Part of New Studies in Archaeology. Author: Joseph Tainter. Date Published: March ; availability: Available; format: Paperback; isbn: 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. Political disintegration is a persistent feature of world history. The Collapse of Complex Societies, though written by an archaeologist, will therefore strike a chord.

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It seems pretty simple negative feedback: To ask other readers questions about Collapse of Complex Societiesplease sign up. Yet, despite this lacuna, Tainter concludes his study with this prescient question: From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. 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.

Tainter begins by swiftly and often mercilessly batting aside all available explanations for collapse in the market at his time. Tainter’s conceptual framework seems, without further analysis, to be closely in-line with Quigley’s theories of historical analysis.

On mystical theories, though, Tainter is less convincing. According to Tainter’s Collapse of Complex Societies, societies become more complex as they try to solve problems. Also I suppose I DO live a life of ease and luxury in comparison to a 19th century Russian peasant with only complwx actual horse in his stable. Of the many fantastic examples in the book one of the most interesting is the fall of the roman empire in the th centuries when a traditional historian might say that roman provinces fell under barbarian conquest the author brings forth evidence that many of the peasants, long exhausted by the roman bureaucratic parasitic aparatus not only became apathetic towards the roman empire but actually invited the barbarians to conquer them as their lives would improve with lower taxes for the same or better levels of protection.

But when more and more communities were added that were subject to the same stress surges like drought or invasion, the utility of the system declined. Reductions in fuel consumption of steam engines resulting from increases in thermal efficiency. 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.

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. Marginal yield in a branch of science. We do nothing about it.


Joseph Tainter

There are the usual suspects of catastrophes, resource depletion, inability to respond to a crisis, moral decay among the population and on and on with the usual tropes The real reason is something subtle but powerful; economics. This was far deeper and nuanced thinking that the standard shallow storyline. 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 extractionwith examples from the Mayans, Romans, Hittites, Babylonians, and many more.

One more last thought how many “last thoughts” is one allowed? Basically complexity becomes too costly and so collapse occurs. Just to maintain the status quo new resources are needed and when they are not available the center of the complex society begins to crumble. And later still, the latest foodie trend here in Boulder is to disparage the humble wheat stalk, it’s multifarious chromosome threatening our digestion.

Collapse of Complex Societies by Joseph A. Tainter

They are mere ephemera randomly associated with the purely material factors that are wholly determinative of the arc of every society in human history. It is the inability to deal with these “stress surges” that is responsible for collapse, not the surges themselves.

For the Romans, the empire was essentially founded on conquest. The civilization plateau’s and the structure established to help it grow becomes a part of society.

But faced with continued competition, there was upward pressure on population numbers.

The Collapse of Complex Societies – Joseph Tainter – Google Books

I don’t think he successfully argues why we can’t step back from that precipice, why for instance the diminishing returns aren’t their own regulator, moreso because the broad curve of lost benefit implies a smooth hilltop, not a cliff My precipice description makes Tainter’s point, but it seems inaccurate to describe the actual dynamics.

When a society confronts a “problem,” such as a shortage of energy, or difficulty in gaining access to it, it tends to create new layers of bureaucracyinfrastructureor social class to address the challenge. On a somewhat less challenging note, Tainter’s selection of examples seems unusual. He has no patience for theories that are overly dependent on the specific nature of each case, a trait that many historians and anthropologists would take issue with cf.

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 Romans “solved” this problem by conquering their neighbours to appropriate their energy surpluses in concrete forms, as metals, grain, slaves, etc.


Eventually a society will reach a point where existing resources or potential new resources cannot maintain the level of complexity the society currently has. That doesn’t sound right. For example, did Germany under the Nazis act rationally?

Patent applications and issues in respect to population and scientifictechnical personnel Average individuals may have benefited because they no longer had to invest in the burdensome complexity of empire. Did the wealthy members of the Tianter Fork Fishing and Hunting Club do the right thing and install a runoff valve after being warned of the design weaknesses of their dam by an engineer sent by the Johnston Iron Works? If you can’t measure it, it’s not useful.

Consumption of all the slack technology provides leads to an irrevocable commitment to complexity and interdependency. It is collapss very reasonable start and encouraging—refreshing even, to be able to sit back and disregard so many ridiculous reasons that complex things fall apart. But that’s what will happen because, as we expand our capability e. They did not want to spend the money, and hundreds of people downstream drowned or were crushed by the deluge.

Too much sober thought stifled speculation, may be it is because Tainter is an archaeologist who likes substantive reasons rather than flights of fancy. All this is pretty obvious, actually, just prettied up with graphs and attempts at quantification.

This com;lex very much an academic publication. And at what “collapse” means and at how the word has been misused.

Ulanowicz Limited preview – This book is illuminating. Collapse, might be the cleansing forest fires of history, events to almost welcome.

In each summarized case, he briefly applies a few of his markers for collapse to a truncated history of the society, along with a jooseph postscript about the society and geographical area, and concludes that most or all of his quantifiable markers characterize collapse, so his definition is correct.

One final point on rationality, a key assumption made by Tainter. Cultural relativity may be one of the most important contributions anthropology can make to the social and historical sciences, and to the public at large.

He takes ideas like Marxist conflict theory and includes them in his overall theory.