Book Review: The sociological Interpretation of Dreams

Bernard Lahire (trans. Helen Morrison), The Sociological Interpretation of Dreams (Wiley, 2020)

Reviewed by John Lechte (Macquarie University)

(This is a prepublication version of this review. You can find the published version in Thesis Eleven Journal, on the T11 Sage website)

‘This book’, says Bernard Lahire, author of The Sociological Interpretation of Dreams, ‘is based on a gamble – a theoretically and empirically founded one – that a scientific interpretation of dreams is possible’ (22). And our author adds that: ‘A scientific interpretation of dreams also implies a rigorous scientific methodology which allows the data necessary for the interpretative work to be collected’ (24). In this regard, there is no doubt that Lahire’s book is the result of a very extensive acquaintance with past and present research on dreams, including collections of the reports of dreams from a range of dreamers including those of Haitians and of the Yir Yoront people of Australia.

If the notion of being scientific carries an empiricist risk, Lahire is impressive in his effort to give due credit to Freud for initiating a truly innovative approach to dream interpretation. Freud, indeed, is the benchmark, even if others prior to Freud – such as the Greek, Artemidorus of Daldis, who lived in the second century AD – are also given their due. Thus, Lahire writes: ‘Much criticised, often justifiably and sometimes inappropriately or excessively, the Freudian model of dream interpretation has remained unsurpassed since its first appearance, even if some researchers have made laudable efforts so to do’ (13). Freud, in Lahire’s view, did not only formulate a new theory of dreams, but, equally importantly, drew on all existing research, just as Lahire is engaged in doing today.

Certainly Freud is a key point of reference in the study under consideration but it turns out that a sociological approach to dreams cannot remain entirely within Freud’s province. Thus the weight that Freud attaches to childhood experiences as a way of explaining dreams is downplayed by Lahire the sociologist, just as are the concepts of the unconscious, repression, dream censorship, and the dream as a wish fulfilment. Most of all, though, the Freudian approach is supposedly lacking because it fails to give adequate consideration to the ‘historical and social nature of the mechanisms or complexes’ Freud invokes in order to make sense of dreams (27).

Although unacknowledged by the author, a key theoretical issue – if not an aporia – emerges here. It appears via the endeavour to effect a sociological study of dreams. Now, the question is: what must a dream be if it is to be the object of a sociological study? To be avoided at all costs is a dream that is made to fit, procrustean fashion, into a sociological framework. In this regard, Lahire’s rejection of Freud’s focus on the relation between dreams and the unconscious informed by childhood experiences rings alarm bells.

As is known, for Freud, a dream is a complex phenomenon. To begin with, it is a series of images (not a text) that call for interpretation, especially in the clinical situation. More often than not, it does not give rise to a coherent narrative. On this basis, the dream is the harbinger of ambiguity. Secondly, Freud points to the difference between the manifest content and the latent content of the ‘dream thoughts’. In other words, the dream has the structure of a rebus. If this is so, it means that the manifest content cannot be taken literally. Elissa Marder’s outline of Freud’s notion of the dream adds detail to what has been said:

dreams are radically composite psychic productions that are fabricated out of a heterogeneous mixture of inputs that include (but are not limited to) indestructible repressed unconscious wishes, memory traces, prefabricated phantasies, indifferent day residues, preconscious thoughts, recorded speeches, as well as internal and external stimuli pertaining to the physical state of the body in a state of sleep. But even though all of these inputs participate in the production of the dream, once produced through the complicated activity of the dream-work—which is itself a composite process made up of four separate but perhaps not entirely distinct complex operations (condensation, displacement, conditions of representability, and secondary revision) – the dream itself (if such a thing even can be said to exist) can neither simply be neatly broken back down into all its constituent elements nor transposed back into the latent dream thoughts that presumably motivated its production

(2013: 199)

Even if a certain sociological approach to dreams might reject this emphasis on complexity and ambiguity, it remains the case that a dream is – at least for Freud – an undeniably individual experience, even if it also true that ‘[e]verybody sleeps and everybody dreams’ (Lahire 2020: 36). If the lack of dream transparency reinforces its individual nature, how is a sociological approach going to make sense of it? Lahire’s answer, in part is that: ‘When it comes to studying dreams, the sociologist must focus on the inextricably linked cerebral, psychological and social states of an individual during sleep’ (35). But this, it turns out, leads into neuroscience’s account of brain functioning during sleep, something aimed at reducing the individual status of the dream.

What undoubtedly gives dreams a social status is the dream report. The latter can circulate within a social milieu, be discussed and interpreted as well as be collected by researchers. In this regard the question always arises as to whether the dream report equates to the content of the dream – even to the manifest content, given that dreams are basically images. Rather than focusing on the disconnection between word and image, Lahire prefers to deal with the methodological issues arising from recording a dream, such as the time taken to report the dream and whether the report is selective or comprehensive. Maybe the dreamer feels incapable of communicating what was experienced in the dream, which once again tends to emphasize the suis generis nature of dreams. In effect, we ask whether there is a method that can truly do justice to the nature of the dream. For his part Lahire confidently claims that: ‘Dreams contain no “unfathomable mystery” to be unveiled, no “secret” to be uncovered, or any “mysterious code” that could potentially be cracked. Instead they contain existential preoccupations which express themselves in a form unlike any they might take in the socially varied moment of waking life’ (71). Even though Lahire concedes that the dream might be a communication, ‘from self-to-self’, this communication is informed by the dreamer’s social context. Ultimately, the latter comes to dominate the overall conclusion of the study.

After having discounted Freud’s theory that a dream is founded in censorship, we arrive at what could be considered the key Chapter 7 of The Sociological Interpretation of Dreams, entitled, ‘The Existential Situation and Dreams’. It is the key chapter because there, Lahire clearly announces his distance from psychoanalysis by stating that the concerns of dreams are directly related to the dreamer’s waking life. Thus, if we want to know what significance to attach to certain images appearing in dreams, look at the dreamer social situation, construct the rudiments of a biography and any dream will become transparent and open to interpretation. Thus: ‘As Thomas Morton French demonstrated so perfectly, if the dream does not at first sight seem to make sense, it is because we still do not know how it fits in relation to the context of the dreamer’s life and in particular because we are unaware of the problems with which he or she is wrestling at the time of the dream’ (167). The chapter thus concludes with Lahire pointing out that:

unlike psychoanalysis sociology forces dreamers to realize that the problems they are working on in their dreams, the concerns or the preoccupations which torment them even when they are asleep, are not unconnected to the structures of the social world and, in particular, to the groups they belong to or have frequented in the past.


And so, whereas Freud invoked dreams to illuminate biography, Lahire, the sociologist, uses the notion of biography to illuminate dreams. ‘By carrying out biographical interviews’, says Lahire, ‘the sociologist is able to show that dreams […] are structured by the dreamer’s socially constituted schemas or dispositions, as well as by the elements of his or her existential situation’ (286). The question now is: to what extent are dreams really pertinent to understanding the lives of people? Do not dreams now effectively become superfluous to the sociological project? It is as though the discounting of a psychoanalytic approach to dreams were equivalent to discounting dreams as such. In this light, our author concludes his study with the following statement: ‘My own conviction is that the dream has no unique function and that no amount of wondering what its purpose might be will help us understand it any better’ (292). Such a conclusion is then all of a piece with the rejection of the unique status of the dream as a vehicle for illuminating the biography of the dreamer. It is also coupled with a quantitative approach. Thus, a study by Hall and Van de Castle is cited where ‘out of more than 700 emotions expressed in 1,000 dream accounts, around 80 per cent were negative’ (169). Other studies are also cited, the point being to show that ‘dreams are much more about the preoccupations than about things which do not pose any particular problem’ (169). In short, it is the actual problems in real life that provoke dreams.

Instead of verging on the sociological reductions that seemingly derive from discounting the explanatory power of dreams, Lahire’s question could have been: how can a sociological approach further illuminate the autonomy of dreams? This, however, was not to be.

Two observations remain to be made regarding Lahire’s study. The first is that that, unlike Freud, our author at no point puts forward his own dreams as a kind of moderating element that might illuminate the nature of the dream. Understood within the orthodoxy of a social scientific method this might seem like a strange observation. For surely to invoke personal experience in the form of the researcher’s own dreams and dream analysis would constitute recourse to what is inherently subjective thus leading to lack of rigor and objectivity. This, however, is to assume that the study of dreams is comparable to other forms of social research where corroboration, for one thing, is possible. The closest one can get to the dreams of others is one’s own dreams. This is to say that dream research is like no other: it is on the border of the researchable and the non-researchable. As such, dreams have a unique status when it comes to addressing the theoretical issues in the social sciences – the difference, for example, between image and narrative, image and text, transparence and opacity in communication.

The second observation is that like Freud, Lahire believes that dreams are open to interpretation. Because the dream for the sociologist is the result of events in waking life, given sufficient research application, dreams are ultimately entirely transparent. Freud, on the other hand, proposed that dreams could certainly be interpreted up to a certain point, but ‘[t]here is often a passage in even the most thoroughly interpreted dream which is left obscure [. . .]. This is the dream’s navel, the spot where it reaches down into the unknown’ (Freud 1976: 671). Implied here, perhaps, is the notion that there can never be an entirely transparent dream or, in the same vein, an entirely transparent psyche. There has always been a worry in sociology that such a view risks a fall into the psychologism, if not the individualism, that sociology saw itself from its inception as destined to combat. But it can be argued that it does not have to be ‘either/or’ – either a psychical or a sociological explanation of dreams and waking life, but ‘both one and the other’. Maybe, then, despite his intentions, this is what Lahire’s sociology of dreams finally brings home to us.


Freud, S (1976) The Interpretation of Dreams. Trans. James Strachey, London: Penguin, The Freud Pelican Library, 4.

Marder, E (2013) ‘”Real Dreams”’, The Southern Journal of Philosophy, 51, Spindel Supplement, 196-213.  

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