How New is “New”? Who Gets Added in Panel Studies of Egocentric Networks?

Shira Offer, Claude Fischer


The egocentric method collects detailed information about networks and their members. Although it cannot capture the network in its entirety, the egocentric method, especially when it employs multiple name-generators, provides a sample of a person’s immediate social environment. The question that follows is which alters are likely to be included in those samples? Panel studies of networks allow us to explore why respondents name the people they name and thus better understand the process of name-eliciting. In the present study, we use data from the University of California Social Network Study (UCNets), a three-wave panel study on the dynamics of personal networks of about 1,000 individuals and some 18,000 of their social ties, to examine newly-listed alters, that is alters who were listed as being in the network for the first time in the last wave. Who gets added in the last panel and how really “new” are they to the network? Analyses show that respondents named on average 2.28 alters for the first time in Wave 3. However, most of these ties were not “truly” new, in the sense of not having been known to or involved with ego before. The survey asked respondents why they had not mentioned these alters previously. Eighty percent of these newly-listed ties were either dormant ties that had only recently been activated (such as a cousin who moved to the same city) or an active alter whom the respondent had forgotten to mention in the first two waves. While partners and immediate kin were hardly ever mentioned for the first time (under 10%), the truly new immediate kin listed were typically children and grandchildren. About one-fourth of “new” extended kin and nonkin were actually dormant or previously forgotten ties. Overall, the percentage of “truly new” ties in these groups was very small (about 2 percent of extended kin and 6 percent of nonkin) and consisted mainly of new coworkers, neighbors, and acquaintances. These truly new ties appear highly in the contexts of socializing, practical help, and difficult relationships. Truly new alters, by contrast, were rare among these whom respondents confided in and those from whom they received advice or emergency help, suggesting that these types of interactions tend to occur with alters previously known. Distinguishing empirically and theoretically between these two types of newly-listed ties is important because it allows us to better understand the process by which personal networks are formed and change over time and because they have differing implications for network dynamics and ego’s life. Truly new ties have the potential to link people to new resources and information, which can be crucial for social and economic mobility, dormant ties less so. On the other hand, dormant ties provide a deep well of potential support to assist in coping with everyday challenges and in emergency situations, while truly new ties are less likely to be so dependable.

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