High Demand for Macro Social Work Professionals
The social work profession is now in the middle of a far-reaching initiative to increase the ranks of the field’s most unpopular — but potentially most powerful — discipline. Macro Social Work.
The focus is on the area of social work that “pushes the boundaries of the profession by fostering a ‘big picture’ perspective that analyzes people’s issues ‘outside the box’ and focuses on the prevention of problems.” Dr. Michael Reisch, a leading social work scholar at the University of Maryland, wrote those words in an influential essay in late 2015.
Reisch, who focuses on social justice and public policy, was describing the field of macro social work as part of an on-going effort to recruit more social workers to this practice, which attracts the fewest students despite offering significant opportunities.
Overall, the opportunities available for those interested in advanced social work span a wide spectrum, from counseling individuals to influencing policy at the state or national levels.
Despite its crucial role, however, macro social work remains the least popular area among social work professionals, as micro social work dominates the field.
Micro-, Mezzo- and Macro-level Social Work
The profession splits its key practice spheres into three areas: micro, mezzo and macro.
- Micro Social Work: Micro-level social work is most familiar to those outside the profession. It involves working directly with a single individual or a family on a range of issues, from guiding people to housing, healthcare or social services to diagnosing mental, behavioral and emotional disorders.
- Mezzo Social Work: The next area, mezzo, can vary in definition, but as the National Association of Social Workers defines it, the work entails helping people in small groups and organizations, such as in schools or community-service organizations.
- Macro Social Work: At the macro level, where Reisch works, social work practitioners often focus on effecting systematic change to help people at a societal level, such as marshaling evidence to advocate for improved healthcare laws, organizing statewide activist groups or pushing for regional, national and even global social policy change.
Despite its crucial role, however, macro social work remains the least popular area among social work professionals, as micro social work dominates the field. Hands-on clinical social workers form the largest group of mental health providers in the United States, while, as of 2011, only 8.8 percent of social work students were enrolled in macro areas of study.
As of 2011, only 8.8 percent of social work students were enrolled in macro areas of study.
Part of the challenge stems from a focus on micro social work at the university level, which is why Jake Rothman — Professor Emeritus at the Luskin School of Public Affairs at UCLA — published a 2012 report highlighting the decline of macro practice among social work schools despite a critical need for macro social workers.
Macro Suffers from Lack of Awareness, Misconceptions
We reached out to Dr. Reisch who said lack of awareness also plays a large role in the lower enrollment for macro studies. “Many students who are considering a career in social work, even those who are motivated by a concern over a specific issue or problem, are unaware that they can address this issue through a macro career path in social work.”
Reisch also pointed to a misconception within the social work community that macro work is an “indirect” practice that involves dealing with systems, organizations, and institutions, rather than people.
“In fact, all forms of social work practice, including macro practice, involve interpersonal relationships,” Reisch said.
Reisch disagrees with the idea that students tend to avoid what some would consider controversial subjects, such as LGBTQ rights, socio-economic inequality and police violence affecting communities of color — all of which command daily headlines lately.
Many social work students who pursue careers in clinical practice care deeply about these and other issues, Reisch says, even if many fear they cannot impact such broad problems.
The world needs social work talent at the macro level as much it does at the micro and mezzo areas.
In an effort to expand the ranks of macro social workers, Professor Rothman successfully proposed the formation in 2013 of a blue ribbon commission to advocate for a revitalized emphasis on macro fields of study. His proposal became the Special Commission to Advance Macro Practice in Social Work.
The commission seeks to bolster macro work across a number of sub-categories, including community organizing, planning, development, policy practice, management and, administration.
The Special Commission to Advance Macro Practice in Social Work also has started a determined “20 in 2020” campaign. The idea is to call on the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) and other social work organizations to help raise the number of social work students enrolled in macro programs to 20 percent by 2020.
One thing is clear: The social work profession strongly believes that the world needs social work talent at the macro level as much it does at the micro and mezzo areas. The profession is now actively recruiting individuals with the perspective and desire to acquire the kind of social work expertise that can be applied on a far-reaching scale.
Special Commission to Advance Macro Practice in Social Work: Established in 2013 to promote macro social work in education and practice.
Council on Social Work Education: A non-profit national association representing social workers, as well as graduate and undergraduate social work programs.
Why Macro Practice Matters: Professor Michael Reisch’s essay on the importance of macro social work and the ‘big picture’ perspective.
Education for Macro Intervention — a Survey of Problems and Prospects: The recent widely read article by Lawrence Summers, the Harvard economist, and former Treasury secretary.