The Collapse of Complex Societies
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The Collapse of Complex Societies

4.17 of 5 stars 4.17  ·  rating details  ·  280 ratings  ·  52 reviews
Twenty-four examples of societal collapse help develop a new theory to account for their breakdown. Detailed studies of the Roman, Mayan and Cacoan collapses clarify the processes of disintegration.
Paperback, 262 pages
Published March 30th 1990 by Cambridge University Press (first published May 27th 1988)
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Mark
Ok, done!

Tainter's work is an opus. How could it be otherwise with a title like that? Yet, it lives up to the title: aiming and broadly succeeding to argue the causes for collapse. It's a little ponderous to read, because it is documented and reasoned like a thesis. This is a historical analysis, with applicability to our age that's noted only lightly along the way: it's not a political position paper, though it could be.

Tainter says diminishing returns eventually trap civilization in a no-win s...more
Mike
First off, this is more like a long academic paper than a book. Tainter has a thesis whereby he attempts to explain the collapse of all complex societies (quite a tall order of business) and goes about this by establishing a lot of background information and existing theory review in the first part of the book.

I am by no means an archeologist (professional or amateur) but was able to make my way through this part, picking most of what Tainter was trying to communicate. I'd say to give the early...more
Void lon iXaarii
Now THIS is a fantastic book! Normally I am a bit skeptical of the analysis of historians as they seem to often have soft logic, often recurring to very subjective values or opinions, and telling long and boring stories about concepts such as heroism, some small details, series of random eveniments and such things, which are all good and great, but seem to me to have little explanatory power... NOT THIS BOOK though! I was delighted to see the author picking a large spectrum of historical events...more
Dave
This is a short, dense, book about a difficult subject. Tainter does a good job with his argument, which I admit even I though I disagree with it in part.

His argument boils down to a few key points:

1. Major civilizations tend to experience an early period of rapid growth through the 'low hanging fruit' of available territory, resources, etc. When
2. This growth inevitably leads to specialization, stratification, and complexity which initially serves growth
3. The civilization plateau's and the...more
DoctorM
A dry read, yes. But very much worth it. Tainter looks at how complex societies--- great powers, if you will ---collapse. And at what "collapse" means and at how the word has been misused. While Tainter can be a bit too Colin Renfrew in his use of quantification, his discussion of how complexity unravels and how increasing social complexity ultimately begins to yield lower and lower returns on social investment is fascinating.
Jani-Petri
This was a quite interesting book. He makes a convincing case of societal collapse occurring because marginal costs of maintaining the system become too high compared to benefits. Interestingly competition with others may tie states to a competition that avoids collapse (for the time being) since collapse is not possible if another organized state is there to take over. This is of course the situation we have today. Declining marginal benefits are still there and to sustain a complex system requ...more
David
Apr 22, 2009 David rated it 4 of 5 stars
Shelves: 2009
This book is a rather dry read but it is very informative. Tainter seeks to develop a universal explanation for the collapse of complex societies. He provides a thorough overview of the many explanations offered by historians to explain the many frequent occurrences of societal collapse throughout history. He then discounts all of them as inadequate. He offers a framework for explaining collapse which he sums up in four concepts:

1) human societies are problem-solving organizations
2) sociopolitic...more
Mohammad
According to Tainter's Collapse of Complex Societies, societies become more complex as they try to solve problems. Social complexity can be recognized by numerous differentiated and specialized social and economic roles and many mechanisms through which they are coordinated, and by 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. Such complexity requires a substantial "energy"...more
Steve Greenleaf
While on a trip to Peru I decided to tackle Joseph Tainter’s The Collapse of Complex Societies. I learned of this book from Thomas Homer-Dixon’s excellent The Upside of Down. Since we were once again headed to see some ruins, I thought this an appropriate time to approach this book, although in the case of the Incas, we can easily identify Guns, Germs, and Steel (and perhaps horses) as the proximate causes of collapse. But other cases, like the Maya, the Western Roman Empire, and Easter Island,...more
Dave Peticolas
A thorough analysis of alternate theories of societal collapse is followed by a presentation of the author's own theory, with examples drawn from past collapses including the Roman Empire and the Mayan Empire. The book is at its best during the initial analysis of other theories, which come under rigorous scrutiny. Particularly entertaining are the author's evisceration of "mystical" explanations (the people lost their vigor!).

The theory of collapse presented is centered around the notion of dec...more
Nick Black
Mar 17, 2009 Nick Black marked it as warily-considering
Recommends it for: Natalie's immanentizing-the-eschaton shelf
Recommended to Nick by: Phillip Greenspun
I ought read this because (a) it sounds fascinating and (b) good or bad, I can extrapolate from it into a far-reaching stereotype of modern archae/sociological trends, something I know not a blessed thing about (I can say that, despite its off-putting appellation, Biblical Archaeology Review is one of the finest magazines around and absolutely worth the read if you're one day stuck in some highbrow pipe-smoking ecumenicalist of a dentist's office).
Gwern
Very good: much better than Jared Diamond's _Collapse_, and much more convincing than Spengler or Toynbee.
It was also deeply disturbing - the Ik amazed me in chapter 1, and the statistics in chapter 4 were extremely dismal and tie in far too well to Cowen's _The Great Stagnation_ and Murray's _Human Accomplishment_. There are a great many datapoints suggesting that diminishing marginal returns to modern tech/science began sometime in the late 1800s/early 1900s...
A.J.
A really detailed analysis of the reasons for the collapse of complex societies. For my own purposes, as a general reader, perhaps it is a bit too detailed in places (lots of references to other people's work, for example). It felt a bit like reading someone's PhD submission, to be honest.

Having said that, it was very interesting to see the intersection of archaeology with economics that Tainter presents in this work and I particularly enjoyed the last chapter where he looks at the implications...more
Ian
An excellent treatise that proposes a general theory on why many advanced civilizations throughout history eventually collapse, with very detailed treatment of Roman and Mayan collapses as case studies to support the hypothesis. Basically the argument can be summed up as declining marginal returns to societal complexity resulting in a natural economic solution of less complexity to restore balance. The advance of civilizations is a progression in organizational complexity as a solution to proble...more
Adam
This book seems to be the workhorse of the industrial-collapse intellectual set (Jared Diamond,Derrick Jensen,John Michael Greer, etc). It is a fairly straightforward, academic entry in the anthropological search for a grand theory to explain collapse. It is in this way a sort of counterpart to Earle and Johnson's The Evolution of Human Societies: From Foraging Group to Agrarian State, which advanced explanations for increases in social compexity and integration.

Tainter begins by swiftly and of...more
Jukka
Mar 31, 2010 Jukka added it
Shelves: recent-reads
The Collapse of Complex Societies - Joseph A. Tainter
This is REALLY good -- if it is what you are looking for. It systematically analyzes causes of collapse of a collection of ancient societies, and then finds the common elements and causes that link all these separate collapses. Tainter's analysis and conclusions will likely surprise you.

The description of various collapses from around the world to start out was well done and something i found extremely interesting. I hadn't even heard of many...more
Aaron Arnold
This is a tough book to summarize, both because it's so dense and well-sourced it reminds me of grad school, and because it tackles a bunch of big, abstract questions, like what makes societies fail. What does it mean for societies to fail? Here Tainter analyzes many of the ways that groups of people can completely fail to maintain the complicated but fragile webs of interaction that separate us from animals (trade, governance, food production, resource extraction), with examples from the Mayans...more
Carl Brush
Dr. Joseph Tainter’s study of the archeological evidence and literature concerning the disintegration of great societies is a bit like studying earthquakes. You know th
ey’ve happened. You know what happens when they happen. Yet, you can’t predict when or even how they happen. Actually we’re a bit better off when it comes to the big shakes because at least we can do some prep--beef up the building codes, keep some survival materials in the garage to keep life going till the infrastructure reboots...more
Angela
This is rather a dry read, but the information itself is interesting. The major points I took from it:

1. According to Tainter, collapse occurs as a result of declining returns on investment into further social complexity. As presented this seems to be inevitable, particularly where more than one society is involved (i.e. increasing complexity will eventually lead to diminished returns; not increasing complexity would just result in being taken over by some other society). Marginal productivity c...more
Ken Baumann
Feats like the work shown in this book—the radical simplification of a complex range of data in service of scientific understanding, of true causal connection—make me shake my head at the capacity of a human head. This is some straight scholarly dope. Pure orthodox empiricism. This is the best explanation for societal collapse ever published. And beyond that, it's a sad & hopeful account of modernity, in its failings—we may not be able to voluntarily "go back" to a radically simpler social o...more
Tim
Tainter is very methodical, and erudite, and I believe this is one of two books which helped society recognize that nothing is guaranteed. We are not the center of the historical universe, and increasing social complexity is not a foregone conclusion -- or even inherently good.

The way perspectives on history, our present, and our future have changed in the last 20 years is surely due to this book in some part. It's conventional wisdom today that things fall apart, and that it's not something tha...more
John Kaufmann
Tainter's main theme is a "big idea." Societal responses to the problems and challenges it faces leads to increased complexity is structure. New problems demand more complex solutions, until eventually the society becomes too complex and requires too many resources to maintain and it begins to disintegrate. Tainter provides numerous historical examples, ranging from Rome to Easter Island. The message is rather pessimistic, describing the process as almost inevitable. It may be a hard truth to ac...more
Alex
a classic book, highly recommended for anyone becoming aware of the coming collapse of industrial society, or just anyone who is interested in the origins and failings of civilization more generally. tainter approaches the subject as an archaeologist, and attempts to decipher a general theory behind collapse, a process he describes as declining returns on investments by the ruling class. tainter doesn't view it in terms of class, so he strangely falls into the realm of historical materialism whi...more
Jeremy
All my work around preparing for the impacts of peak oil and global weirding have done wonders for my somewhat dark sense of humor. I caught myself reading about various collapsed civilizations like I was reading about a game this past weekend.

The book does have a rather clinical flow to it, that isn't a criticism but it is important to note, or at least important to me, that a book as a certain feel to it before picking it up. There are some pretty clear parallels between the current state of...more
Bud Hewlett
This is a very academic study by an archaeologist; mostly arcane and dull except for chapters 4 & 5. Tainter's thesis, after reviewing many ancient and more recent civilizations, is that complexity brings worthwhile advantages only up to the point where the marginal benefits begin to decline with respect to the added costs and inevitable inefficiencies. His major example is the collapse of the Western Roman Empire. This was very interesting and scary because of the parallels to the 21st cent...more
John Carter McKnight
Dazzlingly brilliant, readable, profoundly insightful, this is a must-read for anyone thinking about what societal collapse means and how it comes about. Much shorter, deeper and more convincing than Jared Diamond's one-note work, Tainter's deftly analyzes the logic of and evidence for some dozen definitions of collapse in application to a range of ancient civilizations, honing down to a robust and satisfying model, despite its leaning on rational-actor assumptions.

If you think we might be on o...more
Todd  Kager
I ordered it off of amazon, and it was more like a reference book than a book book. I'm sure it'd be great for the right person, but for me...a novice archaeologist/sociologist...it just didn't work. It assumed, that I, the reader, knew a great deal about the subject, so...as I said, for someone who DOES know a lot about long-dead civilizations/societies...it'd probably make a great reference tool.

Todd
Muhammad al-Khwarizmi
Repetitive but full of good info. The gist is that societies that collapse encounter diminishing and ultimately negative marginal returns to activities to maintain their "homeorhesis", so to speak. What I especially took away is that it is not merely the destruction of the biophysical bases of a civilization that causes collapse—although this can easily be a major contributing factor—but the failure of the civilization to respond adequately to this challenge somehow.
Arjun Narayan
I'm fairly obsessed with civilizational collapse and this is an excellent treatment of the subject matter. So it goes without saying that I'm predisposed to love this book.

However, I think the real value in this book is with respect to organizational collapse. This should be on every MBA's reading list. This is the best and most approachable treatment of how organizations creep in complexity until they are so brittle the only acceptable way forward is collapse.
Sharath
I wanted to read this after Clay Shirky made a reference to it in a blog post drawing parallels between complex societies and complex businesses. I got more than I bargained for. But in the end it was worth the effort. This is a short book but quite difficult to follow if you are not used to the subject matter (as in my case). However the author does an excellent job of making this a fairly self-contained book.
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Joseph Tainter studied anthropology at the University of California, Berkeley and Northwestern University, where he received his Ph.D. in 1975.[1] As of 2012 he holds a professorship in the Department of Environment and Society at Utah State University. His previous positions include Project Leader of Cultural Heritage Research, Rocky Mountain Forest and Range Experiment Station, Albuquerque, New...more
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