Bridging the micro-macro divide: A new basis for social science

Chris Goldspink*, Robert Kay

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

48 Citations (Scopus)


A 'pervasive' problem in the social sciences, referred to as the 'micro-to-macro problem' concerns our capacity to explain the relationship between the constitutive elements of social systems (people) and emergent phenomena resulting from their interaction (i.e. organizations, societies, economies). Without a capacity to explain this relationship there is, in effect, no substantive theory of sociality. In this article, we explore the potential of a synthesis between autopoietic and complexity theory for understanding social systems in a way that addresses this issue. It is argued that autopoietic theory provides a basis for understanding the characteristics of the micro-level agents that make up social systems - human individuals, whereas complexity theory provides a basis for understanding how these characteristics influence the range and type of macro-level phenomena that arise from their interaction. The synthesis proposed here provides the basis for a theory of sociality that deals consistently with the relationship between the micro- and macro-levels of social phenomena and their ontological status. This approach has the potential to re-unite current scientific oppositions and avoid unnecessary pluralism within social science.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)597-618
Number of pages22
JournalHuman Relations
Issue number5
Publication statusPublished - May 2004
Externally publishedYes


  • Autopoiesis
  • Complexity theory
  • Critical realism
  • Social science
  • Social systems
  • Sociology


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