Quality & Quantity 35: 291–309, 2001.
© 2001 Kluwer Academic Publishers. Printed in the Netherlands.
Longitudinal Surveys and the Study of
Occupational Mobility: Panel and Retrospective
Design in Comparison
Max Planck Institute for Human Development, Lentzeallee 94, 14 195 Berlin, Germany
Abstract. The paper discusses the extent to which longitudinal surveys are able to expose occupa-
tional mobility and the dynamics of these processes. It compares two survey designs: the repeated
panel design and the retrospective life history design. This comparison details the strength and the
weaknesses of the two designs. The paper particularly calls attention to the unique features of the two
designs with respect to the exploration of occupational mobility – pointing to three general problems
of quantitative social research: item-nonresponse, design effects of single and multi-measurement
occasion, and the strong assumption that researchers and respondents share the same deﬁnition of
concepts. The main conclusion of the paper is that both designs offer unique opportunities to study
social change, yet the differences between the two should be kept in mind when choosing the data
set for particular research questions.
Key words: data quality, item nonresponse, occupational mobility measured by longitudinal data
Longitudinal surveys can be conducted with alternative research designs: prospect-
ive versus retrospective, individual- versus household-based. The paper compares
the panel and the retrospective life history design. The purpose of the paper is not to
discuss the advantages and disadvantages of longitudinal surveys in general. There
is no question that longitudinal studies are ideal frameworks in which to study
social change at the micro-level, that is, “the development of the institutional, cul-
tural, and social conditions of individual life courses” (Mayer and Huinink, 1990:
213), and its dynamics (cf. Featherman, 1979; Mayer and Huinink, 1990; Rose
et al., 1991a, b; Sandefur and Tuma, 1987; Tuma and Hannan, 1984). The paper
focuses on the extent to which longitudinal surveys are able to expose occupational
mobility and social dynamics of these processes.
The whole notion of the paper is that in order to assess the ‘truth’ of ﬁndings
drawn from surveys it is necessary to know the database of these ﬁndings and the
modalities and peculiarities in which these data have been produced. That includes
the sampling procedure of the survey used, but also possible non-sampling errors -
which are in large parts attributable to the survey design – as is shown in the paper.