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

Short Answer: Micro, mezzo, and macro social work have similar missions, in that they seek to identify and address mental, emotional, familial, social, and financial problems that people face. The difference between these fields lies in the methods they use to address these problems, the scope of the impact of their work, and how close social workers in these fields interact with the populations they wish to assist.

If you’re not sure what social work is, check out our guide on What is Social Work?

Micro social work effects change on an individual basis and involves working closely with clients to support them through their challenges. Mezzo social work seeks to improve small communities through initiatives such as school-based education programs and local health services. Mezzo social workers also tend to interact directly with the populations they serve. Macro social work aims to understand how problems originate, develop, and persist in large systems–for example, at the state and national levels. Macro social workers may or may not interact with the populations they seek to help, and instead work to effect positive change through research of social issues and the development of state and national programs.

The fields of micro, mezzo, and macro social work are explained in further detail below.

Micro Social Work

Micro social work involves meeting with individuals, families, and small groups to help them identify and manage mental, emotional, social, behavioral, and/or financial challenges that are negatively impacting their happiness and quality of life. The goal of micro social work is to help vulnerable populations through one-on-one guidance and emotional support. Tasks that micro social workers typically complete include individual and family counseling, resource connection and navigation services (ex. how to apply for Medicare or Medicaid and other federal or state aid programs, what resources are available in one’s community, etc.), helping clients develop skills to address emotional and social difficulties, and intervening in situations in which clients encounter a crisis or severe distress (ex. school violence, domestic abuse, severe substance abuse, post-traumatic stress disorder, etc.).

While the terms micro social work and clinical social work are often used interchangeably, and overlap in many ways, clinical social work is in fact a subset of micro social work. Clinical social work is defined as the assessment, diagnosis, and treatment of individuals’ mental illness and other psychological and emotional problems. Licensed clinical social workers work closely with their clients using a number of psychotherapeutic methods to help them manage and overcome their mental, emotional, and behavioral challenges. Check out our Introductory Guide to Clinical Social Work for more information about clinical social workers.

Mezzo Social Work

Mezzo social work involves the development and implementation of social service initiatives at the local and small community levels (ex. schools, neighborhoods, and city districts). Like micro social workers, mezzo social work practitioners tend to interact directly with the people they wish to assist. However, instead of engaging in individual counseling and support, mezzo social workers administer help to groups of people at a time. Examples of projects that mezzo social workers could be involved in include the establishment of a free local clinic to help underserved members of the community, county health programs to help disadvantaged families learn about and obtain proper nutrition, and local workshops to guide unemployed individuals through the processes of applying for jobs and unemployment benefits.

While mezzo social work roles do exist, mezzo social work is often a secondary practice that micro social workers engage in to help their client populations on a slightly larger scale. For example, school social workers who work closely with students may practice mezzo social work when they develop and host presentations on student issues such as bullying or substance abuse prevention. Similarly, clinical social workers in private practice who work primarily on an individual basis with their clients might conduct emotional health workshops to help multiple clients or sections of their local community.

Macro Social Work

Macro social work is distinct from micro and mezzo social work in that it seeks to help vulnerable populations indirectly and on a much larger scale. Macro social workers typically have one or more of the following responsibilities:

  • Investigation of the origins, persistence, and effects of citywide, state, and/or national social problems. Social workers who investigate these problems often work at universities and other social research institutions.
  • Creation and implementation of human service programs to address large scale social problems. Social workers who engage primarily in this area of macro social work may work in government departments, non-profits, and other organizations that have the resources and infrastructure to create, deliver, and evaluate the effectiveness of human service programs.
  • Advocacy to encourage state and federal governments to change policies to better serve vulnerable populations, and/or to create programs that address social ills. Macro social workers who engage in policy advocacy may work at human rights groups, pro-bono law firms, think-tanks, and non-profit organizations.

While macro social workers typically do not provide individual therapy or other assistance to clients, they may interact directly with the populations they wish to serve when conducting interviews during their research of certain social problems. Furthermore, some macro social workers begin their careers at the micro level in order to fully understand the trials their target populations experience before they progress to more macro-level projects.

Moving Between Micro, Mezzo, and Macro Social Work

Social workers and social work students who begin their career in one of the three areas of social work described above need not feel relegated to that area of social work for the entirety of their career. In fact, with adequate initiative and investment of time and effort, social workers can and do move between micro, mezzo, and macro social work, and can practice more than one type of social work simultaneously.

For instance, a micro social worker who wishes to effect broader social change may contact local organizations in order to create and implement programs at the mezzo level; that same social worker could also contact research institutions and engage in research on a particular social problem that he/she has encountered in his/her practice. On the other hand, macro social workers who wish to interact directly with people within the populations they serve can do so through research-oriented interviews, or by obtaining the necessary training to counsel individual clients.

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Last updated: April 2020