How to make methodological decisions when inferring social networks

André C. Ferreira*, Rita Covas, Liliana R. Silva, Sandra C. Esteves, Inês F. Duarte, Rita Fortuna, Franck Theron, Claire Doutrelant, Damien R. Farine

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

19 Citations (Scopus)


Social network analyses allow studying the processes underlying the associations between individuals and the consequences of those associations. Constructing and analyzing social networks can be challenging, especially when designing new studies as researchers are confronted with decisions about how to collect data and construct networks, and the answers are not always straightforward. The current lack of guidance on building a social network for a new study system might lead researchers to try several different methods and risk generating false results arising from multiple hypotheses testing. Here, we suggest an approach for making decisions when starting social network research in a new study system that avoids the pitfall of multiple hypotheses testing. We argue that best edge definition for a network is a decision that can be made using a priori knowledge about the species and that is independent from the hypotheses that the network will ultimately be used to evaluate. We illustrate this approach with a study conducted on a colonial cooperatively breeding bird, the sociable weaver. We first identified two ways of collecting data using different numbers of feeders and three ways to define associations among birds. We then evaluated which combination of data collection and association definition maximized (a) the assortment of individuals into previously known “breeding groups” (birds that contribute toward the same nest and maintain cohesion when foraging) and (b) socially differentiated relationships (more strong and weak relationships than expected by chance). This evaluation of different methods based on a priori knowledge of the study species can be implemented in a diverse array of study systems and makes the case for using existing, biologically meaningful knowledge about a system to help navigate the myriad of methodological decisions about data collection and network inference.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)9132-9143
Number of pages12
JournalEcology and Evolution
Issue number17
Publication statusPublished - 1 Sept 2020
Externally publishedYes


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