Macro-sociology is an approach to the scientific study of social life that focuses upon the large-scale social patterns of human behavior. Societies are considered as totalities, with a particular emphasis on major institutions of social life, such as the economy, the political system, the family unit, and systems of religious belief. Macro-sociology is typically concerned with the systematic examination of the major similarities and differences among societies, in particular the nature and scope of the changes that societies undergo.
Methodologically this tends to mean that macro-sociological studies focus upon a single society in a single given historical period, adopting large-scale surveys as a way of gathering data. However, many macro-sociologists have an abiding concern with how such social systems are interlinked across the world and in particular how single societies change over time. Historical-comparative methods are thus frequently used in analyzing how social systems within a given society, for example, the United States, have changed and developed throughout the nation’s history.
Macro-sociology is often regarded as standing in opposition to micro-sociology. Micro-sociology typically investigates the patterns of thought and behavior that occur in relatively small-scale social groups, with a particular emphasis on different styles and codes of verbal and nonverbal communication. Micro-sociologists analyze the ways face-to-face interaction is managed and maintained and how this helps develop shared understandings within social groups. However, in the early twenty-first century this distinction is increasingly called into question as the micro-foundations of macro-sociology are made explicit (Alexander et al. 1987; Sanderson 1995). Nevertheless, macro-sociological approaches continue to play a part in international social science research, and two of the most prominent approaches are structural functionalism and conflict theory.
Structural functionalism sees societies as complex social systems of interrelated and interdependent parts that shape and influence each other. These different parts of the social system are interrelated by a commitment to the norms, values, and beliefs that integrate the entire system, which structural functionalists believe tends toward a state of equilibrium. As such, disturbances to any one part of society will require adjustments elsewhere in order for balance to be restored and for the system to avoid disintegration. Each interrelated part of the social system exists therefore precisely because it has a vital function to perform in helping to maintain the equilibrium of the system as a whole.
Conflict theory stands in opposition to structural functionalism by typically rejecting the idea that societies tend toward a state of equilibrium. This is based upon the belief that societies do not share a basic consensus over norms, values, and beliefs that operate in everyone’s best interest. Rather, conflict theorists point to the various ways different individuals and social groups have competing and antagonistic interests and concerns and emphasize that these basic oppositions shape the organization of social life.
In the early twenty-first century macro-sociology is less influential in international social science than it once was. Nevertheless, it continues to provide an important foundation for approaching the study of human social life, especially in contemporary sociological theory.
SEE ALSO Conflict; Critical Theory; Functionalism; Sociology; Sociology, Micro-; Sociology, Parsonian; Structuralism
Alexander, Jeffrey C., Bernhard Giesen, Richard Münch, and Neil J. Smelser, eds. 1987. The Macro-Micro Link. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Sanderson, Stephen K. 1995. Macrosociology: An Introduction to Human Societies. 3rd ed. New York: HarperCollins.