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Collapse of Complex Societies

4.17  ·  Rating details ·  925 ratings  ·  114 reviews
Political disintegration is a persistent feature of world history. The Collapse of Complex Societies, though written by an archaeologist, will therefore strike a chord throughout the social sciences. Any explanation of societal collapse carries lessons not just for the study of ancient societies, but for the members of all such societies in both the present and future. Dr. ...more
Paperback, 262 pages
Published March 29th 1990 by Cambridge University Press (first published May 27th 1988)
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Feb 03, 2011 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
May 16, 2011 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
Nov 29, 2011 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
Jul 16, 2012 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: favorites
Moved to ...more
Void lon iXaarii
Mar 11, 2013 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
Apr 04, 2012 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
Apr 16, 2014 rated it liked it
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
Jan 25, 2014 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
Steve Greenleaf
Mar 21, 2013 rated it really liked it
Shelves: human-sciences, hx
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
Charles Haywood
Jan 24, 2018 rated it liked it
In the middle part of the twentieth century, before "The Walking Dead," the historiography of civilizational collapse was dominated by Arnold Toynbee’s multi-volume "A Study of History," with his “challenge and response” dynamic. Before that, stretching back into the nineteenth century, other analyses analogized the lives of civilizations to the lives of humans, most notably in Oswald Spengler’s enormously influential "The Decline of the West," published in 1918. And many other writers over many ...more
Dec 27, 2020 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
All complex societies eventually collapse when the cost of complexity outweighs the value of the return of investment in complexity. Super fascinating analysis and much food for thought.
May 11, 2016 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
J.M. Hushour
Oct 04, 2015 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
Apr 09, 2014 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
Nick Black
Mar 17, 2009 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). ...more
May 19, 2009 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. ...more
Feb 21, 2017 rated it really liked it
Shelves: non-fiction
It's been a while since I read an actual textbook. While it was a little dense in places, long on listing facts and short on broader theory, as a whole I enjoyed it. It had some useful thoughts, though I would have preferred to get theory from a less outdated source. ...more
Muhamed Halilovic
Jul 22, 2020 rated it really liked it
Basically, no one really knows why societies fail except God.
Although published over 30 years ago this is still an excellent read for those interested in civilizational collapse.

Tainter offers a critique of earlier, singular, theories of collapse then explores his own theory.

An important book for series readers. Not a simple or easy read.

Highly Recommended.

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars.
Sett Wai
Mar 14, 2020 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
A rigorous academic work that strives to identify general principles and characteristics of collapse. Extraordinarily well researched and somewhat dry (it's certainly not written for a general audience), Tainter enumerates and explores in great detail existing theories and case studies from history.

As a fan of ancient history, I really appreciated the section on the political and economic history of the Roman empire and its slow, grinding inevitability to collapse.

On the phenomenon of collapse
Chris Chester
Mar 09, 2011 rated it it was amazing
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.

Jan 27, 2013 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 18, 2014 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
What does it take for a civilization to collapse and disappear? In this book, Joseph Tainter pieces together a coherent overarching explanation for the political disintegration of complex societies through history, drawing lessons from some of the most potent episodes. Tainter views ultimate collapse as an inherent quality of complex societies, the only logical endpoint for the march of process. In the simplest terms, he argues that they eventually reach a point of diminishing returns at which i ...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
Apr 18, 2009 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
Feb 24, 2016 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
Aug 11, 2007 rated it really liked it
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
John Carter McKnight
Oct 28, 2012 rated it it was amazing
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
Jun 30, 2017 rated it really liked it
Shelves: history, nonfiction

Tainter's work here is a dissection of what it means for a society to 'collapse', and an attempt at a rigorous causal explanation for why that collapse happens. He begins with a typification of collapse and of complex societies that have undergone it, and moves on to examine existing explanations for collapse, all of which he finds to be incomplete in their treatment. He then presents his own explanation for collapse -- the declining marginal returns of complex socities -- and demonstrates its a
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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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  Kerine Wint is a software engineering graduate with more love for books than for computers. As an avid reader, writer, and fan of all things...
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“in the evolution of a society, continued investment in complexity as a problem-solving strategy yields a declining marginal return.” 3 likes
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