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Do You Know the Difference Between Micro-, Mezzo- and Macro-Level Social Work?

  • Practice

Social work doesn’t just help individual people. Instead, it works across three scales — micro, mezzo and macro — to create change.

What does a social worker do? If you believe the mainstream media, which generally portrays social workers engaging in one-on-one sessions with individuals or perhaps with families, you might perceive the position as one that functions on a relatively small scale.

In reality, this is only one type of work that social workers do. The practice is typically categorized into three interrelated scales: micro, mezzo and macro. For those considering a career in social work, an understanding of the vast opportunities available at each level is imperative.

1) Micro-Level

When people imagine the day-to-day activities of social workers, they’re usually thinking about the micro level. This is the most common type of social work, and involves direct interaction with clients to address individual problems.

Common examples of micro-level work include helping people find housing, health care and social services. Individual and family counseling also fall under this category, as do certain kinds of mental health and substance abuse treatment. Micro-level social work can be offered by agencies and nonprofits, as well as in schools, police departments or even the military.

Since micro-level social work involves sensitive interactions with individuals, undergraduate degrees in fields like psychology or sociology can be especially helpful for students hoping to work in this field.

2) Mezzo-Level

While micro social work happens on an individual level, mezzo-level social work zooms out to look at groups instead of individuals. Of course, the smallest “group” is the family unit, but mezzo social work extends far beyond that. Many practitioners use micro and mezzo social work simultaneously to solve problems in businesses, schools, organizations and communities.

Since mezzo-level social work addresses group issues, it is a valuable tool for creating small-scale institutional, social and cultural change. Undergraduate degrees in psychology (with an emphasis on group psychology) or sociology help build a solid foundation for this kind of work.

3) Macro-Level

Macro-level social work involves interventions and advocacy on a large scale, affecting entire communities, states or even countries. It helps clients by intervening in large systems that may seem beyond the reach of individuals.

For many people unfamiliar with the field, macro-level work may not even be recognizable as social work. Macro social workers may be involved in crafting laws or petitioning local, state or even federal governments for funds to help communities. They may also organize state- or nation-wide activist campaigns.

Since macro social work often involves governmental assistance or interventions, an undergraduate background in a macro-level discipline like political science will prepare students well for this career path.

Working Across the Scales

While certain social workers specialize in one aspect of the micro-to-macro scale, most social workers interact with all three levels. As such, social workers must understand the entire spectrum and how the scales interact.

Think of a school counselor, for example, who is tasked with helping a child who is facing difficulties at school and acting out. While the initial interaction between counselor and student represents social work on the micro-level, the counselor may discover that the child is reacting to negative situations at home. At this point, the social worker may move into the mezzo level to address the family conflicts at the root of the student’s behavior. This can easily scale up to the macro level: if familial instability is caused by adverse economic conditions, the social worker could, in turn, begin to advocate for better job training within the community.

Without an understanding of every stage from micro to macro, social workers will struggle to enact individual, group or society-wide change. Success in social work depends on the ability to seamlessly navigate and combine all levels of social work to deliver successful outcomes for clients and communities.