Macrosociology is a sub-field of sociology. “Macro” means “large”; thus, the term describes the analysis of large-scale social phenomena.
Macrosociologists study larger organizations, communities, and societies that individuals live in such as:
- Globalized cultures
- Multinational groups
- Political organizations
- Ethnic populations
People who study macrosociology are interested in large-scale social structures and social forces that organize and stabilize or rupture and divide individuals and societies.
Macrosociology stemmed from sociologists’ understanding that simply studying individuals (microsociology) is not enough to understand society.
We must also study the larger systems around individuals. This is essential to capture the context that behaviors are created and actions are made.
Here is a great scholarly definition:
“[Macrosociology] deals with large-scale, long-term social processes, phenomena, and structures, such as social change, stratification, or the capitalist world economy” (Boatca, 2007).
In other words, macrosociology comprises numerous topics like:
- groups and collectivities of various sizes
- major institutions (education, religion) or structures (economy, state) of one or more societies
- historical explorations of one society
- comparative and/or historical examinations of multiple societies.
In its broadest form, macrosociology might include all aspects of human civilization and history.
The Research Questions, Methods, and Conclusions of Macrosociology
|Research questions||Macrosociologists zoom out and ask big questions. These often lead to new theories about society, economy, or ideology. For example: In his book Systemic Racism (2006), the sociologist Joe Feagin asks: What effects has race had on the nature, makeup, and growth of American society?|
|Methods||Macrosociologists often use the following methods: |
a) archival research
b) historical analysis
c) statistical analysis of large (e.g., national or international) datasets
For example: Feagin combines historical analysis and archival research over more than four centuries with statistical analysis. His data analysis proves that the social structures and the relationships within them have changed over a long period of time. This gradually created a highly racialized American society.
|Research conclusions||Macrosociologists’ conclusions reveal correlations or links between various societal structures or phenomena.|
For example: Feagin showed that White people in the US created and sustained a racist social system over centuries by controlling
a) key institutions like law, education, politics, the media
b) financial resources and restricting access to people of color.
Thus, Feagin offered a new theoretical explanation of the systemic racism that today characterizes US society.
Shortlist of Great Examples
- Consumerism in American society: Studying why most Americans have an unsatiable desire to shop and consume. That happens although they already have so many material goods. This macrosociological level of analysis concerns Juliet Schor’s (1988) work on economic and consumer sociology.
- The spread of ideologies and religions: The rise and spread of secular ideologies and religious belief systems, democratic transitions, and the nature and effects of large-scale institutions and organizations.
- The study of war: Studying large-scale activities (e.g., wars) of a great number of individuals (one or more nations) in large-scale geographical space (e.g., Europe or the United States) over long periods of time (centuries).
- The impact of WWII in post-war Europe: Exploring the impact of World War II on the division of labor in post-1945 Europe.
- Studies of deviance: Exploring the causal relationship between poverty and committing property and violent crimes.
- Studies of globalization: Exploring changes brought to world economy by the forces of globalization.
Case Studies: Famous Macrosociology Studies
Perhaps the most powerful example of macrosociology is Karl Marx’s theory of social conflict. Marx made class struggle central to the social evolution of humanity.
According to Marx, “the history of all hitherto existing human society is the history of class struggles.”
An example of this is the development of capitalism.
Capitalism emerged out of the conflict between two basic classes:
- the workers, aka the proletariat, and
- the owners of the means of production, aka the bourgeoisie.
Marx further posited that a class struggle between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie is inherent to all capitalist industrial societies.
He also claimed that class conflict will lead to social revolution and the fall of the bourgeoisie.
2. Emile Durkheim’s theory of the division of labor
In his book The Division of Labor in Society, the French philosopher, Emile Durkheim discusses how the division of labor benefits and stabilized society.
He claimed that the establishment of specific jobs for some people has three key benefits:
- it enhances the skill set of workers
- it increases their income
- fosters a feeling of solidarity among co-workers
Thanks to the above, the division of labor establishes social and moral order. It enables economic growth and social stability.
That’s because paid and satisfied workers can then become taxpayers and contribute back to the state.
Here, we can see how Durkheim was concerned with society-wide issues: he was using macrosociology.
3. Max Weber’s theory on Protestant ethic as the driving force of modern capitalism
Weber argued that the values of the protestant religion led to the appearance of Capitalism in Western Europe around the 17th century. Here, his big-picture concerns about religion and capitalism mean he’s a macrosociologist.
According to Weber, towards the middle of the 17th century, capitalism began to flourish in Holland and England. Weber asked: why these two nations were the first to see the rise of capitalism?
Through historical observation and analysis, he postulated that this happened because England and Holland were the only two nations where Protestantism predominated (Every other European nation had Catholicism as its official religion).
This prompted Weber to assert that Protestant values—especially, the Protestant individualistic and work-oriented ethos—paved the way for a higher feeling of personal freedom.
This, in turn, made it easier for people to criticize religion. As a result, capitalism developed over a long period of time.
Key perspectives of Macrosociology
The key sociological paradigms underpinning macrosociology are functionalism and conflict theory.
Functionalism in sociology looks at society as a whole, and how the institutions making up a society evolve to maintain social order and stability.
It is a social theory that is associated with the macro perspective because it looks at large structures. The word of Emile Durkheim on “functionalist equilibrium” supported lots of macro-analyses of society.
2. Conflict theory
Conflict theory is another sociological perspective that lends itself to macro-analysis.
It is based on the idea that society is built upon pervasive inequality on the basis of social class, gender, race etc. Social institutions benefit the rich and powerful. Thus, they create and perpetuate inequalities.
Conflict theory is rooted in Marxist philosophy. The example of class struggle, discussed above, illustrates conflict theory’s emphasis on macro-analysis.
Criticisms of Macrosociology
We saw that macrosociological analysis could be beneficial. It can explain how large social institutions affect people on a personal level.
But macrosociology has its critics (e.g., Fuchs 1989). They argue that its focus on large structure runs the risk of
- overlooking small-scale but equally significant elements shaping society.
- underestimating the power of human agency (the ability to act and change one’s life).
- Falsely assuming that people are unconnected to the wider societal institutions in which they live.
Macrosociology vs Microsociology with examples
|Describes big-scale social processes, institutions, and social life over long periods.||Studies human behavior and experiences based on what people say, think, and do in their daily lives.|
|Stresses the objective reality of societal facts.||Assumes people have the power to shape their world. Thus, it’s more subjective.|
|Example: An exploration of the impact of playing video games on high school students’ academic performance at the national level.||Example: a study of how high school students in a specific school interact with each other when playing video games.|
Should I use microsociology or macrosociology?
Macrosociology and microsociology are two different levels of analysis that help us make sense of society. One is not “better” than the other. They simply answer different questions
In the past they used to be seen as conflicting approaches. But since the 1980s, scholars have tried to bridge the divide. They did so by offering a theoretical synthesis of the two.
The truth is that one complements the other. As Fuchs (1989, p. 169) puts it, “micro- and macrosociology should peacefully coexist as equally legitimate ways to make sense of different aspects of social reality”.
This is because, using these two levels of analysis, sociologists can better understand how people interact with and within larger societal systems.
Example of combining methods from microsociology with Macrosociology
A great example of building macro-micro connections is the work of Juliet Schor’s (1988), discussed earlier. Schor wants to show the social dynamics behind American consumerism.
She does so through historical and statistical analysis. But she also carries out interviews and focus groups with American consumers—a method used widely in microsociology.
This helps her make insightful connections between social theory, historical patterns, and individual perceptions of their lives.
Macrosociology looks for trends and patterns reproduced over long periods. In this way, it seeks to shed light on how the “bigger picture” influences the lives of people and small groups.
It does not use specific individuals and their relationships as the research question. Instead, it examines the way cultures, social institutions, systems, and seminal historical events (e.g., war, famine) that make our world. These exist on a scale far greater than what can be understood from an analysis of interactions.
Building macro-micro connections is precious to reach a robust and nuanced understanding of our society.
Boatca, M. (2007). “Macrosociology,” in The Blackwell Encyclopedia of Sociology. Edited by George Ritzer. Malden, MA; Oxford: Blackwell Pub, pp.1-5.
Durkheim, E. (1964). The division of labor in society. Translated by George Simpson. New York:MacMillan.
Feagin, J. (2006). Systemic Racism: A theory of opression. Hoboken: Routledge.
Fuchs, S. (1989). On the Microfoundations of Macrosociology: A Critique of Microsociological Reductionism. Sociological Perspectives, 32(2), pp. 169–182.
Schor, J. (1998). The overspent American: Upscaling, downshifting, and the new consumer. New York: Basic Books.
Weber, M. (1978). The protestant ethic and the spirit of capitalism. Translated by Talcott Parsons. London: Allen & Unwin.
Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education.