Micro-Macro Dynamics

Updated: Dec 3, 2020

The micro-macro dynamic describes a complex interaction between the micro and macro levels to a system. In every system there will be a degree of interdependence between the elements – by the standard definition of a system being a set of interdependent parts – this creates a dynamic where individual elements that form autonomous components on one level are also part of some kind of a whole on another level; due to these interdependencies. The lower level, composed of the elementary parts is called the micro-level and the higher level of the whole system is called the macro-level. The micro-macro dynamic then describes how these two levels interact and coexist.

For example, within an economy, there is a micro level consisting of the individual agents and business organizations, and a macro level of the whole economy within which they all are interdependent.1 The actors may compete on the micro level, creating one type of dynamic – the market system – but for all to achieve optimal outcomes they also have to cooperate on the macro level – typically through government services and regulation – this creates two different levels, with two different sets of rules; those of the market and those of the public institutions, but both market and government have to interact and coexist.


This multi-dimensional nature to a system that results in the micro-macro dynamic is a product of synthesis and emergence. In many instances when we put elements together they do not simply remain discrete separate entities but they interact, co-evolve and they differentiate their states and function with respect to each other to become an interdependent whole, which comes to have properties and features that none of its parts possess. A whole new level of organization emerges that is different from the parts. This is made manifest in ecosystems; as they have co-evolved over millennia the parts are intricately interdependent forming a whole system that has features and dynamics independent from any of its parts and thus a two-tier system and a resulting emergent micro-macro dynamic. The whole ecosystem goes through processes of change – such as ecological succession – that are not associated with any of the parts but condition what creatures can viably exist within that macro regime.2

Possibilities and Constraints

When looking at some system – that exhibits any degree of complexity – we can identify two fundamentally different dynamics driving its behavior. Firstly it is not possible for something to exist in the world without it having physical parts; it is necessary to have physical parts to enable the whole, the physical parts are how the system does what it does, without them it would be incapable of acting or affecting its environment. Thus the lower levels of the hierarchy are subject to physical constraints, the limits of possibility come from lower levels in the hierarchy.3

But equally, the system is conditioned by the whole. All systems exist in some environment and that environment typically acts on the system as a whole. The environment places constraints on the whole which are then exerted downward to the parts. For example, a wheel, if placed on an incline will roll down the slope. The influence is coming from the environment that is making the system as a whole roll down the incline which is conditioning the state and position of the individual molecular parts of the object.

The lower levels answer the question “How?” they are the building blocks that make the system physically possible and without which the system could not exist. Although there will be many possibilities only a limited number of these possibilities will be relevant to the context within which the macro level exists. Physically there are trillions of possible permutations of biological organisms but only those that “fit” with their environment will persist. As the ultimate reason why we have some permutations and not others is because of the context within which they exist – the macro level – it is the upper, macro-level that answers the question “Why?”4

Timothy F. Allen, Professor of Botany at the University of Wisconsin-Madison illustrates this as such: “Mammals have five digits. There is no physical reason for mammals having five digits on their hands and feet, because it comes not from physical limits, but from the constraints of having a mammal heritage. Any number of the digits is possible within the physical limits, but in mammals only five digits are allowed by the biological constraints. Constraints come from above, while the limits as to what is possible come from below. The concept of hierarchy becomes confused unless one makes the distinction between limits from below and limits from above. The distinction between mechanisms below and purposes above turn on the issue of constraint versus possibility. Forget the distinction, and biology becomes pointlessly confused, impossibly complicated chemistry, while chemistry becomes unwieldy physics.”5

Macro Dynamics

Each level in the hierarchy operates under different rules, is driven by different objectives, or shaped by different factors. The macro level is responsible for maintaining balance, stability and functionality within the whole system and is responsible for the system interacting with its environment; all of these factors place certain conditions on the operation of the macro-level. The macro system – if teleological – has to understand the environment, the possibilities within that environment, select the most appropriate one and then organize the parts towards that direction, in so doing it defines the question of “Why?” i.e. the higher meaning to why the parts are doing what they are doing. The parts have a higher meaning to their operation when they are operating to enable this overall outcome. The constraints as determined by the environment come from above.6

The macro-level is primarily concerned with the integrity of the whole system and ensuring that the micro-level can be effectively coordinated. Within social systems, the macro level may often be seen to be conservative in nature, departure from the established rules that ensure the functioning and perpetuation of the whole are seen as deviant.7

A good example of this would be religions, that are traditionally designed as the macro-level integrative structure to a culture and society. Religions provide a description of the world that is integrated into one ultimate conception of reality, God. Religions provide people with a situation in that reality, the right path to follow and a moral code as to how to act and conduct one’s life so as to follow that perceived correct path.8 Religions see the departure of the individual from that ultimate context – such as acting purely in one’s own self-interest – as a form of deviant behavior. These faith systems – and spirituality of all form – are designed to provide meaning to people’s life, the ultimate answers to the question “Why?’ by situating them within and aligning them with some larger environmental context, within which they are believed to play a significant part and thus gain significance, meaning and a source for answering why they act in a certain way.

Another example would be socialist political regimes, that are holistic in their ideals; purportedly giving precedence to the whole of society over any of its constituent subsystems or members. Again socialist ideologies are designed to give coherence and integrity to the whole social system. The emphasis is on equality between member parts and their contribution towards the whole organization, individual identity, agendas, and motives are expected to be subsumed by the whole. In forming part of the whole members find their identity, it is the macro level set of rules that give context and meaning to their lives and the preservation of that integrity is seen as paramount. This is a defining factor to the macro-level of organization; a set of rules that are in place to preserve the integration of the entire organization.

Micro Dynamics

The micro-level to a system is constituted by – and driven by – discrete component parts. Unlike the macro level elements can be quantified as discrete and autonomous components, typically having a material instantiation. This capacity to defined discrete and autonomous parts is a defining feature of the rules governing the micro level, in that it enables us to ascribe objective properties and attributes to specific parts.

When we take something as a whole we can not compare it to other things, and ascribe attributes to it based upon comparisons, to do so would be to reduce it to a part within some larger system. But parts of a system can always have properties and we can in some way measure those attributes by comparing the parts, one person is small because another is larger, one car is efficient because another is inefficient – components by the very definition of there being more than one of them – always have properties in relation to other things. By creating a fixed set of differences between things we can create a metric system; making it possible to measure things. Whereas the macro-level becomes defined by the integrity of the network between the parts and the integrity of whole processes, the micro level is defined more by the static properties of discrete entities and the metric system created by the difference between them. Within social systems, the micro-level is governed by the individual agents and their local agendas. Free market economies are good examples of systems that are predominantly based on micro-level rules. The dynamics of the system are – at least theoretically – driven by the actions and motives of the individual agents without reference to the macro-level; the system is seen to be nothing more than the micro-level components and  interactions governed by supply and demand constraints. Here we can note that the external environment is not considered; free market economic models see the natural environment as simply a commodity source within the economy. These models do not recognize the economy as forming part of some larger environment – social or natural – with that larger environment placing any macro-level constraints on the system. Free market economies are focused on discrete tangible products and agents acting as individuals without macro-level constraints.

Liberalism – or at least classical Liberalism – would be another example of a micro-level, component based socio-political paradigm, as individual liberty, freedom of expression, diversity of opinions etc. are given precedence over macro-level socio-political integration. Liberalism leads to the decoupling of socio-political institutions from the overarching macro-level structures of religious institutions. With the rise of liberalism in the seventeenth and eighteenth-century traditional institutions that we designed to maintain overall socio-cultural coherence have often been replaced by a new set of institutions driven by individual choice, and freedom for people to follow their own independent agendas.

Synthesis and Analysis

Whereas the micro level to a system can be understood through analytical methods, taking things apart to examine them in isolation, the macro-level typically can not, as understanding whole processes require synthetics reasoning; the putting of things together to see what emerges. When we put things together we combine their attributes, thus as we go up the hierarchy we have fewer and fewer properties as they become more generic and abstract, relating to the whole. For example, there are many things that we can not say about our universe when taken as a whole, we can not say it is heavy or light, big or small. But if there was another universe then we could ascribe these properties to it based upon its relation to the other element of its kind.

Inversely through analysis as we break things down we decompose a whole that had generic properties into parts that have properties in relation to each other; thus we can then create new categories out of these parts. For example, the neutron in the center of an atom when taken as a whole has no property of spin, but when we decompose a neutron we can talk about the spin of the quarks in relation to each other. In analyzing the body and taking it apart we would find that the different parts to its anatomy have many more properties than the whole.


A central question within the micro-macro dynamic is that of integration between the two different levels. Two distinctly different levels emerge with different rules governing each, but they then need to be reconciled in some way to create an overall functioning system. Physical, chemical, biological, economic, social and cultural systems all exhibit this micro-macro dynamic and how the system comes to reconcile it forms a primary determinate in its identity and overall structure. When the system fails to coordinate its parts into a functioning whole then it will become dominated by the interaction of its parts on the micro-level; what may be called a component based regime. An example of this might be the Warring States period in Chinese history, when the region of the Zhou Dynasty was divided between 8 states, during this period there was no overall organization but the state of Chinese civilization was defined by these component parts and their interaction.

Inversely the system may resolve the dynamic by forming a macro-level structure that constraints the micro level and thus again reduces the system to one level; removing the complex interaction between the two levels. Continuing with the example of Chinese civilization the communist political system of the past sixty years or so has been a form of social system where the macro-level regime has supervened over the micro-level.

Both of these dynamics create a single basin of attraction, but more complex evolutionary systems exist at the interaction between the two regimes. Systems that evolve engender a more complex dynamic between the micro and macro levels, with the micro level generating new possibilities and the macro level creating the conditions that select from this variety as the system develops over time. Natural selection is a classical example of this but equally, a functioning democracy would be another example.

Systems Innovation

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