Understanding Micro, Mezzo and Macro Social Work Practice

concentric circles with PIE in center, then micro, mezzo, macro

By Gabrielle Conrad-Amlicke

You’ve decided to become a social worker? Congratulations! You could not have chosen a more versatile career path! But first let’s understand what social work is, which can help you decide what type of social worker you will be.

Start telling people you’re becoming a social worker and they might say something along the lines of, “Cool that you want to work with kids,” or “So you want to be a therapist?” But social work is versatile. It's practiced in a wide variety of ways. As a social worker, you can work in almost any type of business or industry you become passionate about.

The NASW Code of Ethics serves as a guide to the everyday professional conduct of social workers. It defines social work as assisting “individuals, groups, or communities to restore or enhance their capacity for social functioning and to creating societal conditions favorable to this goal.”

The practice of social work is divided into three systems, which are like layers, one building off the next. At the center is the “person-in-environment” (PIE) theory, which is central to and connects all three systems: micro, mezzo and macro social work.

In the Social Workers’ Desk Reference (Oxford University Press, 2009), researchers James M. Karls and Maura E. O’Keefe write that "PIE is the way we understand and speak about the complex problems our clients face" in terms of their social functioning—all while understanding the client’s problem in terms of societal constructs.

Three Types of Social Work Practice

The Micro Social Worker: Works with  clients to solve problems

This is most often a licensed clinical social worker (LCSW) who works with clients individually (such as therapists or school social workers). They focus on the individual experience of the client. They support the client in understanding their emotions or they teach interventions, such as coping skills to deal with a client’s personal experience.

The Mezzo Social Worker: Works with clients to solve problems

They likely also hold an LCSW because they often mirror the clinical similarities of micro social workers. They focus on supporting multiple clients or “client systems” (such as families, friends, communities of faith and schools). They support clients through treatment goals that focus on individuals but, at the same time, bring in other people and/or systems. They might also be in a community advocate role where they’re identifying common struggles between clients or a community that they work with.

The Macro Social Worker: Works to make systemic changes

The macro social worker doesn’t need an LCSW to practice, but they still utilize PIE theory. They focus on the interaction between client systems and large systems. Macro social worker supports clients in a more holistic way by serving as an advocate for a vulnerable population locally and or globally. Their work might include making or influencing public policy, conducting research, working with government agencies, organizing activists or coalition groups, drafting petitions, supporting legislation, or any other type of advocacy that doesn’t directly work with clients. However, macro social workers stay informed on a topic by engaging with client systems or utilizing support from micro/mezzo social workers and other professionals who do work directly with clients.

Endless Possibilities

You might be wondering, “Can’t a micro social worker also work with families?” And yes, you would be correct. This is the amazing thing about social workers — we’re able to support individuals, groups, and communities at all levels.

However, a social worker who holds an MSW but not a clinical licensure (LCSW) can’t legally (or ethically) provide one-to-one therapy (this is most likely the macro social worker). But the macro social worker also understands what is being done at the micro/mezzo level because of the “person-in-environment” theory that links the practice of social work together.

Not every social worker will find joy in doing the same things. And because of the versatility of our degrees and interests there's no need to box ourselves in. The possibilities of professional roles for social workers are endless.

Gabrielle Amlicke is currently completing her MSW in Policy at the University of Connecticut. She completed her MSW Field Placement at Healing Hoofbeats Inc., an Equine Assisted Psychotherapy (EAP) program where she helped to research and write a proposal which was accepted by York Correctional Facility (2019) that brings together elements of Ecotherapy and EAP to combat recidivism rates among women inmates. She is also an advocate for environmental justice and social work. You can reach her through her blog or on Instagram.

collage of people in different work environments

What Type of Social Worker Will You Be?

Discover how you can make the world a better place through social work.

Take the quiz

kids from different cultures, woman in front of government building

What Are Social Work Values?

Social workers draw on their knowledge, values, and skills to help people in need and to address social problems.

Learn about social work values