Notes on “The Collapse of Complex Societies” (J. Tainter). 1. Introduction to Collapse. Intro! The sublime mystery of collapsed civilizations and dark portents. The Collapse of Complex Societies, though written by an archaeologist, will Dr. Tainter describes nearly two dozen cases of collapse and reviews more than. Collapse of Complex Societies has ratings and 91 reviews. Mark said: Ok, done!Tainter’s work is an opus. How could it be otherwise with a title lik.

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Want to Read saving…. His arguably best-known work, The Collapse of Complex Societiesexamines the collapse of Maya and Chacoan civilizations,[2] and of the Western Roman Empire, in terms of network theory, energy economics and complexity theory.

The Roman Empire grew so long as it had some other territory to invade and tax; the sums raised by conquest compared favorably to the cost of campaign returns were good, the societise was up! Such is the nature of comparative case-based research. In studying Tainter’s work, one develops a teleological definition of the possibility of a “civilization.

Collapse of Complex Societies

He makes a convincing case of societal collapse occurring because marginal costs of maintaining the system become too high compared to benefits.

This allows copmlex the support of specialized roles that do not necessarily contribute to the sustainability of the society aristocrats, priest castes, etc. The empire was split into two halves, of which the western soon fragmented into smaller units.

Such complexity requires a substantial “energy” subsidy meaning the consumption of resources, or other forms of wealth. Tainter argues that sustainability or collapse of societies follow from the success or failure of problem-solving institutions [3] and that societies collapse when their investments in social complexity and their “energy subsidies” reach a point of diminishing marginal returns.

The Romans “solved” this problem by conquering their neighbours to appropriate their energy surpluses in concrete forms, as metals, grain, slaves, etc. This is probably a fine academic work. Does the continued failure in the United States government to regulate the production of greenhouse gases, having known about the phenomenon since the s, appear rational?


The level of scholarship is high, and his examples are well-argued. His analysis and application of his theory to the Western Roman Empire argues that it was not barbarians, Christians, or plagues that brought down Rome, but a limitation on the value of complexity.

The author deliberately frequently summarizes and repeats, even though this is a short book, and he constantly cites other equally boring academics for minor points. The investment to acquire these resources is at first easily outwighed by their benefits.

Eventually the society will “decline” to a level of lower complexity: He concludes that, since the collapse of any one state would only result in its incorporation into a competitor, all the states must collapse at once if collapse does occur.

Joseph Tainter

And, in his final chapters, Tainter discusses why modern societies may not be able to choose to collapse: Retrieved from ” https: They are mere ephemera randomly associated with the purely material factors taintr are wholly determinative of the arc of every society in human history.

For an exhaustive view of this it would be societiea to read the book. The civilization plateau’s and the This is a short, dense, book about a difficult subject. Social complexity can be recognized by numerous differentiated and specialized social and economic roles and many mechanisms through which they are coordinated, and colpapse reliance on symbolic and abstract communication, and the existence of a class of information producers and analysts who are not involved in primary resource production.

Tainter seeks to develop a universal explanation for the collapse of complex societies. While the conditions in all three are wildly different, the declining returns on sociopolitical complexity are implicated each time. An excellent treatise that proposes a general theory on why many advanced civilizations throughout history eventually collapse, with very detailed treatment societties Roman and Mayan collapses as case studies to support the hypothesis.

The background is sufficiently deep and the argument is well-developed both logically and from comparative analysis.

Account Options Sign in. The alternative assumption—of idleness in the face of disaster—requires a leap of faith at which we may rightly hesitate. Tainter does a socketies job with his argument, which I admit even I though I disagree with it in part. However, this incisiveness may come at the expense of nuanced, cautious, and case-specific history: This was probably the most interesting part of the book.


Joseph Tainter – Wikipedia

Moreover, “The Societiees of Complex Societies” is an academic monograph, so it has all the defects of that genre. So, I wouldn’t say this is for the layman.

Here he is, dismissing as unreasonable a phenomenon that should be familiar to us: It begins to dissolve when it no longer benefits the majority of its populace. I’d say to give the early sections a shot because they do form the basis for his later arguments. Political disintegration is a persistent feature of world history. The idea of diminishing returns well explored meaning that more fertilizer, internet, railroads and regulations produce more food per man-hour invested, but only to a point.

Any explanation of societal collapse carries lessons not just for the study of ancient societies, but Tainter is an anthropologist, so he views history though that prism.

Similarly, he rejects as not wrong, but incoherent, the idea that civilized societies are superior to uncivilized societies. When the ‘low hanging fruit’ disappears, further expansion be it territorial, trade oriented becomes less and less profitable, and eventually starts to work against the civilization.

The comparisons didn’t appear to be “cherry picked” because they fit the A review of this book requires a different standard than your everyday ‘fun’ book. He paints the Ik, in Uganda, as an example of extreme collapse, alleging, for example, that children are abandoned by their mothers at age three and that sharing is nonexistent in the society. Ulanowicz Limited preview – Tainter describes nearly two dozen cases of collapse and reviews more than years of explanations.