This article is taken from issue 203 of Science and the Future “The essentials”, dated October / December 2020.
Sciences et Avenir: how does sociology renew the interpretation of dreams?
Bernard Lahire: Dreams bring us back to what we are: social beings largely overwhelmed by what questions them, namely their past and present experiences, structured by the social world. But even if I am a sociologist, I offer a very interdisciplinary interpretation on the basis of social sciences, with the ambition to overcome the oppositions between psychoanalysis, sociology, cognitive psychology, linguistics, and even neurosciences.
It is impossible to work on dreams without understanding how the brain works during the different stages of sleep!
The dreams are striking because they touch on crucial problems, for example the clashes of the school competition, the difficult relations with the family inheritance, the effects of an enveloping religious morality or the consequences of the abandonment of the father.
We undo and remake these existential knots in another way, we look at them from all angles. Dreams thus offer us a sociology of worries, worries, a window into what works people. Pure routine does not pose a question.
For the second volume of my work on dreams *, I thus selected four dreamers and four dreamers, of different social origins and ages, and I questioned them periodically for about two years. One of them, 66, has been dreaming of the same things very regularly for four decades, in connection with sexual abuse experienced during childhood.
How do dreams reveal social determinisms? In other words, how do we go from psychoanalysis to sociology?
Sigmund Freud has often said that the individual has no existence outside the group. In his model of interpretation, the founder of psychoanalysis situates the individual in a family, which is a social structure. But why stop at childhood? The process of socialization, of making individuals certainly begins at birth, in the family structure, but it continues at school, at work, in religious, political, sporting, cultural activities … We are building ourselves throughout life.
We see questions of male domination, displacement in social space, violence of all kinds entering dreams. Thus, the flight, the fall, the up and down are very structured socially. Freud saw in it sexual allusions, the rise of desire. But these spatial metaphors also refer to social oppositions. The place of individuals in society questions them.
Class defectors, those people who change social environment during their lives, bear witness to this. They never feel out of place, out of step with their family as much as with the people they hang out with. They sometimes experience a feeling of deception. Their dreams reflect what is causing them problems. It should not be forgotten, we are made in particular social worlds. This is obvious when we study historical variations. Medievalist Jean-Claude Schmitt has published stories of medieval dreams populated by angels and priests. Figures much less present today, and for good reason!
The dream is therefore not a space of freedom, as some might think?
We are no more free in our dreams than in our waking lives, even though the degree of censorship is lower. Dreams are a modality of human expression, as can literary writing. Some have a poetic force and metaphors are legion … But all the oddities of the dream are linked to the fact that we talk about ourselves to ourselves, and that we therefore do not need to be as explicit as in a conversation with others. In other words, we don’t reinvent ourselves during our nights!
* The Dream Shares, to be published in early 2021 by La Découverte editions.
Interview by Sylvie Lecherbonnier