Guest Post by Eric Ferreri, Duke News & Communications

If you grow up in the working class, neither love nor money can trump your blue-collar roots, a Duke sociologist has found.

Her study of couples from different social classes suggests that those who “marry up” still make life decisions based on their upbringing.

Cover of Streib book

Sociologist Jessi Streib’s book “The Past” is about class structure in marriages.

“Your social class never goes away,” says Jessi Streib, an assistant professor of sociology whose findings are revealed in her new book: The Power of the Past: Understanding Cross-Class Marriages. “It stays with you in terms of how you live your life. The class you’re born into sticks with you and shapes you, even when you marry into more money and a far more financially secure life.”

Streib’s findings derive from interviews she conducted with white, heterosexual Midwestern couples. She interviewed 32 couples in which one spouse came from a working class background, the other from the middle class. For comparison, she also interviewed 10 couples in which both spouses grew up in the middle class.

Streib defines working class as people raised by parents with high school educations; the middle class subjects were raised by college-educated parents.

Her findings run contrary to the notion held by many scholars that strivers can outrun a difficult childhood by getting a college degree and good-paying middle-class job.

While the findings suggest that a middle class upbringing isn’t required to excel in the American workplace, those upwardly mobile people from working class roots may still miss out on opportunities if they can’t or don’t subscribe to the unspoken norms of middle class culture, Streib notes.

Streib found that couples from different classes held onto their own, firmly-rooted beliefs regarding money and parenting, often negotiating fervently with each other over the proper amount of career planning and nurturing of children. Should children be left to grow and discover on their own, or should goals and schedules be set for them?

“Those are the sorts of tiny battles cross-class couples have all the time,” Streib said. “These are not insurmountable obstacles, but they are certainly common and consistent.”