2.1 Micro, meso, and macro approaches

Learning Objectives

  • Describe a micro-level approach to research, and provide an example of a micro-level study
  • Describe a meso-level approach to research, and provide an example of a meso-level study
  • Describe a macro-level approach to research, and provide an example of a macro-level study


In Chapter 1, we reviewed the micro, meso, and macro framework that social workers use to understand the world. As you’ll recall, micro-level research studies individuals and one-on-one interactions, meso-level research studies groups, and macro-level research studies institutions and policies. Let’s take a closer look at some specific examples of social work research to better understand each of the three levels of inquiry described previously. Some topics are best suited to be examined at one specific level, while other topics can be studied at each of the three different levels. The particular level of inquiry might shape a social worker’s questions about the topic, or a social scientist might view the topic from different angles depending on the level of inquiry being employed.

First, let’s consider some suitable examples of different topics for a particular level of inquiry. Work by Philip Baiden and Eusebius Small at the University of Texas at Arlington’s School of Social Workoffers an excellent example of research at the micro-level. In one study, Baiden, Mengo, Boateng, and Small (2018) use prior micro-level theories to study the association between age at first alcohol use and suicidal ideation among high school students.  In this study, the researchers found that age at first alcohol use has been linked with a number of mental health problems among adolescents.  Additionally, adolescents who started having alcohol before age 13 were more likely to experience suicidal ideation.  In another study, Baiden, Stewart, and Fallon (2017) examined the role of adverse childhood experiences as determinants of non-suicidal self-injury among children that were referred to mental health treatment facilities. They found that 29% of children in these programs did engage in non-suicidal self-harm.  These findings were consistent with previous studies and theories.  Both of these studies fall within the category of micro-level analysis.

At the meso-level, social scientists tend to study the experiences of groups and the interactions between groups. In a study conducted by UTA’s Anne Nordberg and Regina Praetorius, young people from minority groups and their interactions with police and law enforcement were explored (Nordberg, Crawford, Praetorius, & Hatcher, 2016). The researchers found 4 themes in the data related the interactions between young people and law enforcement:  dangerous, controlling, prejudiced, and ineffective interactions.  This research offers social workers a better insight into what minority youth often experience when they encounter law enforcement. In a different study of group-level interactions, John R. Gallagher and Anne Nordberg (2016) conducted research comparing and contrasting the different experiences of White and African American participants in the drug court system. The objective was to compare the lived experiences each group had when they interacted with the system of drug court judicial representatives.  They found that the graduation rate for White participants was much higher than that of African Americans.  However, the majority of both White and African American participants reported reasonably high levels of understanding and compassion by the drug court officials (Gallagher & Nordberg, 2016). This study focused on group-level interactions with systems in a community, a meso-level focus.

Social workers who conduct macro-level research study interactions at the broadest level, such as interactions between and across nations, states, or cultural systems. One example of macro-level research can be seen in an article by UTA’s Richard Hoefer and colleagues (Hoefer, Black, & Ricard, 2015). These researchers examined the impact of state policy on teen dating violence prevalence.  By comparing laws across a number of states, Hoefer, Black, and Ricard learned that states with higher median income in 2009 had a significantly lower incidence of teen dating violence than states with lower median income.  Findings from the study suggest that addressing poverty and economic issues within a state may impact the prevalence of teen dating violence.  In another macro-level study, Hoefer and Shannon Silva (2010) studied the private nonprofit sector in the United States and its substantial expansion in the last several years. The study addressed the growing national shortage of suitable nonprofit managers.  It aimed to develop and introduce a new process for assessing administration skills and improving leadership skills in nonprofit workers.

While it is true that some topics lend themselves to a particular level of inquiry, there are many topics that could be studied from any of the three levels. The choice depends on the specific interest of the researcher, the approach she would like to take and the sorts of questions she wants to be able to answer about the topic.

Let’s look at an example. Gang activity has been a topic of interest to social workers for many years and has been studied from each of the levels of inquiry described here. At the micro-level, social workers might study the inner workings of a specific gang, communication styles, and what everyday life is like for gang members. Though not written by a social worker, one example of a micro-level analysis of gang activity can be found in Sanyika Shakur’s 1993 autobiography, Monster.  In his book, Shakur describes his former day-to-day life as a member of the Crips in South-Central Los Angeles. Shakur’s recounting of his experiences highlights micro-level interactions between himself, fellow Crips members, and other gangs.

At the meso-level, social workers are likely to examine interactions between gangs or perhaps how different branches of the same gang vary from one area to the next. At the macro-level, we could compare the impact of gang activity across communities or examine the economic impact of gangs on nations. Excellent examples of gang research at all three levels of analysis can be found in the Journal of Gang Research published by the National Gang Crime Research Center (NGCRC). Sudhir Venkatesh’s (2008) study, Gang Leader for a Day, is an example of research on gangs that utilizes all three levels of analysis. Venkatesh conducted participant observation with a gang in Chicago. He learned about the everyday lives of gang members (micro) and how the gang he studied interacted with and fit within the landscape of other gang “franchises” (meso). In addition, Venkatesh described the impact of the gang on the broader community and economy (macro).


Key Takeaways

  • Social work research can occur at any of the following three analytical levels: micro, meso, or macro.
  • Some topics lend themselves to one particular analytical level, while others could be studied from any, or all, of the three levels of analysis.



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Foundations of Social Work Research Copyright © 2020 by Rebecca L. Mauldin is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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