Week Two: The Danger of Classifications


What stuck me most in C. Sperberg-McQueen’s article, “Classification and its Structures,” was the increasing complexity involved in classifications. While the systems of classifications in regards to humanities related work (such as classifying books) seemed to have somewhat more obvious distinctions (ex. Literature vs. Poetry, Fiction vs. Non-Fiction), to extend classifications to more complex objects—people in particular—seems to be fraught with problems of ideology.

McQueen states:

Classification serves two purposes, each important: by grouping together objects which share properties, it brings like objects together into a class; by separating objects with unlike properties into separate classes, it distinguishes between things which are different in ways relevant to the purpose of the classification. The classification scheme itself, by identifying properties relevant for such judgments of similarity and dissimilarity, can make explicit a particular view concerning the nature of the objects being classified.

This can be explicitly seen in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders Fifth Edition (DSM-5), published by the American Psychiatric Association, which attempts to offer standard criteria for the classification of mental disorders. In doing so, “just as Borges’s system [mentioned by McQueen] groups animals by seemingly aleatory characteristics entirely divorced from their actual biological attributes, DSM-5 arranges its various strains of madness solely in terms of the behaviors exhibited” (Kriss). This arrangement classifies those who exhibit behaviors found in the DSM-5 can be diagnosed as their behavior—and thereby differentiated from the general and “healthy” population.

What is dangerous about this is not the attempt to classify mental disorders, but rather the ideology that lies behind the need for classification. For example, “the psychotherapist and author Gary Greenberg notes, homosexuality was listed as a ‘sociopathic personality disorder’ when the DSM was first published in 1952, and remained so until 1973” (Hicks). Because of this categorization, being homosexual was seen as a disease that needed to be cured, and therefore being homosexual equal being abnormal and ill.

Though “updated” at regular intervals, the DSM “has been criticized by many experts for being under an unhealthy influence of the pharmaceutical industry and its tendency to medicalize behaviors and moods that many would argue fall within the normal range of humans’ experiences.” The fact that the DSM needs to be updated constantly shows that it is greatly informed by the ideology of the time. This goes against one of the basic rules of a desirable scheme abbreviated by McQueen which is to “be permanent, so as to avoid the need for constant reclassification.”

The dangers of classification do not only apply to attempts at classifying behaviors, but also to more simple things such as books. Who defines what literature is? What defines a woman/man? What is normal and abnormal? Etc. etc. These should be the questions at the forefront modes of classification.

Hicks, Cherrill. “‘Dozens of Mental Disorders Don’t Exist’ and DSM-5 Is ‘a Fiction’ of Ideology, U.S. Therapist Claims.” National Post. Post Media Network, 7 Oct. 2013. Web. Oct. 2014.

Kriss, Sam. “Book of Lamentations.” The New Inquiry. The New Inquiry, 18 Oct. 2013. Web. Oct. 2014.

Sperberg-McQueen, C. “Classification and its Structures,” in Schreibman et al., ed., Companion to Digital Humanities (Malden, Mass: Blackwell, 2004)