Political Micro-Macro Dynamic

All social systems involve a fundamentally irreducible relationship between the individual and the group that is expressed in many different forms, from issues surrounding conformity to privacy to the regulation of public spaces

The term micro-macro dynamic, also called the micro-macro link, refers to the dynamic interplay between the micro-level to a system and the macro-level, each of which may have different emergent structures, inherent rules, and processes but have to interact and coexist within the same overall system, thus creating a core tension between them.1 The political micro-macro dynamic describes the same phenomenon within sociopolitical systems, where it is also referred to as the agent-structure problem; an explicit recognition of the tension within all sociopolitical systems between the individual’s freedom to act and initiate change, versus the overall political and social institutions that are designed to maintain order and structure which typically requires the imposition of constraints on the individual.1

Agent Structure

The relationship between the individual and the collective has always been one of the most fundamental issues in the social sciences. This relationship was a central element in the theorizing of the founders of sociology and economics, including the work of Weber, Simmel, Smith, Durkheim, and Marx.2 Contemporary organizational theory is very much concerned with how organizational structure influences individual action and how individual behavior results in the emergence of global organizational properties. In the social sciences, this relationship is known as the agent-structure problem. Agency is the capacity of individuals to act independently and to make their own free choices. Structure is the recurrent macro patterned arrangements which influence or limit the choices and opportunities available.3

For example, a researcher may observe that individual political opinions and voting behavior are affected by their social class, thus indicating an empirical linkage between micro variables – political opinions – and a macro variable – social class. In most attempts to develop theories that link micro to macro, however, conceptual gaps appear in the resulting attempt. In most sciences today including, physics, biology, economics and many other social sciences this is the case. These gaps typically involve an inability to specify conceptually the processes by which micro- and macro-level forces influence each other.4

An understanding of the micro-macro dynamics to sociopolitical systems can help us structure and formulate key questions of interest within political theory. For example, the concepts of duty, justice, freedom, and diversity are just some of the questions that lie at the heart of political theory that can be understood with reference to systems micro-macro dynamic, as we will illustrate in this article. The key issue here is that of emergence, the process of emergence defined how micro-level parts are aggregated to form new macro level patterns. Thus an understanding of emergence tells us how we go from the micro-level to the macro level. The idea of emergence lies at the forefront of science today and thus within many domains, it is far from fully understood exactly how this process works to integrate the different levels.5


Emergence is a very general and fundamental process of pattern formation through self-organization as can be seen in the formation of rippled sand dunes

The process of emergence as it plays out in all kinds of systems creates new irreducible levels of organization. As we put parts together new processes come to take place on new levels, for these processes to take placed effectively new rules have to be created and imposed on that level of organization that does not exist on other levels. As an illustration we can think about a house fire taking place within a small community, a group of people forms to carry water from a local stream to put out the fire. They could all individually carry a bucket of water from the river to the house or given some form of coordination they could form a human chain standing still while passing the buckets along; this organization would be more efficient and quicker. But we can note that in order to get this new functional process of the whole, a new level of organization and a new set of rules had to be imposed and this new pattern of organization had to exert a downward constraint on its parts; all the members have to stand in the line and pass the buckets if not this emergence overall pattern will disintegrate and we will not get the functionality. This is the same for all sociopolitical institutions, they are emergent patterns of organization that enable certain functions, but to do that the whole organization typically has to exert some downward effect constraining the parts so as to achieve the optimal overall organization.6

A complex social system is composed of many such levels of emergent organization from processes that take place only on the individual level to those within specific organizations to those within a whole nation or the whole of humanity. This emergence of new processes and rules on new levels is why we get two distinct rules for the micro-level and macro-level of the system. The parts create the whole but then processes take place on the level of the whole that require specific structure and rules to enable them. These macro rules then feedback to constrain the agents on the local level. This is a micro-macro feedback loop, the parts create the whole but then the whole feeds back to constrain and enable the parts. The upward effect of the individual members of the political organization on the macro institutions is called upward causation. The downward effect of the macro institutions on the individual is called downward causation; as the institutional structures are seen to cause the behavior of the individuals. This micro-macro dynamic is a core source of irreducible complexity because each level represents a different set of rules, but also these rule sets must interact in some way; political institutions can not exist without members, and likewise, the individual members can not achieve optimal outcomes in the absence of these overall institutional structures.6

Conflicting Rules

To understand the difference between the micro and macro rules we can take the example of the different interpretations of the concept of freedom. As noted by the Isaiah Berlin, there are two primary formulations to freedom within Western political philosophy. That liberty is the absence of coercion or that liberty is self-determination. The first version which is a form of “freedom from” things is called negative freedom and the second “freedom to.” is called positive freedom.7 Negative freedom is a form of freedom where the individual is liberated from overarching constraints and is thus free to pursue their own desires and interests without being bound by common rules or inhibition by others. For example, in this formulation of freedom, having lots of money would equate to freedom, as it liberates one from constraints by others and one could purchase all of the things one might desire, thus the person would be free in this sense. But say one was both a multimillionaire and a drug addict, such a person could then have access to all the drugs that they might desire without constraints, making them free in this sense. But at the same time, it could be said that the individual is a slave to their addiction and thus not really free. This would then lead to an alternative formulation of the concept of freedom, that of positive freedom.8

Positive freedom is the freedom that one has from one’s own desires and instincts; what we might call a freedom to be oneself. Positive freedom typically distinguishes the true or higher self from the false or lower self. Liberty occurs only when the higher, true self-determines one’s acts, not when the lower self is in charge. Freedom is not just the absence of coercion; it is when the higher self-acts. From this perspective, freedom is to be found in one’s self-realization within some whole, rather than the capacity to do whatever one wants. This is the foundations of freedom as espoused by the political philosophy of Jean-Jacques Rousseau who not only accepted liberty as self-determination, but freedom, he reasoned, was determination of one’s acts by one’s true or highest self, and that self is the part of the citizen that is acting within the context of the whole community.8 True freedom in this sense is obedience to the general will. When people violate the general will, it is legitimate to coerce them into obeying it. Further, when the community brings these people back into line, it is not coercing them but making them free because freedom is obedience to the general will.9 And from this, we get Rousseau’s famous remarks that those who try to disobey the general will, must be “forced to be free.”

Thus we can see the two formulations of the concept of freedom, one based on the rule sets of the micro-level, where freedom is the lack of constraints on the individual, the other based upon the macro-level of the whole where freedom is liberation from one’s own desires; the kind of freedom that the Buddha might have been searching for in renouncing worldly desires.  The fact that new rules emerge on the different levels is what creates the potential for these rule sets to be in conflict. The rules that govern the whole are irreducible to the rules that govern the micro-level and this gives us the core tension, at the heart of such ancient issues as duty and freedom. For example, there is a well-known dilemma at the heart of many issues surrounding duty. Duty means “that which is owing” but the question is whether what is owed is to the whole organization or to the other individual parts? Is your duty to your family or to the whole of society or even to God. For example, the Hindu scripture Bhagavad Gita begins with Arjuna, the Pandava prince, facing a life-or-death battle against his unrighteous cousins. However, in the opposing army, he also finds senior and much-revered members of his own family who raised him and his brothers when they had become fatherless as children. He was most grateful for the care, security, and teachings that they had given him as a child. But according to his dharma – which means “what is right” – Arjuna has to fight in order to establish justice and that means he has to kill the very individuals whom he worships with all of his heart. The result is despair — a situation where Arjuna feels caught between the two value systems.10

Micro-Macro Process

Protests such as the one in Toronto seen in the image above, are examples of conflict between the existing macro political institutions and micro level bottom-up processes of change

There would appear to be no solution to the micro-macro dynamic, it is an inherent part of the dynamics of every system. All societies and political systems since the origins of social groups have faced the challenges of integrating micro and macro sociopolitical structures. The central question is not in removing this dynamic but instead how the political system enables it, that is to say how it enables the continuous feedback loop, whereby the local level distributed actions, interactions, opinions and perspectives of the agents are aggregated into forming macro structures and how those formal political institutions then feedback to shape the individual’s decisions. In this respect, we can identify a number of different possible outcomes to this process. The system may prioritize the social group over the members; it can prioritize the individual members at the expense of the group, or it could potentially develop sociocultural structures for enabling this feedback process to take place, creating some balanced interplay between the two.

A political system that emphasizes the organization of the whole society over that of the individual may be termed communitarian. Communitarianism as a political philosophy emphasizes the connection between the individual and the community.11 Its overriding philosophy is based upon the belief that a person’s social identity and personality are largely constructed and modulated by community relationships and their place within the whole social system, with a smaller degree of development being placed on individualism. It is a political theory which emphasizes the responsibility of the individual to the community, both through their social connections and bonds to each other, but also typically to some overarching set of values and culture that endorses the value of the community over that of any of the individual member.11

A classical example of political communitarianism within the context of the modern nation-state is that of socialism. Socialism is a political and economic paradigm that purportedly emphasizes the social group over that of the individual members. Socialism advocates for the means of production, distribution, and exchange to be owned or regulated by the community as a whole and used towards the beneficial ends of the whole social group, rather than for the interests of individuals.12 The communitarian approach to political organization has both advantages and disadvantages. David E. Pearson illustrated both of these when he said13 “[t]o earn the appellation ‘community,’ it seems to me, groups must be able to exert moral suasion and extract a measure of compliance from their members. That is, communities are necessarily, indeed, by definition, coercive as well as moral, threatening their members with the stick of sanctions if they stray, offering them the carrot of certainty and stability if they don’t.” Communitarianism offers a sense of unity, certainty, and stability within the whole. However it is only interested in the individual in respect to their part in the whole, if you do not play that part then there is no basis for your value within the community; the individual has no inherent value, thus there is no basis to resist the actions and interest of the group.

Because individual identity is strongly constructed by the culture and social relations, there is no coherent way of formulating individual rights or interests in abstraction from social contexts. Everything comes to exist in relation to the whole social group and individuality appears to be expendable to that. The twentieth-century experiments with socialism and communism taught us much about the worst dangers of such political systems. Although they are not necessarily determined to be totalitarianism, they are certainly prone to becoming hijacked by a small group that then has unrestricted power over the people; the results can be disastrous as history has taught us. On the macro-level, this approach may offer the community unity and coherence as a whole making it potentially more effective as a collective. Unfortunately, this coherence of the whole often comes at the expense of the individual. In emphasizing the whole over the parts, communitarian political systems will typically result in conformity and homogeneity. As individuality, diversity and different perspectives become dumbed down this limits the stock of diversity required for the system to renew itself over time in the face of new challenges, thus rendering it potentially unsustainable.

Inversely the sociopolitical system may prioritize the micro-level of the individual over the macro level, meaning that the system will become defined and driven by the interests of the individual members. Such a political system finds its expression in the political and economic ideals of liberalism and the free market.  Within this paradigm, the whole actually stops existing in its own right, the whole is seen as nothing other than all of the parts – what we call reductionism.14 Here what is best for the whole is simply what is best for all of the parts individually, the measure of the value of things – unlike in communitarianism where it is to the whole organization – is found in the utility to the individuals. The political organization within such a paradigm is based upon the writes of the individual, the whole political organization is nothing more than a set of contracts between the members that are entered into out of their own self-interest. Any binding political or legal responsibility that exists as separate from the individual is a product of those individuals freely giving over their consent and binding themselves into an overall organization, through a set of contracts that were believed to be formed out of their own self-interest.15

As with prioritizing the macro level this approach also has both advantages and disadvantages. It is effective at harnessing the bottom up motives of the individuals, one of capitalism’s greatest advantages. Likewise, it promotes the differentiation of the individual and groups, protecting them against the interests of the whole and maintains a diversity of potential solutions that are required to navigate change. But in prioritizing individual motives and denying the existence of overall structures liberalism can render the overall social system dysfunctional. Social systems have emergent patterns, a downward cause has to be exerted on the parts to maintain the integrity of those processes, when that downward effect is removed the organization is removed and the functioning of the whole becomes diminished; the basic socio-cultural fabric of trust, identity and purpose becomes eroded and without this the formal political institutions cease to be able to function, they become increasingly paralyzed for lack of socio-cultural infrastructure.16


The fall of the Berlin Wall – one of the great moments in political history – brought to a close 72 years of socialist regime in Eastern Europe and Russia

The twentieth-century experiments into both socialism and neoliberalism have taught us much about the basic achievements and limitations of both systems, however, one thing we can say is that both systems are unsustainable. Both the micro and macro level approach are unsustainable over time, by prioritizing the macro level there is a loss of the differentiation of the parts and the diversity of solutions required to navigate long-term major changes. By prioritizing the parts the whole system becomes disintegrated. The underlying unity of the social and cultural fabric that enable social capital to flow effectively becomes depleted and the formal political systems are rendered dysfunctional in the absence of basic community infrastructure. For a system to be sustainable it has to enable the full feedback loop between the micro and macro. Complex systems are hypothesized to exist on the so-called “edge of chaos” between integration and disintegration where they navigate them both to enable the process of creative destruction, wherein they are continuously broken down and built up.17 Indeed without going into too much detail, we can ask after the twentieth-century divide between socialism and liberalism, what is left today? The most successful and potentially the most stable and sustainable socio-economic organizations of our time are those that involve an emphasis on both the social and the free market and manage to integrate them in some way.

Those countries that constitute the so-called “Nordic model” are the most successful along virtually all metrics of sociopolitical and economic success. The Nordic model is a term coined to capture the unique combination of free market capitalism and social benefits that have given rise to a society that enjoys a host of top-quality services, including free education and free healthcare, as well as generous, guaranteed pension payments for retirees. Sitting between the controlled economy of socialist regimes and free-market capitalism at the other end of the spectrum, the Nordic model is sometimes referred to as “the third way.”18 This is not to promote the Nordic model as an ideal, or to promote a centrist approach. Life happens at the edge of chaos, and the greater the interplay between integration and differentiation the stronger the emergence, this means continuously pushing the extremes as well as maintaining enough balance to survive as a coherent pattern. The greater the system’s capacity to do that the greater its capacity to innovate and evolve, which is what assures its survival in the long run. We can note also that most socio-political organizations throughout history have not stood the test of time and in times of fundamental and rapid change survival is the primary metric of success.19

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18. McWhinney, J. (2014). The Nordic Model: Pros and Cons. Investopedia. Retrieved 21 June 2017, from http://www.investopedia.com/articles/investing/100714/nordic-model-pros-and-cons.asp

19. Complexity: Life at the Edge of Chaos: Roger Lewin: 9780226476551: Amazon.com: Books. (2017). Amazon.com. Retrieved 21 June 2017, from https://www.amazon.com/Complexity-Life-at-Edge-Chaos/dp/0226476553