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The Collapse of Complex Societies

4.15  ·  Rating Details  ·  524 Ratings  ·  69 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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Jan 04, 2014 Mark rated it it was amazing
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
Mar 11, 2014 Mike rated it it was amazing
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
May 16, 2011 Dave rated it really liked it
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
Void lon iXaarii
Mar 11, 2013 Void lon iXaarii rated it it was amazing
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
Jul 22, 2015 Peter rated it liked it
Shelves: essays-bio-etc
What do we talk about when we talk about the collapse of complex societies? Tainter performs a service to posterity, throwing out all the old rhetoric of moaners and naysayers, blindly reading their own bias into the tea leaves sitting atop the stinking garbage heap of history. Let’s look at the data, he says. Let’s be reasonable, he says. It is a very reasonable start and encouraging—refreshing even, to be able to sit back and disregard so many ridiculous reasons that complex things fall apart. ...more
Jun 18, 2013 Gwern rated it it was amazing
Shelves: favorites
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...
Steve Greenleaf
Aug 27, 2014 Steve Greenleaf rated it really liked it
Shelves: hx, human-sciences
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
J.M. Hushour
Oct 08, 2015 J.M. Hushour rated it liked it
Book reviews are sometimes uncertain exercises and of questionable value, especially mine. I'll confess up front that I often review on the utility of the work at hand and its relation to me, me, ME! not on the book's actual scholarly merit.
Take this book. This is probably a fine academic work. Tainter certainly knows his shit, so to speak. There's a wealth of fun polemics and theory and new approaches and tours-de-force against established views of the reasons for the collapses investigated in
Jul 24, 2011 DoctorM rated it really liked it
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.
Apr 09, 2014 Jani-Petri rated it really liked it
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
Scott Kleinpeter
May 30, 2016 Scott Kleinpeter rated it it was amazing
Recommends it for: Hard-nosed humanists; social-economical historians
What was useful to me:

I. The work provides a concise list of common threats to any organized large-scale social entity.

II. Tainter makes the terminological distinction between 'Civilizations' and 'Complex-Societies'. He does this in order avoid any value-laden connotations. What is interesting, however, is that by adopting the term "complex-society," he implies that the conceptual framework of the entity can apply to any organization that serves a social function, their sub-units, and larger sys
May 24, 2016 Zora rated it liked it
-1* for the painfully dry academic style, without a drop of liveliness or wit. -1* for not convincing me, assumptions, and ignoring evidence that did not support his position. Were I not typing this review out on a tablet, I might be more eloquent, but here's the gist of my reaction.

Page 50, trying to refute resource depletion as a cause of collapse: " As it becomes apparent to members or administrators of a complex society that a resource base is deteriorating, it seems most reasonable to assum
Chris Chester
Jan 23, 2015 Chris Chester rated it it was amazing
Shelves: non-fiction
With the global economy teetering on a shaky foundation and prepper-types everywhere heralding the end of global civilization as we know it, the nature and mechanism of the collapse of complex societies has rarely seemed as relevant as it does today.

Tainter's opus is a work of the sort that I have missed in my post-graduate world: a meticulously-researched assessment of existing theories — using a variety of primary and secondary sources — culminating in the assertion of a paradigm of his own.

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
Apr 22, 2009 David rated it really liked it
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
Jan 27, 2013 Mohammad rated it really liked it
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
Feb 24, 2016 Helen rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: Adults.
Recommended to Helen by: No-one.
This volume, published in 1988, addresses trends explaining the collapse of civilizations in history, as well as the chances of our present global civilization collapsing. The author uses three collapsed civilizations as examples (the collapse of the Western Roman empire, the Classic Maya collapse, the Chacoan collapse) of collapse, debunks or presents information on why many collapse theories are either incomplete or incorrect, and presents his own explanation on why civilizations collapse, nam ...more
Patrick Wayland
Jan 25, 2016 Patrick Wayland rated it it was amazing
Joseph Tainter creates a fascinating, even if very academic, examination of large civilizations that went belly-up like dead parrots. These include the Roman Empire, Maya, and the Chacoans civilizations, which gives a very geographically diverse sample.

Perhaps the most alarming part of Tainter’s book is his conclusion, which might sound familiar given how the government of the USA is spending more money, going into more debt, to maintain the current standard of living (or a decreasing standard o
Jon Stonecash
Oct 04, 2015 Jon Stonecash rated it really liked it
This book is just over 200 pages, but there is a lot of meat in those pages. History records many apparently thriving societies or civilizations that collapse rather quickly. That is, a culture, built up over centuries, that dominates a region loses that dominance in a matter of a few decades. Why does that happen?

The thesis is that societies are organic entities. An entity is successful if it can survive the various situations that it finds itself in: bad weather, invaders, pestilence, competit
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).
Jan 23, 2015 Shane rated it really liked it
Shelves: economic-liberty
Sometimes the greatest brilliance is accompanied by "why didn't I see that?" and the sounds of a loud head slap. This is how I felt upon finishing the "Collapse of Complex Societies". Why did Choco canyon society collapse during a draught, when it had survived earlier longer droughts before? Why did Rome fall to Barbarians when just decades before it had easily beat back larger invasions? The answer according to Tainter is that it was no longer economical to do so.

While there are many similariti
Jun 30, 2014 A.J. rated it liked it
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
May 24, 2016 Ryan rated it really liked it
Shelves: environment
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
Dave Peticolas
Oct 08, 2014 Dave Peticolas rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
May 14, 2012 Adam rated it really liked it
Recommended to Adam by: Peter Peregrine
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
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
Carl R.
May 09, 2012 Carl R. rated it really liked it
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
Feb 11, 2008 Angela rated it really liked it
Shelves: non-fiction
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
Lasse Laitinen
Apr 28, 2016 Lasse Laitinen rated it liked it
It's interesting to read a book, which has had some influence, I guess, and inspired later research, without actually knowing anything about that impact. I have read some historical sociology dealing with questions of the same magnitude (works of Michael Mann and Charles Tilly come to my mind first), but it was about time to search wider and find something originating from archaelogy.

The literature review in the beginning is very informative. Then Tainter jumps directly to what he thinks causes
May 19, 2016 Tim rated it liked it
Shelves: nonfiction
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
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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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