Question: What is the difference between micro, mezzo, and macro social work?

Answer: Micro, mezzo, and macro social work all work to promote social justice and human well-being, with particular attention to vulnerable communities. However, while their core mission is essentially the same, micro, mezzo, and macro social work achieve this mission through different means and methodologies.

Micro-Level Social Work is what is often considered the most “traditional” type of social work. Rooted in the longstanding history of the profession, micro social work is defined as working closely with individuals, families, and small groups to counsel and provide one-on-one support as clients navigate complex challenges and systems. Clinical social work is generally considered a type of micro social work, as it concerns individualized work with clients in a therapeutic capacity; however, micro social work also includes non-clinical social work services, such as helping clients access important resources. Examples of micro social work include but are not limited to the following:

  • A clinical social worker who supports clients through a combination of therapeutic modalities in an outpatient mental health care setting. This social worker might see individuals and/or work with clients in small group therapy settings.
  • A military social worker who helps soldiers and veterans cope with potentially traumatic experiences during their job, and who may also provide counseling and support to families of soldiers and veterans. Military social workers may also assist their clients in applying for or accessing benefits exclusively available to them, such as government-funded educational or health care benefits.
  • A medical social worker who works with patients and their families in a hospital setting to help them apply for health insurance benefits and cope with the life changes and trauma that can occur from chronic or acute injuries and illness.
  • A school social worker who counsels students experiencing anxiety, depression, bullying and other social challenges, or family issues that are impacting their mental and physical health. School social workers may also work closely with students’ families.

Mezzo-Level Social Work is similar to micro social work in that it still seeks to directly support people experiencing a variety of challenges, from mental/emotional and physical health issues to socioeconomic, familial, or cultural hardships. In fact, both social workers who work at the micro level and those who work at the mezzo level can work closely with individuals or groups of clients at a time. However, unlike micro social work, mezzo social work is primarily focused on helping vulnerable populations at the large group, organizational, and small community levels. A key part of mezzo social work is taking a step back and identifying factors negatively impacting the well-being of the constituents within either 1) an organization, such as a business, non-profit, or medical center, or 2) within a small community, such as the students and family within a particular school district or an inner-city neighborhood in need of better community health or literacy programs. Examples of mezzo social work include but are not limited to the following:

  • A social worker who develops and implements an on-site behavioral health program for a corporation whose employees are experiencing difficulties or lowered morale due to organizational changes or other factors.
  • A health care social worker at a community health center who works with the center’s staff and/or local government agencies to develop a nutrition program that is implemented across one or more neighborhoods.
  • A substance abuse social worker who designs and implements a harm reduction-focused needle exchange program and/or a drug prevention and counseling program for a local community.
  • A social worker who works at a women’s advocacy center and who designs a program aimed at encouraging and supporting girls and young women in participating in social justice politics at the grassroots level.
  • A geriatric social worker who seeks to address age discrimination in a hospital setting by creating a training program for health care providers that helps them to engage more effectively with elderly patients and their families.

Macro-Level Social Work involves taking a broad view of the systemic causes of social injustice at the large-scale community, state, national, and international levels, and developing interventions that address these systemic causes. In this way, it is distinct from both micro and mezzo social work. While micro (and at times mezzo) social work focuses on engaging with individuals and groups in a therapeutic capacity, macro social work is founded upon helping large groups of people indirectly (but in no less impactful ways) through research, political advocacy, and far-reaching programs that address prevalent social problems. Examples of macro social work include but are not limited to:

  • A social work scholar who studies the factors contributing to substance abuse amongst youth, and who publishes his or her findings in a scholarly journal. Social work practitioners can then use this scholar’s insights to inform their development of effective interventions, which is known as evidence-based practice.
  • A political social worker who works with government agencies and non-profit organizations to design and implement targeted campaigns against large-scale social issues such as socioeconomic inequalities, gender or racial discrimination, or injustices in the criminal justice system.
  • A social worker who co-founded and/or manages a non-profit organization aimed at smoking prevention and cessation across all demographics. This social worker may apply for federal or state government grants to conduct research on smoking behaviors or develop a state-wide anti-smoking campaign.
  • An international justice social worker who works for a non-profit that supports women’s rights to reproductive health care, education, and political empowerment. This social worker may design and oversee the implementation of programs that fund female entrepreneurs in economically vulnerable countries, or which build education centers or domestic violence shelters for girls and women.

Integrating Micro, Mezzo and Macro Social Work

While micro, mezzo, and macro social work can be considered distinct sub-disciplines of social work, it is important to keep in mind that social workers can integrate two or more of these types of social work in their career. For example, a school social worker whose responsibilities are primarily at the micro level may also engage in educational programming at the school or school district level (ex. drug prevention programs, anti-bullying campaigns, or reproductive health seminars), which qualifies as mezzo-level social work. Similarly, a social work researcher who may teach and conduct research at a university may also maintain a small private practice wherein he or she provides individual therapy to a few clients; in this case, this social worker’s career combines macro and micro social work.

In addition, it is not unusual for social workers to shift from primarily one type of social work to another over the course of their career. For instance, a social worker who devotes several years to working individually with clients in the criminal justice system may then move to a non-profit organization that seeks to address disparities in the criminal justice system or develops program that assist recently released inmates in re-integrating into society. As the aforementioned examples illustrate, social work is a very complex, dynamic, and interdisciplinary profession that supports human society and well-being at every level, from the individual to the international, and in a diversity of contexts.