Macro, Mezzo, & Micro Social Work

If you have a heart for helping others, social work could be the perfect career for you. Social workers play a crucial role in assisting families in crisis, individuals with mental illness, and communities plagued by poor health, unemployment, homelessness, substance abuse, child neglect, and other complex social issues.

With an increase in demand for health care and social services, social worker jobs are expected to grow 11 percent between 2018 and 2028, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), as of September 2019. The number of jobs available will vary by specialization, and for most licensed careers in this field, you’ll need a master’s degree in social work.

Before actively pursuing a career in social work, consider which area of social work you’d like to pursue. Social work is typically divided into three scopes of practice:

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Sponsored Online Social Work Programs
School Program Description
University of Denver
  • Research-driven faculty dedicated to making an impact on social problems
  • Prepares you to apply social work skills across practice settings
Fordham University
  • Four areas of focus: Individuals and Families, Organizations and Community, Evaluation, and Policy Practice and Advocacy
Simmons University
  • Four Clinical Specializations: Child and Family, Trauma and Interpersonal Violence, Mental Health and Addictions, and Health and Aging
  • Three program tracks: Traditional, Accelerated, and Extended
Case Western Reserve University
  • From Case Western Reserve University’s top-10 ranked School of social work
  • Traditional and Advanced Standing tracks available
University of Southern California (USC)
  • Offered by USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck Shool of Social Work, a top-ranked graduate School by U.S. News and World Report
  • Features virtual and in-person field education in or near student's own communities
Baylor University
  • Ethically integrates faith and social work practice
  • Specialize in clinical practice or community practice

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Understanding Macro, Mezzo, and Micro Social Work

These three areas of focus in social work practice may overlap but it is important to understand the distinctions between these social work approaches.

Macro Social Work

What is Macro Social Work?

Macro social work encompasses practices like social work research, program development for small and large communities, community-based education initiatives, policy analysis and advocacy, non-profit administration and leadership, and organizational development.

Social workers in this category can frequently be found at government agencies, non-profit organizations, think tanks, and advocacy groups. They typically collaborate with a larger team of researchers, advocates, activists, analysts, educators, and/or government employees. They might lobby to change a health care law or organize a state-wide activist group to advocate for large-scale social policy change.

Importance of Macro Social Work

Because of its focus on policy change and fighting against unjust government or economic practices, macro social work ultimately builds stronger communities and provides better quality of life for the people living in them.

Michael Reisch, the Daniel Thursz Distinguished Emeritus Professor of Social Justice at the University of Maryland, noted that macro social work focuses on the big picture and the prevention of societal problems.

Students in a macro MSW program receive general instruction in social work theory, research methodologies, and ethics, as well as in the design and implementation of social welfare and assistance initiatives.

Mezzo Social Work

What is Mezzo Social Work?

Mezzo social work is provided on an intermediate scale, involving neighborhoods, institutions, or other smaller groups. Mezzo-level social workers, for example, serve on the staff of schools, hospitals, community centers, and prisons.

Clinical social workers at the mezzo level could coordinate care for their patients and diagnose mental health problems in a hospital setting.

Mezzo practice also can include facilitating substance abuse treatment groups or working with offenders or victims within the criminal justice system.

Importance of Mezzo Social Work

Mezzo-level social workers advocate for and serve clients within all the public systems that make up the fabric of our communities, regions, and nation.

School social workers, for instance, provide support services for students struggling personally, academically or socially. They could provide guidance and intervention on issues such as bullying and truancy.

Often, mezzo-level social workers are also engaged in micro and/or macro social work. This ensures the needs and challenges of individual clients are understood and addressed in tandem with larger social issues.

Micro Social Work

What is Micro Social Work?

When you think of social workers helping a child in foster care or locating housing for a homeless individual, this is micro-level social work.

Family therapy and individual counseling are included under the micro umbrella, as is military social work, where the social worker helps military service members cope with the challenges accompanying military life and access their benefits.

Importance of Micro Social Work

Social workers on the micro level are protecting society’s most vulnerable individuals, including young children, people with mental disabilities, victims of domestic violence, and elderly people in many different aspects of their lives.

Along with providing individual counseling, micro-level social workers connect their clients with important resources, such as temporary housing, healthcare, and mental health services, that will improve their lives.

Sponsored Online Social Work Programs
Sponsored Online Social Work Programs
School Program Description
University of Denver
  • Research-driven faculty dedicated to making an impact on social problems
  • Prepares you to apply social work skills across practice settings
Fordham University
  • Four areas of focus: Individuals and Families, Organizations and Community, Evaluation, and Policy Practice and Advocacy
Simmons University
  • Four Clinical Specializations: Child and Family, Trauma and Interpersonal Violence, Mental Health and Addictions, and Health and Aging
  • Three program tracks: Traditional, Accelerated, and Extended
Case Western Reserve University
  • From Case Western Reserve University’s top-10 ranked School of social work
  • Traditional and Advanced Standing tracks available
University of Southern California (USC)
  • Offered by USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck Shool of Social Work, a top-ranked graduate School by U.S. News and World Report
  • Features virtual and in-person field education in or near student's own communities
Baylor University
  • Ethically integrates faith and social work practice
  • Specialize in clinical practice or community practice

Sponsored Online Social Work Programs

What is the Difference Between Macro, Mezzo and Micro Social Work?

Macro vs Micro Social Work

Unlike micro social work, macro social work does not focus on assessing and addressing an individual’s problems through one-on-one or small-group assessments and treatment. Instead, macro social support clients in a more holistic fashion by serving as an advocate for them. Their work includes influencing public policy, conducting research, working with government agencies, organizing activists, drafting petitions, or supporting legislation. However, this doesn’t mean that macro-level social work does not have direct outcomes, Reisch, of the University of Maryland, pointed out.

“One of the fallacies is that macro social work is indirect, while micro practice is sometimes referred to as direct practice,” Reisch said. “It’s incorrect because in both areas, you are working with people, just in different contexts for different ends.”

The need for macro social workers exceeds that of micro social workers. Reisch said that in the last 50 years, more social workers have gravitated toward mezzo and micro work, partly due to the distance from the War on Poverty of the 1960s. Also, women, who once had barriers to law and business professions, became social workers as a way to fulfill a desire to influence policy. They now have more career choices. However, he said, the trend may be shifting. In the last couple of years, he’s noticed an uptick in students pursuing macro areas of study.

“Increasingly, with what’s happening with politics, more and more critical decisions are going to be made at the local level,” he said. “There is a role there for social workers to work at the community level and to advocate for more socially just policies.”

Macro vs Mezzo Social Work

Mezzo social work programs differ from macro and micro programs in that they do not specifically focus on individual or widespread community needs.

Since some of the work on the mezzo level will be on an individual level and some will be with larger groups, the skill-set required for professionals in this field may be more diverse than those in micro or macro positions. For instance, the skills to speak to large groups differs from the skills necessary to communicate effectively with people who have experienced trauma.

Micro vs Mezzo Social Work

While social workers at both the mezzo and micro-levels work with individuals, mezzo social workers typically find their clients within the fabric of a larger organization, such as a school or community center.

Meanwhile, micro social workers typically conduct individual and family counseling, help individuals navigate resources such as Medicare or Medicaid, and intervene in situations in which clients encounter a crisis or distress (i.e. domestic abuse, substance abuse, and post-traumatic stress disorder).

Many social workers engage in micro and mezzo practice simultaneously. Even the most ambitious mezzo-level interventions stem from conversations between a single social worker and a single client.

While certain social workers specialize in one aspect of the micro-to-macro scale, most social workers interact with all three levels. Because of this phenomenon, social workers must understand the entire spectrum and how the different scales interact.

Disclosure: Michael Reisch, the Daniel Thursz Distinguished Emeritus Professor of Social Justice at the University of Maryland was interviewed via phone.