Most people think they know what social work is, but the profession is more nuanced and complex than many realize. This article will go into depth about the different levels of social work. Before we dive into the details, let’s start with a basic definition.
Social work is a helping profession related to the social sciences that involves the disciplined use of self, in relationships. Social workers provide support by assisting systems—individuals, groups, families, organizations, nations, etc.—to perform more efficiently and more effectively.
The field typically focuses on vulnerable and unjust systems. In this mode, social work seeks to repair the world. To accomplish this goal, social work is divided into three levels: micro (the individual level), mezzo (the group level), and macro (the community/governmental level). Each level has subdivisions and nuances, which we’ll explore in greater depth throughout this article.
Generalist level social work
Generalists can work with all three levels of social work: micro (individuals), mezzo (groups), and macro (communities/governments). As with all social work positions, generalists need excellent interpersonal and intrapersonal skills.
Micro social work
Micro social work focuses on helping individuals, couples, families, and smaller groups. It has two basic methods: coaching and counseling.
Coaching involves issues of information. Counseling involves issues of mental health and problematic individual and interactional behavior.
The clinical or therapeutic aspect of micro social work includes counseling, and individuals work in agencies that provide counseling often in association with a physician who supervises and prescribes medication as appropriate.
Consumers of micro social work are called clients or patients, and work is done in counseling sessions. Some micro practitioners set up a private practice in due course.
There are numerous specialties within this arena, such as medical social work, school social work, gerontological social work, etc. Or problem-centered work, such as depression, substance abuse, work with the differently-abled and other groups, and individuals with special needs.
Micro social workers also do coaching, where the problem set is informational rather than attitudinal. They assist clients in all of the same groups mentioned above, but the focus is more on activating the resource network for and with them, rather than counseling.
Jobs in hospital social work, school social work, and family-focused social agencies are commonly available. Often, after three of four years of work, MSWs are asked to become supervisors. This is often a stressful transition because their university training has not prepared them for this and agency in-service talent management is often lacking.
Mezzo social work
Mezzo social work has two foci. One, sessions rather than individual counseling to assist clients across all systems. Sometimes there are individuals within the group who have issues and sometimes it is the group itself that has problems, such as a family group or a city council. The Handbook of Social Work with Groups gives a thorough description of this field, including critical issues, theory, practice, and applications in all major practice settings.
At many professional level, generalist practitioner schools, the mezzo approach is called the “mixed method” model. In the mixed method model, micro social work skills, group work skills, and macro skills (community work, administrative work, and evaluation) are all a part of the job.
For those who like variety in their work assignments, positions with this mixed-method component are excellent choices. It’s helpful to know early on, so that people interested in the mixed method can take a mixture of micro and macro courses, thus preparing themselves for diverse assignments within the organization or agency.
It’s important to recognize that university training is not enough to become a mixed-method social worker. Social workers in these positions must be especially alert to creating a personal-development plan that includes the areas not fully offered in the curriculum.
One special opportunity here is to seek out schools that have joint programs with other professions. Social work and public health is quite popular. Increasingly social work dual-degrees are also available in law and business and management.
Look carefully at the school catalog to see what may already be available, or what the requisites are for building your joint program, which some universities allow. Joint programs cost more and take longer, but some universities allow for double counting for around one semester of credits.
Macro social work
Macro social work focuses on large client systems. It is typically comprised of specialties in community organization, administration, policy management, and evaluation. It is not a concentration that all schools offer, and macro social worker students only make up around 30 percent of the student body at the larger schools. In 2021, Oxford University Press published the Encyclopedia of Macro Social Work, which is an excellent and comprehensive look at the field.
Community social work or community organization is loosely composed of three main components corresponding to three main community issues. When a community has no cohesion, it’s necessary to work on community development. This frequently involves establishing some common community work that has both manifest and latent goals. The manifest goal or task goal is to fix up, like cleaning a dirty, empty lot. The latent goal is for people to work together and get to know each other. The result is an activity in which all or many can participate and, at the same time, get to know each other.
As cohesion builds, then there is the problem of community capability: can the community organization, or coalition of community organizations, create more impactful accomplishments? If the answer is yes, this increases their influence, which, tangentially, increases cohesion. To accomplish this, social action is typically the method of choice. Social action may involve marches, protests, and other demonstrations to move ossified bureaucracies and secure community improvements and more favorable policies. Sometimes this work is piecemeal, with one target at a time. Sometimes it is more general, intending to build awareness of systemic injustice.
As community capability sharpens, the next problem is community competence. At this point, community planning becomes more the focus of community work. Community planning involves looking ahead to emerging needs that remain hidden or unaddressed. Work focuses on relationship building with community or area-wide organizations that have similar interests and liaisons with funding and regulatory bodies.
These three methods of community building—cohesion, capability, and competence—are usually the specialty of various “community-based” social worker positions. Some social workers move through the cycle and others have their careers in one of the general methodologies.
There are other kinds of community-based work as well. Some social workers focus on organizing affinity-based groups of people with similar stresses and conducting community-based research and evaluation.
Other kinds of social work to consider
Social work, as a profession, is even broader than the categories we have outlined. This next section will explain other levels of social work that are an important part of the field but don’t fit into the micro, mezzo, or macro categories.
Administration or Managerial Social Work
A major component of social work is learning how to manage agencies, and feeling competent in supervisory roles. Of course, leadership skills can be utilized in any position. Leadership can be informal or formal. Leadership can be beneficial in social agencies or other helping organizations. These skills can be useful in other organizations, such as company foundations or human resources functions, governmental agencies, bureaus, and more. In the fall of 2021, the National Association of Social Workers will publish a new edition of the book called Leading and Managing Nonprofit Organizations. It will be an excellent sourcebook with thirty-three articles on all aspects of leadership and management with a particular focus on nonprofit/helping organizations.
Leading and managing are intertwined but involve different skill sets. Leading involves visioning, developing strategy, looking from the balcony, and getting work done with others. Managing involves implementing, routinizing, organizing, and getting work done through others. Leadership focuses on effectiveness, while management focuses on efficiency.
Policy development, advocacy, management, evaluation and refurbishment, and political social work
Policy social work and political social work involves working with laws, rules, and policies and trying to make them more socially just and less focus on the self-aggrandizement of the policymakers. It is important to understand that “policy” is present from the family (a will) to the Congress, and all the organizational units in between.
A policy is a guide to action that is written and has been approved by a legitimate authority. Very often, following policy itself, there are “rules and regulations,” often issued by an administrative body, that add important details to the implementation of the policy.
Policy social workers can work for policy makers, handling the development of drafts, moving the drafts through the policy process, providing feedback to the policy predecessor community, and policy alerts to the next processors in the policy processors.
Policies almost always go through many drafts, and much can be lost, or added, along the way. Policy social workers are alert to the important policy rule that “you can never do just one thing” and are on the alert for potential sidebar problems. They also are usually advocating for policies that have more social justice content and less special interest content.
Students who are interested in policy social work can consider programs like the White House Fellows Program and other congressional fellowships. Political social work involves running for and securing a political office at some level of government.
Policy analysts often do advanced econometric skills in cost-benefit analysis. However, in social work, policy analysis often refers not as much to the dollar cost of the policies, but the social impact they have. It involves community organization skills as well, in terms of conferring with those affected and developing policy advocacy groups to support socially just social policies.
Policy refurbishment refers to the skills involved in removing old policies that are useless or unjust and improving others to make them more humane and helpful.
Social work is a diverse, dynamic field of professionals working to create positive change on a small- and large-scale level. By understanding the different categories of social work, including micro, mezzo, and macro levels, individuals who are interested in this field can find the best place to begin their journey.