Monday, September 13, 2010

Forces & Names

Here's a paragraph from an article by Neil Fligstein and Taekjin Shin, published in Sociological Forum in 2007 (PDF here).

During the 1970s, U.S. corporations were under siege from two forces: the slow economic growth and high inflation of the 1970s, and increased foreign competition (Friedman, 1985). Slow economic growth meant that the major markets of many firms stopped expanding, causing their profits to stagnate. The inflation of the 1970s had a set of negative effects on corporations. Interest rates were quite high over the period. These high rates pushed investors toward fixed-income securities like government bonds and away from stocks, causing stock prices to drift downward over the decade. Inflation caused firms to have assets on their books that were increasing in value, but from which they were not earning higher profits. Since many measures of firm performance were based on returns to assets or investments, this meant that firms looked even less profitable. Foreign competition, particularly with the Japanese, heated up. American firms lost market shares and, in some cases, like consumer electronics, entire markets. Taken together, profit margins were squeezed by inflation, competition, and slow economic growth. By the late 1970s, with low stock prices, undervalued assets, and slow growth in sales and profits, many large U.S. firms had stock prices that valued them as being worth less than the value of their assets and cash (Friedman, 1985).

Notice that it introduces its subject matter very clearly in the first sentence along with a structuring principle for the paragraph. We expect the paragraph to deal with two main forces, and that the first will have two distinct components. And that's exactly what we get. The closing sentence then summarizes the effects of the mentioned forces in a single, relevantly problematic situation.

As a "unit of composition" in a larger whole, this paragraph is doing its job. It is making a claim and supporting it with detail. Even the individual sentences are perfectly clear. But there are several things about it that reduce its effectiveness.

Let's begin with the relationship it has to its source. Since Friedman 1985 is the only text cited, and since it is cited at the beginning and then again at the end, I think we can assume that the whole argument of the paragraph can be found there. The authors should therefore have considered simplifying the reference by writing it into the prose of the paragraph. "Friedman (1985) has convincingly shown that U.S. corporations were under siege from two forces during the 1970s. First, he said, they faced slow economic growth and high inflation." And so on. While this may look like a more obtrusive way of citing Friedman, it is actually less in the way. It gets the relation between this paragraph and Friedman properly established in one simple gesture that stays with the reader throughout.

Another weakness of the paragraph is that it refers to two forces using three names. That makes it a bit more difficult to follow. Notice that in the last sentence three factors, not two forces, are invoked to explain the fact that companies were worth more on paper than on the stock market by the end of the 1970s. It forces the authors to re-organize the paragraph early on, with the signposting sentence, "The inflation of the 1970s had a set of negative effects on corporations." This sentence does not actually convey information (we already know the corporations were "under seige" by inflation), but it was deemed necessary to shift the focus to inflation after slow growth had been dealt with. If the paragraph had opened with a reference to three things, it could have used a conventional, "First, ... Second, ... Third, ...." form to present the supporting detail. If it had used two names (instead of three) it could have used those names, not a whole sentence, to shift the focus. By the time we get to the end of the paragraph, the organizing potential of the two forces (which I presume could have been called "domestic stagflation" and "foreign competition") has been entirely abandoned.

I'll look at this paragraph a bit more closely on Wednesday. It helps me respond to Jonathan's questions about the difference between writing sentences and composing paragraphs from Friday's post.

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