Is psychiatric classification a good thing?

Rachel Cooper

in Philosophical Issues in Psychiatry II

Published on behalf of Oxford University Press

Published in print April 2012 | ISBN: 9780199642205
Published online February 2013 | e-ISBN: 9780191754777 | DOI:

Series: International Perspectives in Philosophy & Psychiatry

Is psychiatric classification a good thing?

Show Summary Details


In this chapter I seek both to ask whether psychiatric classification is a good thing, and also to make it clear how this is an issue on which reasonable people can disagree. When I'm talking of “classification” I have in mind the type of classification facilitated by diagnostic systems such as the DSM.

We can question the wisdom of classifying mentally ill people either in general or in particular cases. At the general level, we might ask whether research programs such as that associated with the DSM are a force for good or evil. At the particular level, we may query the role of classification in some particular subdomain, currently, for example, personality disorders stand out as a particularly contested area. Questions at the two levels are, of course, linked. Those who are generally skeptical about psychiatric classification will worry about classification in many particular cases. Writers such as Thomas Szsaz (1974), for example, would accept only classifications of organic brain disorders as legitimate. At the other end of the scale, even those who are generally pro-classification will agree that some areas of human behavior should not be included in the DSM, for example, they might worry about the potential medicalization of normal grief (Horwitz and Wakefield 2007).

As tends to be the case with philosophical discussion, much of my argument will be at a fairly abstract level and will be couched in general terms—I shall consider why, in general, classification can be helpful, and what, in general, are the risks attached to classification. However, applying the discussion to particular cases is straightforward, and I shall also mention particular cases as the chapter proceeds. My overall claim will be that classification in psychiatry is frequently, but not always, a good thing. The chapter is split into three main sections. The first considers the benefits of classification, the second considers the harms that classification can produce, the third, and most tentative, section starts to consider how classificatory projects might best proceed in order to maximize the benefits and minimize the harms.

Chapter.  5032 words. 

Subjects: Psychiatry

Full text: subscription required

How to subscribe Recommend to my Librarian

Buy this work at Oxford University Press »

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content. Please, subscribe or login to access all content.