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The sociological imagination,” C. Wright Mills (1959: 6) emphasized, enables us to grasp history and biography and the relations between the two within society. That is its task and promise.” Any social study that fails to come back to problems of biography, of history, and of their intersections within society,” has not completed its intellectual journey. Mills’ exhortation challenges sociologists to address the fundamental micro (actions at the personal level) and macro (the larger socio-historical context within which micro events transpire) link. Exploring, grasping and explaining social phenomena through that link is a key challenge and objective.
Over the course of sociology’s history, emphases on the micro-macro link have varied. During the classical period, as Europe underwent broad institutional change, the emphasis tended towards the macro although key thinkers like Karl Marx and Emile Durkheim indicated, at various times, how individual agents internalized, resisted, and changed larger social forces. Rejecting organic analogies and the Orthodox Marxists’ economism, Max Weber made meaningful social action central to his sociology but by emphasizing the uniformities of social action and typical modes of conduct, action was not conceptualized at the purely micro level, yielding a consciously constructed micro-macro linkage.
Talcott Parsons’ work dominated sociology from the 1940s into the 1960s. The micro dynamics of Parsons’ original theory of social action were, however, eclipsed by his shift in focus towards the social system and its requisites. The 1960s’ turbulence and structural functionalism’s analytical shortcomings initiated two responses. One maintained the macro focus while incorporating social conflict into the framework (e.g. Ralf Dahrendorf, Randall Collins). Conflict theory, like structural function-alism, continued to emphasize social structures, institutions, and broader socio-historical processes, leaving the micro level under-examined. The second response was a variety of micro perspectives, some with indigenous roots in US social thought — e.g. Charles Horton Cooley’s or George Herbert Mead’s symbolic interactionism, William James’ or John Dewey’s pragmatism, George Homans’ or Peter Blau’s exchange theory — while others arose in response to the heavy macro determination of US sociology — e.g. Alfred Schutz’s, Thomas Luckmann’s and Peter Berger’s phenomenology (or social constructionism), and Aaron Cicourel’s or Harold Garfinkel’s ethnomethodology. These theorists focused intensely on interaction, meaning construction and individual action leaving the macro context as background.
While some maintain that micro and macro constitute separate levels of analysis, most theories tend towards one or the other due to the specific problems addressed or the theoretical question under consideration. There are five basic positions regarding the micro-macro relation: the macro social order is created through micro acts of free choice by rational, purposeful individuals; the macro order is created through the uniformity of individual’s largely typified, interpretive actions at the micro level; self-reflexive, socialized individuals create/re-create society as a collective force through interpretively based micro-level action; through micro-level actions, socialized individuals reproduce the existing macro-social environment; due to external, social control, rational, purposeful actors acquiesce to macro forces.
The 1980s witnessed an intense interest in the micro-macro linkage. Jeffrey Alexander, for example, noted that the micro-macro dichotomy is an analytic distinction and any attempt to link it to concrete dichotomies — e.g. individual versus society — is misguided. Understanding the differentiation analytically enables interparadigmatic discourse, allowing theorists to conceptualize linkages rather than reducing one level to another. Alexander’s work shifted from conceptualizing action and order as dichotomous polarities to one where contingent action has a more systematic element within it.
Pierre Bourdieu’s (1990) theory of practice attempted to establish the dialectical relations between objective structures and the structured dispositions that exist within action and tend to reproduce those structures. The habitus — acquired patterns of thought, behavior and taste — constitutes the link between social structures and human agency.
Anthony Giddens (1984: 2) argued that sociology’s basic domain is neither the experience of the individual actor, nor the existence of any form of societal totality, but social practices across time and space.” In his theory of structuration, the subject is de-centered slightly as situationally positioned, knowledgeable, reflexively monitoring human agents draw from existing rules and resources (structures) which enable and constrain their action, to engage in interactions that are largely routinized across space and time as they produce and reproduce systems of social action.
Jurgen Habermas’s (1984: xl) theory of communicative action consciously sought to establish a two-level concept of society that connects the lifeworld’ and system’ paradigms in more than a rhetorical fashion.” Earlier, Habermas had identified three specific human interests — technical (knowing and controlling the natural environment giving rise to natural science), practical (understanding and working with one another, leading to hermeneutical knowledge), and emancipatory (the desire to end distorted communication and understanding leading to the critical sciences). It is within the lifeworld that micro-interaction, concerned with each interest, takes place, but that action occurs within a larger social system; action draws from existing knowledge systems related to technical, practical and emancipatory interests.
George Ritzer (1991: 151—8) maintained that despite some progress, a genuine micro-macro link could only arise through a thoroughgoing, overarching, metatheorization of sociological theory. Such theorization must explicitly address the conceptual integration of different levels of sociological analysis.
Finally, Johnathan Turner argued that social reality operates at the micro, meso and macro levels, with each embedded” in the other. Embedding does not reduce one level to another; it emphasizes that processes operating at one level influence and are influenced by processes at another.
- Alexander, J., Munch, R., & Smelser, N. J. (eds.) (1986) The Micro-Macro Link. University of California Press, Berkeley, CA.
- Bourdieu, P. (1990)  The Logic of Practice, trans. R. Nice. Stanford University Press, Stanford, CA. Giddens, A. (1984) The Constitution ofSociety. University of California Press, Berkeley, CA.
- Habermas, J. (1984; 1987)  The Theory of Communicative Action, 2 vols., trans. T. McCarthy. Beacon Press, Boston, MA.
- Mills, C. W. (1959) The Sociological Imagination. Oxford University Press, New York.
- Ritzer, G. (1991) Metatheorizing in Sociology. Lexington Books, Lexington, MA.
- Turner, J. (1988). A TheoryofSocial Interaction. Stanford University Press, Stanford, CA.