DSM-5 and Psychiatry's Second Revolution: Descriptive vs. Theoretical Approaches to Psychiatric Classification

In Steeves Demazeux & Patrick Singy (eds.), The DSM-5 in Perspective: Philosophical Reflections on the Psychiatric Babel. Springer. pp. 43-62 (2015)
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A large part of the controversy surrounding the publication of DSM-5 stems from the possibility of replacing the purely descriptive approach to classification favored by the DSM since 1980. This paper examines the question of how mental disorders should be classified, focusing on the issue of whether the DSM should adopt a purely descriptive or theoretical approach. I argue that the DSM should replace its purely descriptive approach with a theoretical approach that integrates causal information into the DSM’s descriptive diagnostic categories. The paper proceeds in three sections. In the first section, I examine the goals (viz., guiding treatment, facilitating research, and improving communication) associated with the DSM’s purely descriptive approach. In the second section, I suggest that the DSM’s purely descriptive approach is best suited for improving communication among mental health professionals; however, theoretical approaches would be superior for purposes of treatment and research. In the third section, I outline steps required to move the DSM towards a hybrid system of classification that can accommodate the benefits of descriptive and theoretical approaches, and I discuss how the DSM’s descriptive categories could be revised to incorporate theoretical information regarding the causes of disorders. I argue that the DSM should reconceive of its goals more narrowly such that it functions primarily as an epistemic hub that mediates among various contexts of use in which definitions of mental disorders appear. My analysis emphasizes the importance of pluralism as a methodological means for avoiding theoretical dogmatism and ensuring that the DSM is a reflexive and self-correcting manual.

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Jonathan Y. Tsou
University of Texas at Dallas


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