The eminent French sociologist Mohamed Cherkaoui addresses the problem of delineating the micro-macro distinction in several works. Since Cherkaoui’s empirical research on social stratification and the educational system seems often to bridge between micro and macro, his views are of interest.
Cherkaoui’s analysis is presented in English primarily in three places, “The individual and the collective” (European Review 11:4 (2003)), “Macrosociology-microsociology” (International Encyclopedia of the Social and Behavioral Sciences, Elsevier (2001), 9117-22), and “Micro-Macro Transitions: Limits of Rational Choice Theory in James Coleman’s ‘Foundations of Social Theory'” (link).
First, here is his paraphrase of the distinction as it is usually interpreted:
In essence, microsociology refers to the sociology of the individual, in isolation from his interactive groups. The macro level refers to the generality of persons in a situation. (I-C, 489)
A sociologist operates on the micrological level when he seeks to set up empirically the existence and measure the strength of the relation between the educational attainment and the occupational status of individuals. Whatever statistical analysis is used, this statement remains on the micro level inasmuch as it assumes that individuals are independent from each other in the same way that educational levels and professions are independent. (I-C, 490)
Fundamentally, he is asserting that “micro” is equated with “isolated purposive individual.” Cherkaoui is critical of this approach to sociological research because it deliberately ignores “interdependence” — the fact that individuals and their social properties are related to the behavior and properties of other individuals. Individuals must be treated in context; they should not be “de-contextualized” by sociological studies.
This criticism seems to be valid for a subset of social theorists, including especially those who proceed on the basis of the assumptions of rational choice theory (including James Coleman; see Cherkaoui’s critique of Coleman here). But it is not valid for another important group of “micro-sociologists”, including especially Erving Goffman and Harold Garfinkel and advocates of ethnomethodology. These sociologists look at the individual; but they are fully committed to doing so in a thick and contextualized way. We don’t find any isolated individuals in Goffman and Garfinkel; rather, we find waiters, inmates, jurors, professors, and disaffected young people; and we find careful sociological observation of their behavior within specific institutional and normative contexts. An actor-centered sociology does not have to be based on a rational-choice model of the actor, and it isn’t forced to ignore interactions and relationships among actors as they go through their social lives. So one quick rebuttal to Cherkaoui’s argument is that “micro”-sociology does not equate to “isolated individual”-sociology. (This is the point of my own construct of “methodological localism”, looking at individuals as socially situated and socially constituted; link.) Actor-centered sociology is not the same as decontextualized methodological individualism (link).
Now let’s turn to the more extensive treatment is the entry in the International Encyclopedia.
Macrosociology generally refers to the study of a host of social phenomena covering wide areas over long periods of time. In contrast, microsociology would rather focus on specific phenomena, involving only limed groups of individuals such as family interactions or face-to-face relations. The theories and concepts of macrosociology operate on a systemic level and use aggregated data, whereas those of microsociology are confined to the individual level. (M-M, 9117)
In this essay Cherkaoui identifies three basic approaches to the micro-macro relation.
V1. The first is macro-centered; sociology looks for causal relations between one set of macro facts and another. “[The first approach] … consists of analyzing the relations between a given social phenomenon and indepdendent social factors” (9117). This approach tends to disregard the micro; it is oblivious to the need for micro-foundations and lower-level mechanisms.
V2. The second attempts to explain macro characteristics on the basis of the aggregate effects of the micro characteristics. “The second procedure consists of collecting observations at an infrasystemic level and developing hypotheses on the basis of such units (individuals, groups, institutions), with the purpose of explaining systemic relations through an appropriate synthesis of these observations” (9118). This approach conforms to the logic represented by Coleman’s Boat. It presents the problem of social explanation as one of aggregation of social phenomena from the behavior of rational actors at the micro level.
V3. The third is what we might call “formal-structural”: it explains characteristics at the macro level by analyzing the structure and organization of the macro system. Here it is the nature and topology of the positions within the social structure that are of interest. “The third approach … is to analyze the effects due to the nature of the positions and distributions of certain variables on the behavior of the system’s component units without formulating hypotheses about individuals” (9118). This is reminiscent of what Thomas Schelling referred to as the “mathematics of musical chairs” in Micromotives and Macrobehavior. It is the characteristics of the workings (functioning) of the social system that provide the basis of social explanation.
Cherkaoui sums up his view of the relation between micro-sociology and macro-sociology in these terms:
The macrostructuralist project [V1] is limited to certain aspects of social reality. It cannot, any more than any other theory, offer a solution to the problem of the links between the micro and the macro. While the rational choice theory [V2] presents an undeniable advantage over other theories, it cannot serve as a universal solution: presenting it as unconditionally valid makes it vulnerable to the same dangers other theories have encountered. As for functionalism [V3], its error was to yield to the temptation of hegemony; it claimed the title of general theory of social systems, when some of its principles are only valid for particular, tightly circumscribed domains. This means that there is a right way of using functionalism and normative theories, just as there is a wrong way of using such strong, all-encompassing theories. There can be no single solution to the problem of the links between micro- and macrosociology, any more than there can be a single mode for explaining all phenomena (the first of these problems being only an aspect of the second). (9120)
Cherkaoui’s critique of Coleman is also relevant to this issue, since Coleman proceeds with explanations moving from micro to macro; or from rational actors to social properties.
My third and last remark is that in Coleman’s thinking, as in that of many rational choice theorists, explanation remains purely speculative. With a few exceptions, such as the historical example of “live and let live” borrowed from Ashworth, we do not have sufficient empirical data on the social processes leading to norm emergence. Suppose we acknowledge that norms are intentionally produced and that individuals, who initiate and maintain them, benefit from behaving in compliance with norms for fear of punishment; suppose that the externalities produced by actions are among the conditions for norm emergence; suppose further that we acknowledge that bilateral exchange or the market are not able to regulate behavior. All these conditions, and the theorem of norm existence, are still no more than primitive propositions for a simulation model that could only generate theoretical data. (98)
(Here is an interesting interview with Cherkaoui conducted by Hamid Berrada (in French).)