A desire to do social work is a desire to make a difference in the world and have an impact. There are particular populations and categories in which social workers have that impact, however. As a social worker, do you want to work one-on-one with the elderly? Or do you want to have a more global focus? Working one-on-one requires personal, intimate connections. Having a societal or global impact requires activism and advocacy. Both are under the umbrella of social work, but they each reflect different roles. The terms micro, macro and mezzo social work represent these distinct categories, commonly known as practice areas.

Micro, macro and mezzo are the three main practice areas of social work. There are key distinctions among these three areas. However, they can overlap with each other and be practiced in tandem. To learn more about what micro, macro and mezzo social work entails, and the versatility social workers employ in working between all three categories, read on.

Micro Social Work

Micro social work refers to the most common practice area. This is performed directly, with an individual or a family. The nature of this practice is personal and oriented towards one-on-one interactions. This type of work is personified in the most common image of a social worker: A tireless professional devoted to helping others through their emotional, social, or health related struggles. Social workers in this role may work in hospitals providing social services, discharge planning, counseling or hospice work. They may work with the homeless to help them find housing, or with military families to ease re-entry to civilian life. They are trained to treat individuals suffering from addiction or eating disorders. Notably, the most sought after areas of social work practice - Marital and Family therapy and individual mental health counseling - fall under micro social work as well. Anyone seeking to open a private practice providing counseling services, for example, will want to pursue a program with a micro focus.

Macro Social Work

Macro level social work is performed on a broad and institutional level. Social workers engage with this practice area in order to meet 21st century challenges. This practice area is best suited for movers and shakers who are fired up by social causes. Macro level social work may address large-scale problems on a societal level, or problems that affect entire systems or communities. A social worker interested in this kind of work pursues social policy and change, activism, advocacy and social entrepreneurship.

It should be noted that macro social work is the differentiator for social work education. This practice area distinguishes social work from other related disciplines, such as psychology or counseling; no other academic discipline combines training to treat single patients with a close examination of the institutional and societal roots of problems.

Mezzo Social Work

Mezzo social work lies somewhere in between micro and macro social work. Mezzo work is not focused on individuals, or on large, society-wide problems. Rather, it is focused on smaller groups such as neighborhood businesses, religious centers, and local communities, schools and organizations. Mezzo social work involves direct practice with small groups to promote change.

What Kind of Social Work Practice Area Interests You?

It’s important to understand the fields of micro, mezzo and macro social work, because the explain the various roles social workers play in their communities. As a social worker, you will have many different vocations to choose from. Understanding the differences between micro, mezzo, and macro applications will help you channel your desire to serve others into a specific area.

Micro social work may be right for someone who seeks a more personal and intimate connection with their clients. Macro social work may be more meaningful for someone who wants to enact far-reaching changes. Mezzo social work may be best for those fired up by a cause, but still interested in connecting interpersonally.

Importantly, focusing in one social work practice area does not limit you from moving into another. That’s the remarkable versatility of the social work degree – the ability to adapt to many scenarios, and to pivot to new practice areas as your passions shift.

Nedda Gilbert

Ms. Gilbert is a certified social worker and 30 year educational consultant with an interest in helping college-bound and graduate school students manage the process and stress of admissions effectively. She is one of the senior founding managers of the Princeton Review Test Preparation Company, and the author of The Princeton Review Guide to the Best Business Schools and another book, Business School Essays that Made a Difference (Random House). She is a guest contributor to Forbes Magazine on college and college life. Ms. Gilbert is also certified as a collaborative family law professional in New Jersey. She received her BA from the University of Pennsylvania and MS from Columbia University.