Diagnostic ambivalence: psychiatric workarounds and the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders

Sociol Health Illn. 2010 Mar;32(3):452-69. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-9566.2010.01230.x.


In 1980 the American Psychiatric Association (APA), faced with increased professional competition, revised the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). Psychiatric expertise was redefined along a biomedical model via a standardised nosology. While they were an integral part of capturing professional authority, the revisions demystified psychiatric expertise, leaving psychiatrists vulnerable to infringements upon their autonomy by institutions adopting the DSM literally. This research explores the tensions surrounding standardisation in psychiatry. Drawing on in-depth interviews with psychiatrists, I explore the 'sociological ambivalence' psychiatrists feel towards the DSM, which arises from the tension between the desire for autonomy in practice and the professional goal of legitimacy within the system of mental health professions. To carve a space for autonomy for their practice, psychiatrists develop 'workarounds' that undermine the DSM in practice. These workarounds include employing alternative diagnostic typologies, fudging the numbers (or codes) on official paperwork and negotiating diagnoses with patients. In creating opportunities for patient input and resistance to fixed diagnoses, the varied use of the DSM raises fundamental questions for psychiatrists about the role of the biomedical model of mental illness, especially its particular manifestation in the DSM.

MeSH terms

  • Attitude of Health Personnel*
  • Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders*
  • Humans
  • Insurance Carriers
  • Insurance, Psychiatric
  • Interviews as Topic
  • Mental Disorders / diagnosis*
  • Models, Psychological
  • Psychiatry / standards*
  • Sociology, Medical