The connection between the macroscopic description of collective chaos and the underlying microscopic dynamics is thoroughly analysed in mean-field models of one-dimensional oscillators. We investigate to what extent infinitesimal perturbations of the microscopic configurations can provide information also on the stability of the corresponding macroscopic phase. In ensembles of identical one-dimensional dynamical units, it is possible to represent the microscopic configurations so as to make transparent their connection with the macroscopic world. As a result, we find evidence of an intermediate, mesoscopic, range of distances, over which the instability is neither controlled by the microscopic equations nor by the macroscopic ones. We examine a whole series of indicators, ranging from the usual microscopic Lyapunov exponents, to the collective ones, including finite-amplitude exponents. A system of pulse-coupled oscillators is also briefly reviewed as an example of non-identical phase oscillators where collective chaos spontaneously emerges.