Macro- and Microsociology

Understanding These Complementary Approaches

A man assembles a puzzle of faces, signaling the analytic work done by macro and micro sociologists.
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Though they are often framed as opposing approaches, macro- and microsociology are actually complementary approaches to studying society, and necessarily so. Macrosociology refers to sociological approaches and methods that examine large-scale patterns and trends within the overall social structure, system, and population. Often macrosociology is theoretical in nature too. On the other hand, microsociology focuses on smaller groups, patterns and trends, typically at the community level and in the context of the everyday lives and experiences of people.

These are complementary approaches because at its core, sociology is about understanding the way large-scale patterns and trends shape the lives and experiences of groups and individuals, and vice versa.

Extended Definition

Between macro- and microsociology are differences like which research questions can be addressed at each level, what methods one can use to pursue these questions, what it means practically speaking to do the research, and what kinds of conclusions can be reached with either. Let's examine these differences to learn more about each and how they fit together.

Research Questions

Macrosociologists will ask the big questions that often result in both research conclusions and new theories, like these, for example.

  • In what ways has race shaped the character, structure, and development of U.S. society? Sociologist Joe Feagin poses this question at the beginning of his book, Systemic Racism.
  • Why do most Americans feel an undeniable urge to shop, even though we have so much stuff already, and are cash-strapped despite working long hours? Sociologist Juliet Schor examines this question in her classic book of economic and consumer sociology, The Overspent American.

Microsociologist tend to ask more localized, focused questions that examine the lives of smaller groups of people.

For example:

  • What effect does the presence of police in schools and communities have on the personal development and life paths of Black and Latino boys who grow up in inner-city neighborhoods? Sociologist Victor Rios addresses this question in his celebrated book, Punished: Policing the Lives of Black and Latino Boys.
  • How do sexuality and gender intersect in the development of identity among boys in the context of high school? This question is at the center of sociologist C.J. Pascoe's widely popular book, Dude,You're a Fag: Masculinity and Sexuality in High School.

Research Methods

Macrosociologists Feagin and Schor, among many others, use a combination of historical and archival research, and analysis of statistics that span lengthy time periods in order to construct data sets that show how the social system and the relationships within it have evolved over time to produce the society we know today. In addition, Schor employs interviews and focus groups, more commonly used in microsociological research, to make smart connections between historical trends, social theory, and the way people experience their everyday lives.

Microsociologists, Rios and Pascoe included, typically use research methods that involve direct interaction with research participants, like one-on-one interviews, ethnographic observation, focus groups, as well as smaller-scale statistical and historical analyses.

To address their research questions, both Rios and Pascoe embedded in the communities they studied and became parts of the lives of their participants, spending a year or more living among them, seeing their lives and interactions with others firsthand, and speaking with them about their experiences.

Research Conclusions

Conclusions born of macrosociology often demonstrate correlation or causation between different elements or phenomena within society. For example, Feagin's research, which also produced the theory of systemic racism, demonstrates how white people in the U.S., both knowingly and otherwise, constructed and have maintained over centuries a racist social system by keeping control of core social institutions like politics, law, education, and media, and by controlling economic resources and limiting their distribution among people of color.

Feagin concludes that all of these things working together have produced the racist social system that characterizes the U.S. today.

Microsociological research, due to its smaller-scale, is more likely to yield the suggestion of correlation or causation between certain things, rather than prove it outright. What it does yield, and quite effectively, is proof of how social systems effect the lives and experiences of people who live within them. Though her research is limited to one high school in one place for a fixed amount of time, Pascoe's work compellingly demonstrates how certain social forces, including mass media, pornography, parents, school administrators, teachers and peers come together to produce messages to boys that the right way to be masculine is to be strong, dominant, and compulsively heterosexual.


Though they take very different approaches to studying society, social problems, and people, macro- and microsociology both yield deeply valuable research conclusions that aid our ability to understand our social world, the problems that course through it, and the potential solutions to them.