Macro, mezzo, and micro social work

If you have a heart for helping others, social work could be a suitable career for you. Social workers play a crucial role in assisting families in crisis, individuals who’ve been diagnosed with a mental illness, and communities facing challenges caused by poor health, unemployment, homelessness, substance abuse, child neglect, and other complex social issues.

With an increase in demand for health care and social services, social worker jobs are expected to grow 7% between 2022 and 2032, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). The number of jobs available will vary by specialization. It is important to note that for most licensed careers in this field, you’ll need a master’s degree in social work.

Before pursuing a career in social work, consider which area of social work interests you the most. Social work is typically divided into three scopes of practice:




The sponsored program cards featured on this page were last updated in November 2022. For the most current program information, please refer to the official website of the respective school.

Sponsored online social work programs

University of Denver


Master of Social Work (MSW)

The University of Denver’s Online MSW Program is delivered by its top-ranked school of social work and offers two programs. Students can earn their degree in as few as 12 months for the Online Advanced-Standing MSW or 27 months for the Online MSW.

  • Complete the Online Advanced-Standing MSW in as few as 12 months if you have a BSW; if you do not have a BSW, the Online MSW Program may be completed in as few as 27 months.
  • No GRE Required
  • Customizable pathway options include Mental Health and Trauma or Health, Equity and Wellness concentrations

Fordham University


Master of Social Work (MSW)

Fordham’s skills-based, online MSW program integrates advanced relevant social work competencies, preparing students to serve individuals and communities while moving the profession forward. This program includes advanced standing and traditional MSW options.

  •  Traditional and advanced standing online MSW options are available.
  • There are four areas of focus: Individuals and Families, Organizations and Community, Evaluation, and Policy Practice and Advocacy.
  • Pursue the degree on a full-time or part-time track.

Simmons University


Master of Social Work (MSW)

Aspiring direct practitioners can earn their MSW online from Simmons University in as few as 9 months. GRE scores are not required, and the program offers full-time, part-time, accelerated, and advanced standing tracks.

  • Prepares students to pursue licensure, including LCSW 
  • Full-time, part-time, and accelerated tracks 
  • Minimum completion time: 9 months


Understanding macro, mezzo, and micro social work

While these three areas of focus in social work practice may overlap, there are key differences in the approaches associated with each one.

Macro social work

What is macro social work?

Macro social work encompasses practices like social work research, program development for small and large communities, community-based education initiatives, policy analysis and advocacy, nonprofit administration and leadership, and organizational development.

Social workers in this category often work for government agencies, nonprofit organizations, think tanks, and advocacy groups. They typically collaborate with a larger team of researchers, advocates, activists, analysts, educators, and/or government employees. They might lobby to change health care legislation or organize a statewide activist group to advocate for large-scale social policy change.

Importance of macro social work

Because of its focus on policy change and fighting unjust government and economic practices, the ultimate goal of macro social work is to build stronger communities and enhance the quality of life for the people living in them.

Professionals in the field describe macro social work as a specialization that centers on the big picture and the prevention of societal problems.

Students in a macro MSW program study social work theory, research methodologies, and ethics, as well as the design and implementation of social welfare and assistance initiatives.

To learn more about some of the benefits of macro social from a licensed social worker, read our interview with Lisa Primm, an executive director of a nonprofit in Tennessee.

Mezzo social work

What is mezzo social work?

Mezzo social work functions on an intermediate scale, with practitioners engaging with neighborhoods, institutions, or other smaller groups. Mezzo-level social workers may take on roles in schools, hospitals, community centers, and prisons.

Clinical social workers at the mezzo level could coordinate care for their patients and diagnose mental health illnesses in a hospital setting.

Mezzo practice also can include facilitating substance abuse treatment groups or working with individuals within the criminal justice system.

Importance of mezzo social work

Mezzo-level social workers advocate for and serve clients within the public systems that make up the fabric of our communities, regions, and nation.

School social workers, for instance, provide support services to students struggling personally, academically or socially. They might offer guidance and intervention for concerns like bullying and truancy.

Often, mezzo-level social workers are also engaged in micro and/or macro social work. This ensures the needs and challenges of individual clients are understood and addressed in tandem with larger social issues.

Micro social work

What is micro social work?

When you think of social workers helping a child in foster care or locating housing for persons experiencing homelessness, this falls under micro-level social work.

Family therapy and individual counseling are included under the micro umbrella, as is military social work, where the social worker helps military service members cope with the challenges accompanying military life and access their benefits.

Importance of micro social work

Social workers at the micro level protect society’s most vulnerable individuals, including young children, people with mental health challenges, victims of domestic violence, and elderly people in many different aspects of their lives.

Along with providing individual counseling, micro-level social workers connect their clients with important resources, such as temporary housing, health care, and mental health services, that will improve their lives.

Sponsored online social work programs

Howard University


Master of Social Work (MSW)

The online Master of Social Work program from Howard University School of Social Work prepares students for advanced direct or macro practice in culturally diverse communities. Two concentrations available: Direct Practice and Community, Administration, and Policy Practice. No GRE. Complete in as few as 12 months.

  • Concentrations: Direct Practice and Community, Administration, and Policy Practice
  • Complete at least 777-1,000 hours of agency-based field education
  • Earn your degree in as few as 12 months

Syracuse University


Master of Social Work (MSW)

Syracuse University’s online Master of Social Work program does not require GRE scores to apply and is focused on preparing social workers who embrace technology as an important part of the future of the profession. Traditional and Advanced Standing tracks are available.

  • Traditional and Advanced Standing tracks
  • No GRE required
  • Concentrate your degree in integrated practice or clinical practice

Case Western Reserve University


Master of Social Work (MSW)

In as few as a year and a half, you can prepare for social work leadership by earning your Master of Social Work online from Case Western Reserve University’s school of social work.

  • CSWE-accredited
  • No GRE requirement
  • Complete in as few as one and a half years


Once you’ve determined that you’d like to become a social worker and identified the specific area of social work you’d like to pursue, check our list of online MSW programs.

What is the difference between macro, mezzo, and micro social work?

Macro vs. micro social work

In contrast to micro social work, which involves one-on-one or small group assessments and treatment to address individual problems, macro social work takes a more holistic approach, supporting clients by serving as their advocate.

A macro social worker’s responsibilities include influencing public policy, conducting research, working with government agencies, organizing activists, drafting petitions, or supporting legislation. However, this doesn’t mean that macro-level social work does not have direct outcomes, said Michael Reisch, the Daniel Thursz Distinguished Emeritus Professor of Social Justice of the University of Maryland.

“One of the fallacies is that macro social work is indirect, while micro practice is sometimes referred to as direct practice,” Reisch said. “It’s incorrect because in both areas, you are working with people, just in different contexts for different ends.”

Reisch said that in the last 50 years, more social workers have gravitated toward mezzo and micro work, partly due to the distance from the War on Poverty of the 1960s. Also, women, who once had barriers to law and business professions, became social workers as a way to fulfill a desire to influence policy. They now have more career choices. However, he said, the trend may be shifting. In the last couple of years, he’s noticed an uptick in students pursuing macro areas of study.

“Increasingly, with what’s happening with politics, more and more critical decisions are going to be made at the local level,” he said. “There is a role there for social workers to work at the community level and to advocate for more socially just policies.”

Macro vs. mezzo social work

Mezzo social work programs differ from macro and micro programs in that they do not specifically focus on individual or widespread community needs.

Since mezzo-level work encompasses both individual interactions and engagements with larger groups, professionals in this niche utilize a diverse skill set. For example, the ability to address large groups differs from the ability to communicate effectively with individuals who have experienced trauma. Mezzo social workers may integrate both sets of skills to support the people they serve.

Micro vs. mezzo social work

While social workers at both the mezzo and micro levels work with individuals, mezzo social workers typically find their clients within the fabric of a larger organization, such as a school or community center.

Meanwhile, micro social workers typically conduct individual and family counseling, help individuals navigate and secure resources such as Medicare or Medicaid, and intervene in situations in which clients encounter a crisis or distress (i.e. domestic abuse, substance abuse, and post-traumatic stress disorder).

Many social workers engage in micro and mezzo practice simultaneously. And while certain social workers specialize in one aspect of the micro-to-macro scale, some social workers may interact with all three levels. Because of this phenomenon, social workers must understand the entire spectrum and how the different levels interact.

Disclosure: Michael Reisch, the Daniel Thursz Distinguished Emeritus Professor of Social Justice at the University of Maryland was interviewed via phone in February 2020.

Last updated November 2023