Micro & Macro Level Processes Research Paper Starter

Micro & Macro Level Processes (Research Starters)

In general, the micro/macro level distinction refers to the scope of the phenomena under study. Macro-level processes approach the investigation of social life as it exists in social systems, institutional structures within society, and the relationships among the various structures within society. Such concerns represent those of the classical period of sociology and its founding fathers such as Durkheim, Marx, and Weber. Micro-level processes approach the investigation of social life as it exists in interpersonal and interactional processes. Thus, it is the individual in social context that is of central importance. This article begins with a brief overview of the recent history of the micro/macro distinction followed by an description of several theoretical perspectives from each division, including those with a macro-level orientation such as Marx's theory of stratification, Parsons's structural functionalism, and Dahrendorf's conflict theory, and those with a micro-level orientation such as Homans's exchange theory, Mead and Blumer's symbolic interactionism, and phenomenological sociology/ethnomethodology.

Keywords Conflict Theory; Ethnomethodology; Exchange Theory; Marxism; Macro-level; Micro-level; Phenomenological Sociology; Structural Functionalism; Symbolic Interactionism



There are two broad theoretical divisions within sociology: micro and macro. These two contrasting theoretical perspectives-often referred to as micro-sociology and macro-sociology-use different concepts drawing from micro-level or macro-level processes to explain social life.

In general, the micro/macro distinction refers to the scope of the phenomena under study. According to Wippler and Lindenberg (1987), there are no clear cut-off points in this distinction. However, an example constituting a micro-level process would be if the scope were focused on interaction among individuals; if the scope were focused on the value system of a society, this would constitute a macro-level process.

Micro-sociology analyzes the underlying social processes responsible for relations between persons. Micro-level processes thus focus on social interaction and communication; important concepts are symbols, obligations, exchange, and reciprocity. Macro-sociology, on the other hand, analyzes the structure of different positions in a population and their constraints on social relations. Macro-level processes thus focus on the influence of the social environment on people's relations, and important concepts are differentiation, institutions, and inequality (Blau, 1987).

Brief History of the Micro/Macro Distinction in Sociological Theory

Until the 1960s, theories oriented to macro-level processes (or macro-theories) dominated the American sociology landscape, specifically, structural functionalism and the equally macro-oriented conflict theory (Ritzer, 1985). Talcott Parsons is credited with playing a central role in helping structural functionalism obtain its dominant position in American sociological theory.

With respect to theories oriented to micro-level processes (or micro-theories) prior to the 1960s, symbolic interactionism is worth mentioning during the time that macro-theories strongly dominated sociological theory. According to Ritzer (1985), the late 1960s and 1970s were a time during which micro-theories gained popularity in American sociological theory, most notably with the developments of exchange theory and the work of George Homans and Peter Blau.

Homans was working on a theoretical alternative to Parson's structural functionalism that addressed its limitations and macro-orientation. His work applied principles from psychology (specifically behaviorism) to issues of sociological importance. According to Blau (1964), Homans was attempting to develop a behavioristic and scientific micro-theoretical alternative to macro-theoretical orientations. During this time, Blau was also developing his own theory, a type of exchange theory that extended its original micro-oriented principles to macro-level processes (Ritzer, 1985), and thus was an integrative effort to also appeal to supporters of macro-theories.

There were also notable developments in phenomenology and ethnomethodology during the rise in popularity of micro-theories, including the work of individual theorists like Albert Schutz. However, these developments came up against hostility from conventional macro-oriented theorists. According to Ritzer (1985), this hostility centered on the emphasis of phenomenology and ethnomethodology with "trivial micro-sociological issues and for losing sight of the importance of social structures and social institutions. Their apparent focus on creative consciousness led to the view that theorists with such an orientation were not, indeed could not be, scientific" (p. 90).


Macro-level Processes

Macro-level processes in sociological theory approach the investigation of social life as it exists in social systems, institutional structures within society, and the relationships among the various structures within society. From this macro-theoretical perspective, it is the structures within society that set the stage or serves as the context for individual behavior.

The theoretical concerns of macro-level processes represent those of the classical period of sociology. The founding fathers of sociology-Marx, Durkheim and Weber-attended to such macro-oriented analyses. The following section will briefly review three major theoretical perspectives that focus on macro-level processes: Marx's theory of stratification, Parsons's structural functionalism, and Dahrendorf's conflict theory.


German philosopher Karl Marx's writings of the nineteenth century, including The Communist Manifesto and Das Kapital, are perhaps the most influential attempts to understand the origins and development of stratification in capitalist societies. It is these writings and others published by Marx and his friend and collaborator Friedrich Engels that form the foundation of thought and belief known as Marxism.

Marx's theory of stratification is based on the assumption that the foundations of human society are based on the way in which society has developed its relationship to the means of production. According to Marx, the means of production refers to the productive resources in society; for example, things that are necessary to supply the society's economic needs such as types of technology used to produce basic necessities. The central feature of stratification, according to Marx, is the subordination among classes that evolves ultimately from the means of production (Smelser, 1988). In other words, an individual's relationship to society's economic system depends on how they relate to the sources of power in that system. Thus, for Marx, those people who hold the same position with regard to the productive process share a class. The unequal distribution of society's productive resources creates a system of stratification. People situated at these various rankings in the vertical order receive unequal shares of the society's wealth and possess differential degrees of power over others. Essentially, then, societies are composed of two classes: the owners of the means of production, or bourgeoisie, and the workers, or proletariat. According to Marx, the division between these two classes would inevitably grow until a dynamic class struggle forced revolutionary societal change.

Marx views capitalism as a political tool for this ranking of human groups for the purpose of distributing wealth and power within the economic system rather than as a system for producing goods and services to fill human needs. It is the social institutions in societies such as the economy, government, and education that operate to assure the position of various human groups (Freedman, 2005).

Structural Functionalism

Talcott Parsons is regarded as the theorist who brought the structural functionalism approach to its most developed form. His publication of The Structure of Social Action in 1937 was pivotal in American sociological theory, in that it solidified the strength of structural functional theory in the decades to come. It was this piece of Parsons's work and others that concentrated on the structures of society and their relationship to each other with an emphasis on how order is maintained among the various elements of society.

Parsons' theoretical writings outlined a comprehensive model of a systemic analysis of society that focused on identifying functions for the existence of a society and the systems that are necessary to perform the...

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