Micro and Macro in Sociology

Updated: Jun 29, 2019

Beginning in the 1980s there was renewed interest in the micro-macro linkage. Despite the early integrationist tendencies of the classical theorists, much of 20th-century theory was either micro-extremist or macro-extremist in its orientation. On the macro side are theories such as structural functionalism, some variants of neo-Marxian theory, and conflict theory. Conversely, symbolic interactionism, ethnomethodology, exchange and rational-choice theory are all examples of micro-extremism. Thus micro- and macro- extremism can be seen as a development in modern theory, and indeed, many of the classical theorists can be understood as having an interest in the micro-macro linkage.

Macro theories are broader in scope and encompass an extended range of levels. Theories of society, culture and institutions constitute the tradition of macro sociology and Emile Durkheim is its major exponent. The distinction between two types of theories is based on the size of the unit of analysis rather than the level of analysis Macro deals with society as a whole. Lastly Macro is the analysis of either large collectivities (The City, The Church) or more abstractly of social systems and social structures.

Micro theory, this level of sociological analysis is concerned with face to face social encounters in everyday life and with interpersonal behavior in a small group. In the Macro – Micro debate Rational choice theory has recognized that one of the principal challenges for social theory is to find an analytical bridge between individual social actions and their structural outcomes.

There are two strands of work on micro-macro integration. The first involves attempting to integrate various micro and macro theories, such as combining structural functionalism and symbolic interactionism. The second involves creating theory that effectively combines the two levels of analysis.

Therefore, we can understand these two different positions with the help of Duality and Dualism. Paradigmatic Duality is where (Giddens duality of structures), where by actors unreflexively enact rules and where rules are both the medium and the outcome of social action therefore lack of distance between subject and object.

Paradigmatic dualism: is where actors for the external analytical purposes distance themselves (stand back) reflexively from a virtual body of rules. The essence of paradigmatic dualism is distanced between actors and rules known and followed by the subject in which case the actors’ reflexivity is enhanced or the distance may be vice a versa rule that other agents adopt and follow and which the actor wants to explore and or change.

Syntagmatic duality is where the actor is vital to the existence of a social context (i.e. to the existence of an actual not virtual social system) or social games with syntagmatic duality, the actor contribute very significantly to the construction and reproduction of interaction in a social system. Here the context is not external to the actor e.g. factory workers related to a small shop floor work group of which he is a member. Syntagmatic duality refers to writings of Mead and Shutz where systems and actors activities are seen as inseparable.

Syntagmatic dualism refers to the state of affairs where the actor is not vital to or has little effect upon the social context (a junior clerk in a multinational company) therefore the context is ‘external’ to the actor in the sense implied by Durkheim ‘Social fact suigeners where society is regarded as external to the individual. Syntagmatic dualism applies where actors’ orientation focuses on interactions or social systems to the production or reproduction of which they contribute but slightly.

The agency-structure perspective is the European alternative to the micro-macro perspective in America. Agency generally refers to micro-level, individual human actors, but it can also refer to collectivities of that act. Structure usually refers to large-scale social structures, but it can also refer to micro structures, such as those involved in human interaction.

One of the key differences between micro-macro and agency-structure theory is their respective images of the actor. Micro-Macro theory tends to have a behaviorist orientation, whereas agency-structure theory places an emphasis on conscious, creative action. A second major difference is that micro-macro theory tends to depict issues in static, hierarchical, and ahistorical terms, whereas agency-structure theory is more firmly embedded in a historical, dynamic framework. Margaret Archer believes in abandoning the macro – micro and Agency – structure debate as they are the same.

Anthony Giddens’ Theory of structuration represents the mutual dependency of human agency and social structure. Social structure should not be seen as barriers to action and as repressive of the agents’ ability to act, but are intimately involved in the production of action. The structural properties of social system provides the means by which people act and they are also the outcomes of those actions. Social structure is orderly patterned relationship between elements of society.

Margaret Archer (1943) has criticized the concept of structuration as analytically insufficient. She thinks it is useful for social scientists to understand structure and agency as independent, because it makes it possible to analyze the interrelations between the two sides. Archer also thinks that Giddens gives short shrift to the relative autonomy of culture from both structure and agency.

Archer's focus is on morphogenesis, the process by which complex interchanges lead not only to changes in the structure of the system but also to an end product-structural elaboration. The theory emphasizes that there are emergent properties of social interaction that are separable from the actions and interactions that produce them. Once these structures have emerged, they react upon and alter action and interaction.

Archer reserves the term "structure" for material phenomena and interests. Morphogenetic theory focuses on how structural conditioning affects social interaction and how this interaction, in turn, leads to structural elaboration. Archer sees culture-nonmaterial phenomena and ideas-as autonomous from structure. In the cultural domain, morphogenetic theory focuses on how cultural conditioning affects socio-cultural interaction and how this interaction leads to cultural elaboration. Compared to structure and agency, Archer asserts that the nexus between culture and agency has been neglected. She suggests that in order to understand agency, one must understand the context of innumerable interrelated theories, beliefs, and ideas that have had an influence over it. Agents have the ability either to reinforce or resist the influence of the cultural system.

Margaret Archer Argues that the Micro-Macro should not refer to differences in the absolute size of social phenomenon, but rather to relative differences in size and to a relational concept of scale associated with the concept of emergence. (e.g. Pondichery state within Tamilnadu state and Pondichery state within Auroville Town). Archer’s morphogenetic social theory unlike other social theorists who refer to micro social phenomena or unit of analysis situation of face to face interaction or co-presence in the terms of size are small-scale as distinct from macro phenomenon (Social Institutions) large scale in the sense that they extend widely across time and social space. Archer’s Anti-conflationary theory – she believes that a given unit of analysis may be micro in relation to one stratum of society and macro in relation to another. What justifies differentiation of strata and thus use of the term micro and macro to characterize these relationships in the existence of emergent properties pertaining to the latter, but not to the former.

Thus Archer a dyad may be regarded as micro but if that dyad is formed part of a slightly larger social grouping (Committee / household) then the latter in relation to the dyad would be investigated as a “macro phenomena”. Archer her notion of micro and macro refers to small scale phenomena (micro social sphere) of interpersonal relation as insulated from the macro sphere. Margaret Archer has reopened the debate of dualism VS duality.

Her major contribution to theoretical sociology centers on her morphogenetic social theory. Morpho is the society that has no present form or preferred state, the genetic part is recognition that it takes its shape and form on its own, and is formed by agents, originally from the intended and unintended consequences of these activities. Morphogenesis refers to the elaboration of structural forms and morphostasis to their maintenance. (E.g. Pune city as Cultural capital, Historical city, pensioners’ paradise, Educational centre and now IT centre.)

Archer rejects the ‘downward conflation’ a mode of analysis when is associated with methodological collectivism. {Downward conflation – agency is explained in terms of the structure [V-N-C-R Parsons social system theory]}. Downward conflation rests upon the notion of structural determinant. Actors are portrayed as unflexitive socialized being, who lack creative or innovative capacities of the kind that may shape structure. [Poulantzas super Shute dilemma she believes in upward conflation – interpretative sociology (neo phenomenological school)]. Archer believes that the conflationistontology wrongly treats that the structure is no more than the actors and their activities. In both upward and downward forms of conflation related autonomy is withheld from agency and from structure.

Priority is wrongly given to agency or structure as the ultimate constituent of society rather than investigating the two way interplay between them. Margaret Archer believes that society and individual are not two sides of the same coin but are indeed radically two different things. They do not constitute two different moments of the same process (e.g. UPA’s Central government and NDA’s State government)

Archers’ – dualism – agency and structure are distinct separable phenomena, temporarily seen as a central aspect of mutually shaping relation between agency and structure, structure proceeds action which in turn leads to structural reproduction or elaboration and the cycle is then repeated.

Archer believes that activity dependence of social structure proceeds action rests on the argument that current structures are the effects of actions taken by the people who are ‘long dead’ and is therefore a temporal escapes of structures from past action for e.g. demographic structure is past tense reference to activities of the ‘long dead’ we are born into a structure and cultural context which far from being of our making is the unintended resultant of the past interaction among the long dead. Present structures are effects of past actions. Secondly relation of the present day actors and structures to previous actors and previous structures both these refer to the synchronic and diachronic of action and structure.

Thus morphogenetic approach of Margaret Archer is an example of good observation of a society. But in real society this concept is such that there is no control on the society and a wrong intention would lead it to disaster. Where as in a controlled and disciplined environment, the system will be more efficient. Also on the other hand every individual likes freedom but when we deal with the mass of people or society then we have to frame some rules where everybody follows it for the smooth functioning of the system or society. E.g. Traffic congestions observed when the traffic lights are off and policemen are not there.


Sibeon Roger. (2004) Rethinking Social Theory. London U.K. Sage Publications.

George Ritzer. Smart Barry. (2003) Barry Burner (eds) Handbook of Social Theory. London U.K. Sage publications.

Parker John. (2002) Structuration. New Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai, Kolkata: Viva Books Private Limited.

Archer Margaret S. (1996) Culture and agency The place of culture in social theory. Cambridge university press.

Turner Brayan S., Hill Stiphen, Abercrombie Nicholas. (2000) Penguins dictionary. London U.K. Published by Penguin Books Ltd.

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