Microsociology: Definition, Examples & Criticism

macrosociology vs microsociology

Microsociology is a subset of sociology. The word means “small-scale” sociology. It is a theory that explores individuals and their daily relationships. It also analyses the behavior of small groups and the and interactions between small groups.

It is based on subjective interpretative analysis rather than statistical or factual observation.

Microsociology is a valuable analytical approach because most people socialize and act in small groups.

Zooming into the day-to-day interactions and grasping the “little picture” can often help us capture the essence of society.

Definition of Microsociology

Microsociology is defined as:

“Research that deals with “small” social units such as family and couple relationships, small social groups, or the individual.” (Maiwald & Suerig, 2019)

George Gurvitch coined the term in 1939.

This branch of sociology focuses on how people initiate and react to different social situations, interactions, and environments.

Microsociology does not enable a comprehensive study of societies. Sociological analysis at a societal level field of study is known as macrosociology.

The difference is:

  • Macro-level sociology addresses large-scale, national, or global issues
  • Micro-level sociology explores local, interpersonal issues on a smaller scale.

The Research Questions Methods and Conclusions of Microsociology

Research questions Microsociologists ask more focused, localized questions that explore the experiences and behaviors of one individual (over time) or small groups of people.

For example: C.J. Pascoe (2007) famous book Dude, you’re a fag: Masculinity and sexuality in high school investigates how sexuality and gender shape boys’ identity formation in the high school setting.
MethodsMicrosociologists usually engage in participatory research. They interact with research participants through:
a) in-depth interviews
b) ethnographic observation
c) focus groups
d) smaller-scale statistical and historical analyses

For example: C.J. Pascoe (2007) uses both in-depth interviews and ethnographic fieldwork. He spent a lot of time with his research participants and becomes part of the school routine.  
Research conclusionsMicrosociologists provide evidence of how social structures affect the experiences and actions of those who are a part of them. They suggest the correlation or causal relationships between various things. Unlike macrosociology, however, they cannot prove it for sure.

For example: C.J. Pascoe (2007) illustrates how particular social influences—like social media, pornography, parents, school administrators, instructors, and peers—coalesce to “convince” young boys that to be a man, one needs to be strong, dominant, and proudly heterosexual.

Microsociology Examples

  • Studying the social and emotional interactions between mothers and pregnant women, waiting for their children to be born.
  • Exploring the exchanges between companions in romantic relationships. 
  • Investigating the relationships between police shootings and officers’ assumptions about suspects based on their ethnic group in a specific geographical location.
  • Analyzing the impact of police presence in schools and neighborhoods on the personal and professional development of Black and Latino boys growing up in inner-city neighborhoods.
  • Exploring why some people aged 18-25 in a particular region are scared of extreme sports while others get excited
  • Studying the impact of dog ownership on men’s psychological well-being for a sample of 25 men

Microsociology Case Studies

1. The relationship between coaches and athletes

Research objective: A microsociologist explores how the relationship between sports coaches and players impacts the latter’s performance.

They might choose to focus on a particular sport (e.g., football), geographical location (e.g., France), context (competitive or leisure sports), or age group (children or adults). They are looking at the small picture.

Methods: From a methodological angle, the study uses one-on-one interviews and ethnographic observation of coaches-and-athletes exchanges routinely.

Conclusions: The study concludes that genuine interactions between players and coaches foster greater trust, improved communication, and better performance.

2. The interplay between religious practice and identity

Research objective: Draper (2019) explores the religious practice of Conservative Jews, Bible Belt Muslims, white Baptists, black Baptists, Buddhist meditators, and Latino Catholics.

Methods: Draper used mixed methods. He

  1. Carried out months of fieldwork (ethnographic observation) to immerse himself into their religious lives.
  2. Interviewed and held focus groups with several religious groups.
  3. Analyzed (statistically) a sample from The United States Congregational Life Survey (USCLS)

Conclusions: He examined how these religious groups engage in different ritual strategies, like prayer, attending mass, fasting, venerating sacred objects. He found that ritual/spiritual traditions affect religious peoples’ beliefs about reality, morality, and social identity. 

2 Key Perspectives of Microsociology

Micro-sociological perspectives comprise symbolic interactionism and ethnomethodology.

1. Symbolic interactionism

Symbolic interactionism is theoretical paradigm linked to the writings of Max Weber and George Herbert Mead (1967). This viewpoint claims that social structures, like language, are made of shared symbols. People attach meanings to these symbols and, thus, shape their understanding of their environment.

Example

Brooks (1969) demonstrated that various self-perceptions related to right- or left-wing political views in his seminal symbolic interactionist study. Brooks went against traditional sociologists, who saw political ideology as stemming from large social and economic structures.

According to Brooks, a person’s political ideas can be viewed as a representation of the roles and norms incorporated in their perception of their selves and the world around them. Naturally, this perception results from their interactions with others.

Brooks conducted 254 interviews to back up his claim. He discovered that right-wingers believed that institutions (family, church, etc.) were the source of their sense of self. On the other hand, left-wingers identify as acting against established institutions (state, workplace etc.).

Read more about Symbolic Interactionism

2. Ethnomethodology

Ethnomethodology is “a way to investigate the genealogical relationship between social practices and accounts of those practices” (Lynch, 1993, p.1). Simply put, ethnomethodology studies ordinary people’s methods of making sense of the social world around them. The American sociologist, Harold Garfinkel, coined the term in 1967.

Ethnomethodology emphasises the ambiguity of language and action. It also challenges traditional sociological methods. That’s why it’s often seen as “dissident sociology”.

Example

A study on how cases of suicidal death are recorded, confirmed, and analyzed as such. Ethnomethodology is not interested in why people commit suicide. Instead, it wants to understand how official suicide statistics are produced (through language and officials’ routine actions).

It also seeks to show that suicide as a social fact is not objective. It’s meaning is produced by people’s ordinary words and actions.

Strengths of Microsociology

Humans live and interact in small groups (family, community, ethnic group, ideological group etc.). Microsociology helps us analyze these subsets of the population in greater detail.

Understanding the local, personal, and small-scale level affords us a more nuanced understanding of the “big picture”.

Criticisms of Microsociology

Most critics of microsociology argue that it fails to capture the impact of larger forces on society and individuals.

Another criticism is that it yields poor, unconfirmed results. They claim that small-scale studies with few participants cannot offer generalizable results (to the rest of the population).

Example

Imagine a study with a sample of 25 white male kids in California finds that they scored somewhat better on mathematics than the national average. This does not necessarily imply that we can assume with certainty that every white male student in the US has a math score that is somewhat above average.

This methodological error is known as ecological fallacy.

Microsociology vs Macrosociology

Sociology involves analysis of the social interactions (behaviors, emotions) and processes of

  • an entire society (large-scale analysis) and
  • individual members of this society (small-scale analysis).

Essentially, macrosociology describes the social processes of the entire social structure or population, as a whole. It stresses the objective reality of societal facts.

Microsociology describes social processes and experiences at the individual or community level. It is more subjective by definition, as it assumes people construct their world.

Microsociology

  • Sociologist A explores the impact of family income and political climate on the well-being of people over 50.
  • Study A is an example of macrosociology. It examines larger social structures and populations. The methodology will most likely be statistical analysis.

Macrosociology

  • Sociologist B examines the interactions between parents over 60 and their adult children using a sample of 200 households.
  • Study B is an example of microsociology. It focuses on small-scale interactions, with a small sample (200 families). It might rely on interviews, survey, or ethnographic observation.

Should I use microsociology or macrosociology?

Macro- and microsociology are two different ways to analyze and make sense of society. One is not “better” than the other. It’s like research methods (qualitative vs. quantitative). You need to pick what’s best for your research topic.

They are often seen as conflicting approaches. The truth is that one complements the other. This is because, in its essence, sociology is about understanding the way large-scale patterns and trends shape the behaviors and experiences of groups and individuals and vice versa.

For example, if you’re interested in the relationship between disability status and unemployment, you could go both ways

MacrosociologyMicrosociology
Analyze national statistics regarding the unemployment rate of people with self-reported disability. This method answers the “what.” It will also create a causal link between disability status and unemployment.Conduct interviews with disabled people to understand the group’s barriers to employment. This method answers the “why”. It will shed light into the reasons behind disabled people’s exclusion from the labor market.  

Conclusion

Microsociology helps examine the experiences and behaviors of individuals or the interactions within small groups.

It asks localized, focused questions compared to the large-scale and often abstract issues raised in macrosociology. It is a helpful approach if you want to understand how people interact in everyday life.

Microsociology refers to approaches like symbolic interactionism and ethnomethodology. It employs (mostly) participatory research tools, like 1:1 interviews, focus groups, or small-scale surveys.

Making micro-macro connections can help you provide a comprehensive understanding of social dynamics.

References

Draper, S. (2019). Religious interaction ritual : The microsociology of the spirit. Lanham : Lexington Books.

Garfinkel, H. (1967). Studies in ethnomethodology. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall.

Lynch, M. ([1993]2005). Scientific practice and ordinary action: Ethnomethodology and social studies of science. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Maiwald, K. O., & Suerig, I. (2019). Microsociology: A tool kit for interaction analysis. London: Routledge.

Mead, G.H. (1967) Mind, self, and society: from the standpoint of a social behaviorist. Chicago: SAGE.

Pascoe, C. (2007). Dude, you’re a fag: Masculinity and sexuality in high school. Berkeley, California, London: University of California Press.

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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.

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