The macro-micro divide has been on the foreground of the social science debate since its inception. While the macro-level identifies societal structures characterizing institutional and normative settings, the micro-level captures behavioral, cognitive, and emotional processes at the individual level. In this sense, the macro-level is synonymous of «global», «system» or «structure», opposed to the microscopic insight on the «actors», their «behaviors» or «agency» (Alexander, 1987). Emerging from this debate, more recently social scientists have proposed to differentiate between three interdependent micro-, meso- and macro-levels to improve understanding of an increasingly complex social world (Levy, 2012). In this framework, the term “meso” has been used to define intermediate units of analysis among economists, anthropologists, sociologists, criminologists or social psychologists. Although many epistemic differences emerge from this literature, network analysts seem to provide a consistent attempt to operationalize this notion for an interdisciplinary audience (Lazega & Snijders, 2015).
Definition and use across disciplines
Literally, meso means “in between”. The focus on intermediate levels of analysis responds to the common urgency among researchers to get a parsimonious abstraction of the functioning of social life. Among sociologists, Turner (2012) describes the notion of meso level as a place for interactions between collective agents, such as groups and organizations. In social psychology, Bronfenbrenner (1979, p. 25) considers meso-systems as: « (…) interrelations among two or more settings in which the developing person actively participates », what brings Jaspal et al. (2015, p. 265) to locate the meso level: « (…) on the various social group memberships of the individual ». Examples of economists' use of meso-unit of analysis can be found into studies on the flow of knowledge among firms (Giuliani & Bell, 2005), the evolution of economic systems (Dopfer, Foster & Poots, 2004) and poverty indicators at community level (Kristjanson et al., 2005). Among anthropologists, de Munck (1994) use the notion of meso-level to look at specific behavioral models. In addition, other scholars address this notion by spatially locating the meso-level into neighborhoods, schools or classrooms as intermediate dimensions between individuals and larger social contexts (McCarthy, 2011; Reid, Sutton & Hunter, 2010).
What ‘in between’ means reflects differences across disciplines and approaches. Nevertheless, what social scientists who use this notion have most in common is their research of the processes where the interaction between micro and macro can be observed (Vacchiano & Spini, 2021). In this respect, Lazega and Snijders (2015) claim that network analysis has provided the most consistent attempt to address this issue. The reason is that by conceptualizing the emergence of interactions as different types of networks, scholars can streamline the opportunities and constraints arising from social relationships as a juncture within the micro-macro gap. The reason is that one of the main assumptions of network theory is that social relationships can be studied as social contexts: ego, personal networks can be seen as aggregate units of analysis located at a level of social reality higher than individuals (Van Duijn, Van Busschbach and Snijders, 2009). Although individuals are constantly interwoven with other people during the flux of social life, networks are different from face-to face encounters, because they are constituted by a (more and less) stable set of participants. This means that networks follow a hierarchical structure, and thus, individuals are nested within enduring forms of relational opportunities and constraints at the meso-level (Emirbayer, 1997; Bourdieu, 1986) that potentially shape individual vulnerability .
Authors: Mattia Vacchiano, Dario Spini
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Semantic network visualisation
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