The Mesh of Civilizations and International Mail Flows

May 3, 2013

Yelena Mejova, Researcher, Yahoo Labs


Twenty years ago, Samuel Huntington turned the political science world on its head. At the time, political scientists largely thought that geo-political alignments reflected economic and ideological divisions. Huntington thought differently. In his landmark article Clash of Civilizations, he asserted “The great divisions among humankind and the dominating source of conflict will be cultural.”  Our team at Yahoo Labs wanted to test this controversial hypothesis by looking at the flow of communications globally to get a sense of which countries were talking to each other.

Headed by computational sociologist Bogdan State (Stanford University), along with Patrick Park and Michael Macy (Cornell University) and Ingmar Weber (Qatar Computing Research Institute), we used Yahoo Mail to map global communication trends and relate it to economic, demographic, political, and cultural metrics.  


Our data setconsisted of anonymized message headers (not message content) from hundreds of millions of anonymized Yahoo Mail messages across tens of millions of Yahoo users located among 144 different countries and sent during a six month period in 2012. After adjusting for market share and country-specific Internet usage, we constructed a global communications network, which is pictured here.


This network clearly shows Huntington’s eight different cultures, most notably Latin American, African, Islamic, and Western. The nearer in proximity the cultures are on the chart, the more they are emailing each other.  Nevertheless, this could be due to other factors like geographic proximity, common language, population size and density, and even similarity in economic development. To tease out the importance of these factors, we ran a statistical analysis using standard cultural measures like power-distance index, individualism-collectivism, masculinity-femininity and the uncertainty avoidance index (all of which have been compiled for most of the world's largest countries), to account for the communication ties.

Perhaps you’ve already guessed it...After controlling for many factors (like common languages, geographic proximity, economic and cultural similarities), the effect of “civilization,” defined as blocks of countries that share common historical circumstances and cultural features, remains a significant predictor of communication density. Our analysis of global email flow maps closely with Huntington’s prediction of nation state alignment.


There is, however, an important difference.  Critics have questioned whether divisions among Huntington’s civilizations are a predictor of ethnic conflict [3]. The field of computational international relations is only in its infancy, and it’s too soon to know at this point whether low level of email communication between geographically-proximate countries translates into a higher likelihood of conflict or clash. What we do know is that Huntington’s theory is quite good at partitioning the world's countries when it comes to email communication, and the evidence we present today clearly shows a "mesh of civilizations," not a "clash.”


About Yahoo Labs

 Yahoo Labs is pioneering science driven innovation. If the type of research described  in “Mesh of Civilization” interests you, Yahoo Labs is currently hiring PhDs for even more fascinating research projects. To learn more about career opportunities at Yahoo Labs, please visit here.  


[1] S. Huntington, The Clash of Civilizations. Foreign Aff. 72.3, 22-49 (1993).

[2] G. Hofstede, Culture's consequences: International differences in work-related values. (Sage Publications, New York, 1980).

[3] J. Fox, Clash of Civilizations or Clash of Religions Which is a More Important Determinant of Ethnic Conflict? Ethnicities 1.3, 295-320 (2001)