Social Mobility

Interview with Family Member about Class Background and Social Mobility

Instructions:  Select an adult with whom you grew up to interview.  If no such adult is available, ask another family member or a family friend.  If that is not possible, speak with your GE to figure out an alternative plan.

Ask the individual if they would be willing to do an interview with you that focuses on their education and employment, as well as the education and employment experiences of their parents (we are trying to get a picture of socioeconomic status (SES) across generations).  Tell them that it will take 30-45 minutes, and that ideally you would like to record the interview for future analysis.  If they don’t want it recorded, make sure that you can take lots of notes during the interview.  DO NOT ASSUME YOU WILL REMEMBER.  Even if you think you know the answers to the questions below, ask them anyway (you can explain to whomever you interview that this is a way for you to practice an interview and get the respondent to tell their story).

Find a quiet place and time to do the interview.  Record the interview on your phone, or your computer.  You can use a free recording app that also transcribes: (Links to an external site.)


Ask the following interview questions (feel free to follow other topics that might come up in the interview, too).

Interview Protocol:  (Below, “you” means the person you are interviewing)

Tell me a little about your experiences growing up—how many adults were there in your household, who were the adults you grew up with, and did you have siblings?  If so, how many, and what was the age span of the kids?

What was the educational attainment of the adult(s) who raised you?

What kind of work did they do when you were growing up?  Was your family financially comfortable?  Describe the economic circumstances of your upbringing. Did these circumstances change over time, if so how and why?

What level of education did you expect to attain when you were growing up?  Where did these expectations come from?  What level did you actually attain?

What kind of work did you imagine for yourself as you were growing up?

Tell me about your own work history?  What jobs have you held since you were a young adult? Ask the following probing questions to get a sense of job quality:

Did the job(s) pay well (minimum wage, higher than minimum wage, etc;); did the job(s) have health and retirement benefits; were the hours and schedules stable; could you support your family in these jobs; did you like the job(s)?

If they changed jobs a lot, probe: what were the motivations for the job transitions and what did the job changes mean for them and their family—were they ever fired, laid off, were there ever periods of unemployment, how did they and the family manage during these times?

If they didn’t experience job changes, ask whether the job stability was a choice and what it has meant in their life.

How has your employment affected your family life?

Did you have employment aspirations you have not been able to fulfill?  How do you understand this, or put another way what have the obstacles been?  What would have had to be different for you to achieve those aspirations?

What were your aspirations for your kids (if the person has kids, especially if you are interviewing your own parent)?

Finally, if you were asked what your class background is, what do you think you would say and why?

After conducting the interview, listen to it again and think about the concepts we have been using to understand class inequality and social mobility.  Take notes, and if there are key quotes you would like to include in your essay, transcribe them verbatim (don’t include large portions of the interview in your paper, just a few brief quotes).

Write a 4 page essay (12 point font, 1 inch margins, double spaced) about intergenerational class location and class mobility (as far as you can understand it from this brief interview).  What kinds of jobs have people done across the generations, has there been much change in education and the type of work done?  Would you classify these as “good jobs,” and why or why not?  What motivated the job changes within the generations, if there have been any?  Given the information you have from this interview, would you say there has been class mobility across the generations?  If you want to include your own college attendance in the analysis of intergenerational class location, feel free to discuss that at the end of your analysis.

Concepts that might be relevantsocioeconomic status, poverty, income/wealth, individual and structural explanations, life chances, meritocracysocial mobility, and the changing structure of the economy over the last 40 years: how inequality has been increasing in that time despite the growth in the economy overall, the decline in the quality of US jobs due to deindustrialization and globalization, the bifurcation of the economy into a large service-heavy job sector and a small segment of stable unionized jobs or white-collar jobs, and a slightly more substantial sector of stable, well-paying professional jobs at the top.