropology of the night: Cross-disciplinary investigations. Current Anthropology 51:819–847.

    DOI: 10.1086/653691

    Eight French and two Italian anthropologists come together to propose that anthropology has badly neglected half of all human experience: the nighttime half. Includes seven commentaries (by Chenhall, Daveluy, Ekirch, Glaskin, Heijnen, Steger, and Wright) and a response by the original authors. Translated from French by Richard Crabtree.

  • Lohmann, Roger Ivar, ed. 2003. Dream travelers: Sleep experiences and culture in the western Pacific. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

    DOI: 10.1057/9781403982476

    A theoretically diverse collection of articles about dreaming in societies from New Guinea and aboriginal Australia (and one from Sulawesi). Authors not appearing elsewhere in this bibliography include Joel Robbins; Pamela Stewart and Andrew Strathern; Wolfgang Kempf and Elfriede Herrmann; Robert Tonkinson; Ian Keen; and Jane Goodale.

  • Tedlock, Barbara, ed. 1987. Dreaming: Anthropological and psychological interpretations. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    A seminal collection of articles aimed at reinvigorating the anthropology of dreaming (which Tedlock deems to have fallen into neglect following the collapse of the Culture and Personality school) by exposing it to various psychological theories of dreaming. Authors include Gilbert Herdt, Bruce Mannheim, William Merrill, and John Homiak.

  • Tedlock, Barbara. 1991. The new anthropology of dreaming. Dreaming 1:161–178.

    DOI: 10.1037/h0094328

    Highlights the change within anthropology between the mid- and late 20th century, from the statistical content analysis of dream reports from different cultures (associated with the Culture and Personality school) to the dominance of more qualitative accounts. The appearance of anthropologists’ own dreams in ethnographic reports has been key.

  • Von Grunebaum, G. E., and Roger Caillois, eds. 1966. The dream and human societies. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press.

    A highly eclectic collection of essays, including theoretical perspectives from neurophysiology, Jungian psychology, phenomenology, literary theory, and sociology; ethnographic reports from the Hopi, Ojibwa, and modern Mexico; and historical studies of dreams in ancient Greek, Mesopotamian, and Islamic literature. Anthropological contributors include George Devereux and Dorothy Eggan.

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