Limits of Operationalization: A Critique of Spitzer and Endicott's (1978) Proposed Operational Criteria for Mental Disorder

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Spitzer and Endicott (1978) proposed an operational definition of mental disorder that is a more rigorous version of the brief definitions that appeared in the 3rd and revised 3rd editions of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. The heart of their proposal is a translation of the concept of dysfunction into operational terms. I argue that their definition fails to capture the concept of dysfunction and is subject to many counterexamples. I use my harmful dysfunction account of disorder (Wakefield, 1992a, 1992b), which interprets dysfunction in evolutionary terms, to explain both the appeal and the problems of Spitzer and Endicott's definition and to provide support for the harmful dysfunction view. I conclude that the failure of Spitzer and Endicott's sophisticated attempt at operationalization indicates that nonoperational definitions that use functional concepts must play a role in formulating valid diagnostic criteria.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)160-172
Number of pages13
JournalJournal of abnormal psychology
Issue number1
StatePublished - Feb 1993


ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Psychiatry and Mental health
  • Biological Psychiatry

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