Sociologists distinguish macrosociology from microsociology, which focuses on the social activities of individuals and small groups. The micro-macro distinction forms one of the central dualisms characterizing divergent sociological perspectives. Seemingly polar opposites such as conflict-consensus, stability-change, structure-agency, subjectiveobjective, and materialist-idealist, as well as micro-macro, provide a shorthand method for denoting differences in central assumptions, subjects, and models. As with many other oppositional concepts, however, the boundary between microsociology and macrosociology is not clearly distinguished, and at the margins there is much room for overlap.
Typically, micro-level studies examine individual thought, action, and interaction, often coinciding with social-psychological theories and models, whereas macro-level investigations target social structures and those forces that organize as well as divide individuals into political, social or religious organizations, ethnic populations, communities, and nation-states. Nevertheless, in defining these terms there is major conceptual ambiguity that can be formulated as a question: Should the distinction be based on substantive criteria (specialty and subdisciplinary areas within sociology such as social change and development), theoretical criteria (e.g., functionalist, Marxist), metatheoretical criteria (type of paradigm, epistemology), or methodological criteria (type of research design and analysis techniques)? Since sociologists often use the terms "micro" and "macro" quite casually as convenient devices for categorizing broad areas of theory and research, each of these criteria can be found in the literature, and quite often they are seriously confounded.
A useful means of distinguishing between the two approaches is based on the concept of "units of analysis." Macrosociology uses as its subjects structural-level units of analysis or cases that are larger than observations of individual action and interaction. Even here, however, there is ambiguity, since it is quite possible to make observations on smaller units (e.g., individuals) with the intention of analyzing (making inferences about) larger entities (e.g., groups, classes). Also, the issue of where to draw the line remains. Rather than attempting to draw any hard-and-fast line delineating macro-level from micro-level phenomena, it is helpful to conceptualize a continuum of the subject matter of sociology with "micro" and "macro" defining two end points and with societal-level phenomena clearly placed at the macro pole. George Ritzer, for example, describes one "level of social reality" as a micro-macro continuum moving from individual thought and action through interaction, groups, organizations, and societies to culminate in world systems (Ritzer 1988, pp. 512-518).
Since the macro end of the continuum focuses on social structure, it is important to clarify the use of this term. In a review essay, Neil Smelser (1988, pp. 103-129) describes structure as patterned relationships that emerge from the interaction of individuals or groups over time and space. Institutions and identifiable collectivities are the outcomes of systematically related structures of activities. Structure is dually defined as located in collective actors and in their interaction. Thus social class is an example of social structure, as are the relationships between classes whose locus is the economy. The study of social class and the study of the...