Comparison between Micro and Macro Approaches in Social Work

Social problems are generally complex in nature and are usually not confined to one geographic area or institution (Austin, Coombs & Barr, 2005). As a result, sociologists must analyze a problem carefully in order to have a view of all its parts. Ideally, sociologists use either micro or macro approaches/ paradigms while trying to study the world and its problems (McLaughlin, 2009). In this case, social work involves identification and location of problems within the psychological, biological or social functioning of an individual, family, group, culture or community (Austin et al, 2005).

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The definition of social problems is influenced by various factors including history (issues considered major in the past by the society), and cultural values (standards by which a society determines what is good, right, bad or wrong) (Putney, Alley & Bengtson, 2005). Additionally, cultural universals (any aspect of one’s social life that is common in all societies) and awareness (ability of a group or a person to bring a problem into public recognition) influence the definition of social problems (Putney, Alley & Bengtson, 2005). During social work, the problem-solving approach involves identification and analysis of a problem, setting goals, determining possible solutions, acting on goals and evaluating the outcome. In this respect, this paper seeks to make a comparison between micro and macro approaches as used in social work.

While being broadly defined, social work incorporates both micro (domestic unit, individual or group) and macro interventions (community, organization or policy). Usually, while the social workers involved in micro approaches deal with individuals, a family unit or a small group, the social workers specializing with macro approaches are often engaged in policy practice, since the policy change is considered very important to what is seen in most communities and organizations (McLaughlin, 2009). Professional macro practitioners are often given such titles as policy analysts, planners, community organizers, program coordinators, administrators and managers.

The micro service workers on the other hand take up the responsibility of initiating change in communities and organizations. Usually, social workers at this level identify the problem and recognize the patterns that indicate what needs to be changed. When one or two individuals present a particular issue, social workers find it more prudent to deal with such people as individuals (McLaughlin, 2009). Nevertheless, if more people present the same situation, it is assumed that the systems with which the clients are interacting would be having a problem. At this point, the social worker assumes the responsibility of identifying the systems that require some change and what kind of change should be implemented. The type and the nature of change required may result to organizational or community wide interventions (macro approach). The problem in this case will not only be tackled at the individual level (micro), but also at the community level (macro).

For example, a member of staff may realize that a significant number of the elderly in a particular community are malnourished and socially isolated because of self- neglect. In an attempt to provide the expected services and outreach, a social worker would be expected to make a follow up on each person individually (micro approach). Unfortunately, although this approach leaves a room for offering tailor made solutions, the practice is time consuming and may produce conflicting results. Consequently, a social worker may find an alternative way of dealing with the problem from a macro point of view. This would force the case workers to find time to organize community and agency resources as a way of identifying older people who may require special services. Through the combined approaches, the social workers are able to help individuals as well as the whole community to deal with the same problem.

The other difference between the micro and macro approaches during social work is on the type of assessments undertaken by different practitioners (Pippard & Bjorklund, 2003). For the micro practitioners for instance, the procedure involves the bio-psycho-social assessment of an individual. While individual and small group interventions in micro approaches are defined as either case/clinical management or clinical/mutual aid group interventions, arenas in which macro approaches work include communities, organizations and policy.

Micro Approach

In social work, a micro approach is based on the central role and the dynamic quality of human intra-psychic and interpersonal life as it affects human functioning and growth (McLaughlin, 2009). Human suffering in this case is viewed as a cyclic interactive process between the personality of an individual and the ongoing daily interactions and experience with an individual’s environmental, interpersonal and cultural context. The knowledge base of this approach includes concepts related to empowerment, theories of human personality functioning and development, self determination and systems perspectives, psychotherapeutic theories of helping and change, basic psychological practices and understanding of the cultural differences and the importance of culturally sensitive practice.

One of the advantages of a micro approach is the ability of the practitioner to establish strength-based helping and empathetic relationships with the clients. Other advantages include being able to help the clients to acquire new understanding while formulating potential problems, the ability to engage the clients in the process of clarifying their goals and needs, supporting the clients to remain positive and motivated with the process of change (McLaughlin, 2009). Micro practice also includes the skillful use of change intervention strategies from existing modalities while matching the needs of the client with expected interventions.

On the other hand, the micro practitioner must include navigating barriers and set backs to change, while evaluating and monitoring the process which may at times be a daunting task. The process also takes a lot of time (Pippard & Bjorklund, 2003). For instance, the social workers would be required to visit each old individual to analyze each case. Considering that each individual is unique, the social workers are burdened with the burden of establishing about the coping mechanisms to use on different individuals.

Coping with stressing events is highly dynamic, complex and is directed towards moderating the impact of such events on an individual’s social, physical and emotional functioning (McLaughlin, 2009). Generally, effective coping can be achieved through three actions. First, the social worker may attempt to anticipate potential stressors of the old individuals before handling them while preparing the most effective plans of attack for the various outcomes. The affected person may then be advised on the importance of reducing the physical arousal caused by stressors. In order to reduce the stressors, the individual in this case must reduce the physical arousal caused by stressors. Lastly, the social workers must help their clients to increase positive feelings under stressful conditions in order to help reduce the level of stress.

Macro Approach

Macro approach or practice on the other hand is defined as a professional guided intervention that is designed to bring about change in community, organizational and policy areas (Putney et al, 2005). While simultaneously contributing to the development of a new theory, macro practice as a social work practice draws a lot from the theoretical foundations. Today, macro approach is no longer the domain of one profession. It instead involves the skills of a number of professionals and disciplines in interaction. While extending beyond individual interventions, macro approaches are often based on problems, issues, needs and concerns that are identified in the course of working with the clients. Researchers agree that there are three areas of macro practice interventions; organizations, policies and communities. In macro approach, small groups are considered as the group of people who work together on tasks that move toward agreed changes.

In macro approach, social work, advocacy is a well established strategy for achieving social justice (McLaughlin, 2009). Most social work bodies entrench professional social work practice, social justice and advocacy through their codes of ethics. While applying macro approaches, social workers advocate for fair and equitable access to benefits and all public services. They further advocate for protection and equal treatment under the law and challenge the injustices that affect the disadvantaged and the vulnerable. Although advocacy is often viewed as a strategy that is more closely associated with policy or macro practice, social workers in direct practice are largely involved in many aspects of individual client lives including cultural, financial, legal, medical, and spiritual issues.

When fighting for justice in macro approach, the caseworkers aim at redressing the power imbalances while promoting the rights of the individuals in the organizations or communities which are vulnerable or marginalized (McLaughlin, 2009). This kind of advocacy ensures that the resources or services entitled to an organization or communities are restored. When advocating for resources, social workers may realize that their clients require more than what they are entitled to.

In macro approaches, differences in culture offer the highest challenge when offering the required services (Pippard & Bjorklund, 2003). The difference may be in terms of ethnicity, race, gender, socio economic status or the country of origin. In order to address issues arising from cultural differences, the social workers require adequate knowledge about cultural differences and their likely effect on the provided therapies. They must in this case learn how to obtain the relevant information from their clients without any bias.

Concerning macro approach, good and effective social work practices call for understanding (McLaughlin, 2009). When engaging in macro practice to assist a client who is an alcohol addict for instance, the practitioner must first understand the problem (drinking alcohol), the composition of the population, the background of the addict, and the organization or the community within which the problem has been observed. Although understanding communities and organizations makes the work of macro social workers even more complex, the required understanding is important if macro-level intervention is to be successful.

Social workers who apply macro approaches must also understand what is involved and required to provide direct services to clients at the domestic, individual or group level. Without this understanding, macro practice may have an inadequate ground in understanding client needs and problems.

Community and social problems must also be dealt with within a broader context that affects the population, the problem, the organization or the community. Dealing with social and community needs and problems effectively also demands some awareness of the political arena within which change procedures ought to be undertaken.

Macro practice can be improved through the ability to communicate well and interact with the clients. Considering that the interactions in the social settings are generally complex, the macro practitioner must also enhance shared knowledge as a way of establishing required trust.


            While micro practice in social work deals with individuals or a small group of individuals in a family unit, the macro approach extends to a wider arena to accommodate an organization or a community. Although the two approaches are further distinguished through the assessment approaches applied in each, they both try to identify the problem and find solution to the detected problems.



Austin, M., Coombs, M & Barr, B (2005). Community-Centered Clinical Practice: Is the

Integration of Micro and Macro Social Work Practice Possible? Journal of Community Practice, 13(4), 9-30.

McLaughlin, A. (2009). Clinical Social Workers: Advocates for Social Justice. Advances in

Social Work, 10(1), 51-68.

Pippard, J & Bjorklund, R. (2003). Identifying Essential Techniques for Social Work

Community Practice. Journal of Community Practice, 11(4), 101-116.

Putney, N., Alley, D. & Bengtson, V. (2005). Social Gerontology as Public Sociology in

Action. The American Sociologist, 88-1-4.


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