Posted: 27 November 2013 in Faith and Life

You know how it is.  You hear yourself say something and then wonder, “Where did that come from?”  I am not talking about a classic faux pas said in front of a room full of strangers.  I am talking about something much more subtle.  Something that may have sounded perfectly reasonable (intelligent even).

But something that rebounds to your ears and announces that you have changed; and not in a good way. That rebound stings.

And so I found myself saying: “So, in these studies I am assuming they controlled for SES.” 

Innocuous right?

SES: Socioeconomic Status.  That still-ubiquitous summation of something we all know but really don’t understand.  And the rebounding words transported me back to the first week of graduate school.  A time when I had never heard of a “p-value” nor would have understood what it really meant to “control” for anything.  But still I remember the forum.

It was an informal session in the student lounge during which people who had just finished their masters program could discuss their experiences with the incoming class.  Conversation ranged from which courses to avoid to which libraries to use.  From how to snag a good advisor to how to make sure you took courses that added up to something coherent.

And then a woman spoke up (and it’s funny, I don’t remember anything else specific from that day but I do remember this) and said something like: “You are going to hear a lot about SES. Practically every study you read will claim to ‘control’ for it. Don’t accept it at face value.  It hides more than it reveals.  It is an easy way to pretend to say something rather than deal with the reality of what really makes people sick—and keeps them that way.”

And that was it.  And I was careful.  I remember asking about it nearly every time it came up in a study and it never really meant the same thing.  Mostly it just meant “income level.”  Sometimes it was a constructed index of poverty, sometimes it was linked to race.  Sometimes educational level.  Sometimes geography.  It meant something but I was never sure what without doing some serious digging. 

I decided then to never use it but to always drill down and find out what it really meant. 

But over time…

And so here I was all these years later pretending to say something but not saying anything at all.  I should have said

“So, in these studies I am assuming they controlled for having to work two jobs with no health care and actually earning half the minimum wage when you consider how many hours they had to spend commuting by a mediocre public transit system…”


“So, in these studies I am assuming they controlled for, being a mom with sick kids and no access to health care and having food stamps that magically get cancelled or reduced because some so-called leader far away decides you are a moocher though you have worked harder than they ever will…”


“So, in these studies I am assuming they controlled for, being a non-native English speaker who breaks his back making your food and then gets threatened by a boss saying that he will be fired unless he works three straight shift despite having a severe burn caused by the lack of safe kitchen practices…


“So, in these studies I am assuming they controlled for trying to find child care that is priced such that only one of three jobs is required to pay for it…”


“So, in these studies I am assuming they controlled for being addicted for so long that the paranoia of not getting a fix permeates every waking hour and there is no way to find a way out because down here the only people I ever talk to are people dealing with the need for the same fix…”


And you get the picture.

You can’t “control” for these specificities.  I know that.  The point is I can’t control for the myriad causes and effects of exclusion and I should not pretend that a study that claims to do so has much of value to teach me.  These crude models create the dehumanization they purport to try to come to terms with. 

So next time I say something like “So, in these studies I am assuming they controlled for SES” please smack me, hard, before the rebound reminds me of how callous I have become.  


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