Content Analysis Explained
If we don't "interpret" dreams, what do we do?
The system of content analysis we use was developed by psychologist Calvin S. Hall on the basis of thousands of dream reports he collected at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, in the 1940's. For an account of Hall's scientific training and his research career, see our brief biography of Calvin S. Hall.
After reading through the dream reports and discussing them in graduate seminars many times, Hall gradually developed several empirical categories, such as "characters" and "social interactions," that later were made more precise and formal by Hall and Robert Van De Castle, a fellow psychologist now retired from the University of Virginia. The coding categories they produced were published as The Content Analysis of Dreams (Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1966). The book is now long out of print, but this Web site contains a copy of the complete Hall/Van de Castle coding system, as well as examples of previously-coded dreams. (You can print out our Web pages and use them as a reference if you want to use the system to do your own studies.)
Since its publication, the Hall/Van De Castle system of dream content analysis has been used by many different investigators in the United States, Canada, Europe, India, and Japan. Hall himself applied it to dream reports collected for him in four Latin American countries and by anthropologists in many different preliterate societies. All of these studies, incidentally, showed there was more aggression than friendliness, more misfortune than good fortune, and more negative emotion than positive emotion in dream reports from all around the world; when these dream reports were compared to those from industrialized nations, the similarities far outweighed the differences.
Moreover, the normative findings based on dreams collected from Case Western Reserve students in the 1940's have been replicated three different times with dreams from the University of Richmond (1979), the University of California, Berkeley (1986), and Salem College (1987). Group studies such as these provide a sound basis for doing revealing studies of individual dreamers.
The Hall/Van De Castle system in effect treats a dream report as a story or play in which there are:
- A cast of characters (animals, men and women, friends, strangers)
- A series of social interactions (aggression, friendliness, sexuality)
- Activities (thinking, talking, running)
- Successes and failures
- Misfortunes and good fortunes
- Emotions (happy, sad, embarrassed)
- One or more settings (indoors vs. outdoors, familiar vs. unfamiliar)
- Objects (chairs, cars, streets, body parts)
- Descriptive modifiers (tall, fast, crooked)
- Temporal references
- Elements from the past
- Food and eating references
There are almost no elements in a dream report that cannot be classified somewhere, and some fit into more than one category (e.g., hugging someone is both a friendly interaction and a physical activity). Then, too, parts of categories can be used, or two or more categories can be combined to create new indicators (e.g., the degree to which the dreamer initiates aggressive, friendly, and sexual interactions, as opposed to being the recipient of such actions, can be thought of an a measure of "assertiveness" in dream reports).
In addition, the Hall/Van De Castle system encompasses every category that has been presented in other empirical systems of dream content analysis, so it doesn't make much sense to use any of those other systems, which are not as complete, don't have the precise coding rules this one does, and haven't been used very often. Nor does it make much sense to develop your own comprehensive coding system for your particular study. That approach underestimates by a mile just how difficult it is to create a system of categories that (1) can be used reliably (i.e., producing the same results) by more than one investigator, or by the same investigator a month or two after the first coding, for that matter; and (2) relates to interesting aspects of individuals or groups outside of their dream life.
Move on to a discussion of representative dreams and good samples.
Go back to the Content Analysis page.