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Testing Social Science Network Theories with Online Network Data: An Evaluation of External Validity


To answer questions about the origins and outcomes of collective action, political scientists increasingly turn to datasets with social network information culled from online sources. However, a fundamental question of external validity remains untested: are the relationships measured between a person and her online peers informative of the kind of offline, “real-world” relationships to which network theories typically speak? This article offers the first direct comparison of the nature and consequences of online and offline social ties, using data collected via a novel network elicitation technique in an experimental setting. We document strong, robust similarity between online and offline relationships. This parity is not driven by shared identity of online and offline ties, but a shared nature of relationships in both domains. Our results affirm that online social tie data offer great promise for testing long-standing theories in the social sciences about the role of social networks.

Corresponding author
James Bisbee is Ph.D. Candidate, NYU Department of Politics, 19 W. 4th St., New York, NY 10012. (
Jennifer M. Larson is Assistant Professor, NYU Department of Politics, 19 W. 4th St., New York, NY 10012. Corresponding Author (
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The authors thank Neal Beck, Eric Dickson, Sean Kates, and Xiang Zhou, as well as the participants of the New York University Empirical Research for Advanced Students seminar and the participants of the 2017 Harvard Experimental Political Science Graduate Student Conference, for their valuable feedback on the project.

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American Political Science Review
  • ISSN: 0003-0554
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