Macrosociology Essay

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Macrosociology deals with large-scale, long-term social processes, phenomena, and structures, such as social change, stratification, or the capitalist world-economy. Conceptually, the term is meant to distinguish the broad level of sociological analysis from that of microsociology, which studies small-scale units and individual relationships, like social roles, interaction, or deviance. Methodologically, macrosociology employs the method of agreement and/or the method of difference to compare and contrast a variety of units of analysis such as nation-states, regions, civilizations, or world-systems with respect to causal relations.

Macrosociological comparative and historical studies of ”society as a whole” were central concerns for both sociology and anthropology in the late nineteenth century. Both disciplines were theoretically premised on evolutionism, the search for broad historical patterns of social change, and methodologically on the focus on individual societies – in the case of sociology, national, western ones. The models of social evolution proposed by Comte, Marx, or Spencer all subscribed to this logic of linear progress from a less differentiated stage to a complex one.

Evolutionism and the concern with macro-level phenomena became marginal in the first decades of the twentieth century but made a comeback as of the 1950s with Talcott Parsons’ structural functionalism and the modernization school, which drew equally from functionalism and evolutionism. Daniel Lerner’s The Passing of Traditional Society. Modernizing the Middle East typically identified in the sequence of stages of urbanization, growth of literacy, and industrialization a normative modernization process by which Middle Eastern societies were supposed to replicate western developments.

Neo-Marxist dependency theory, developed in Latin America in the 1960s, in turn argued that modern capitalism was a center-periphery structure resulting from an international division of labor between western colonial powers and their (ex-)colonies. Development, therefore, was not the outcome of passing through several stages from traditional to modern society, but a function of the structural position within the hierarchy.

Drawing on dependency theory and the French Annales School, world-systems analysis gave pride of place to the issue of the unit of analysis, contending that macrostructural analysis should take into account the entire world-system made up of core, semiperipheral, and peripheral regions.

As of the 1980s, a new theoretical agenda intended as a reprise of Max Weber’s comparative civilizational studies was espoused by political sociologists such as Theda Skocpol, Peter B. Evans, and Michael Mann. Focused on revolutions, social movements, and democracy, it increasingly offered explanations of the uniqueness of Western modernity and capitalism using the framework of world history.

Explicit opposition to Marxist analysis prompted the development of approaches intended to overcome the micro-macro dualism. Starting from a criticism of structuralist approaches and Marxist class theory, both Pierre Bourdieu and Anthony Giddens emphasized the interdependence of the micro and the macro by dwelling on the role of individual actors’ practices for the reproduction of social structures.

With the end of the cold war, revamped versions of the liberal modernization paradigm resurfaced in the form of globalization theories, comparative modernization studies, and transition research. Their evolutionist and nationalist assumptions reproduced the convergence hypothesis inherent in modernization theory by identifying western patterns of capitalist development, individualization, secularization, and democratization throughout the world.

The neo-Weberian approach of multiple modernities, taking as units of analysis axial civilizations, stood for the divergence hypothesis. It argued that the cultural program of western modernity had first been transformed with the expansion of modernity in the Americas, and later in Asia and Africa, where it produced multiple institutional and ideological patterns. Modernization, therefore, is not westernization, as modernization theory had claimed. Stressing the role of imperialism and colonialism in the making of western European modernity, the entangled modernities perspective (Therborn 2003) maintained that there is no universal modernity acting as a guiding reference to latecomers, but several paths to entangled modernities. Similarly, postcolonial approaches that highlight the history of the ”black” Atlantic (Gilroy 1993) or the global structure of power relations linking first world modernity to third world coloniality (Quijano 2007) undermine the classical division of labor between sociology and anthropology along the lines of binary categories such as modern vs. non-modern society. They thus allow for a possibility toward theoretical synthesis in the form of a global – rather than universal – sociology.


  1. Eisenstadt, S. N. (2003) Comparative Civilizations and Multiple Modernities. Brill, Leiden.
  2. Gilroy, P. (1993) Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness. Verso, London.
  3. Quijano, A. (2007) Coloniality and modernity/rationality. Cultural Studies 21 (2/3): 168-78.
  4. Therborn, G. (2003) Entangled modernities. European Journal of Social Theory 6 (3), 293-305.
  5. Parsons, T. (1966) Societies: Evolutionaryand Comparative Perspectives. Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs.
  6. Wallerstein, I. (1979) The Capitalist World-Economy: Essays. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.

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