Sunday, February 16, 2014

The abstract and the passive voice

Here (via) is an interesting abstract from an article in the American Economic Review of last April:

We provide evidence that increased political influence, arising from CIA interventions during the Cold War, was used to create a larger foreign market for American products. Following CIA interventions, imports from the US increased dramatically, while total exports to the US were unaffected. The surge in imports was concentrated in industries in which the US had a comparative disadvantage, not a comparative advantage. Our analysis is able to rule out decreased trade costs, changing political ideology, and an increase in US loans and grants as alternative explanations. We provide evidence that the increased imports arose through direct purchases of American products by foreign governments.

An abstract can't do everything, but this one seems especially designed to frustrate a reader (or tempt him/her to read the article). First, what exactly is "increased political influence" via a "CIA intervention"? Presumably something like the overthrow of Mossadegh, Arbenz or Allende, but the wording also suggests something short of that. Second, although the abstract strongly suggests that the outcome (increased purchases from U.S. companies) was intended, its use of the passive voice drains the scenario of agency (yes, an overworked word): "increased political influence...was used to create a"  Why not say: "We provide evidence that during the Cold War, the U.S. used CIA covert actions to benefit American companies by creating political conditions that led to more purchases of American products by foreign governments"? Maybe that doesn't say exactly the same thing and it's a bit long-winded, but it does indicate that someone was actively doing something, as opposed to "increased political influence, arising from CIA interventions...was used...."


Bro said...

Agree. Also, I found the implication that it is only governments (not corporations or individuals) that are responsible for imports rather strange. Or is that the way imports are usually defined?

LFC said...

No, it's not the way imports are usu. defined but their research apparently focused just on the govt-purchase aspect.