In the study of social processes, the presence of unobserved heterogeneity is a regular concern. It should be particularly worrisome for the statistical analysis of networks, given the complex dependencies that shape network formation combined with the restrictive assumptions of related models. In this paper, we demonstrate the importance of explicitly accounting for unobserved heterogeneity in exponential random graph models (ERGM) with a Monte Carlo analysis and two applications that have played an important role in the networks literature. Overall, these analyses show that failing to account for unobserved heterogeneity can have a significant impact on inferences about network formation. The proposed frailty extension to the ERGM (FERGM) generally outperforms the ERGM in these cases, and does so by relatively large margins. Moreover, our novel multilevel estimation strategy has the advantage of avoiding the problem of degeneration that plagues the standard MCMC-MLE approach.
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