The Collapse of Complex Societies (New Studies in Archaeology)
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. Tainter describes nearly two dozen cases of collapse and reviews more than 2000 years of explanations. He then develops a new and far-reaching theory that accounts for collapse among diverse kinds of societies, evaluating his model and clarifying the processes of disintegration by detailed studies of the Roman, Mayan and Chacoan collapses.
Fascinating and deeply disturbing
By Chris Stolz - May 29, 2004
Tainter's project here is to articulate his grand unifying theory to explain the strange and disturbing fact that every complex civilisation the world has ever seen has collapsed.
Tainter first elegantly disposes of the usual theories of social decline (disappearance of natural resources, invasions of barbarians, etc). He then lays out his theory of decline: as societies become more complex, the costs of meeting new challenges increase, until there comes a point where extra resources devoted to meeting new challenges produce diminihsing and then negative returns. At this point, societies become less complex (they collapse into smaller societies). For Tainter, social problems are always (ultimately) a problem of recruiting enough energy to "fuel" the increasing social complexity which is necessary to solve ever-newer problems.
Complexity, writes Tainter, describes a variety of characteristics in a number of societies. SOm aspects of complexity include many... read more
A Landmark Study in Why Societies Collapse
By Allen B. Hundley - January 22, 2006
To get an idea of the impact this book has had both among scholars and on the general public one has only to look at its publishing record. It was written by an academic for academics and published by a university press (Cambridge no less) yet it is now in its fourteenth printing since its initial release in 1988.
Tainter argues that human societies exist to solve problems. He looks at a score of societal collapses, focusing on three: Rome, the Maya, and the Chacoan Indians of the American Southwest. As these societies solved problems - food production, security, public works - they became increasingly complex. Complexity however carries with it overhead costs, e.g. administration, maintaining an army, tax collection, infrastructure maintenance, etc. As the society confronts new problems additional complexity is required to solve them. Eventually a point is reached where the overhead costs that are generated result in diminishing returns in terms of effectiveness. The... read more
Scholarly but gripping
By Erik D. Curren - March 30, 2006
In contrast to Jered Diamond's "Collapse," this volume does not just focus on one theory of why societies collapse--depletion of natural resources--but presents in summary several different theories. In academic style, Tainter examines the pros and cons of each, offering a cornucopia of references that would be an invaluable source for future research.
While he sees some merit to most theories, one he holds in complete contempt, while another he tends to prefer. Tainter has no patience for "mystical" notions that societies collapse because their moral fiber has degenerated, a theory made famous by Gibbon, Spengler and Toynbee. What he does believe is that complex societies always at some point reach a stage where they become too complex, where the costs to citizens and elites alike begin to outweigh the benefits of keeping the society together. At that point, the society is vulnerable to breaking up.
This is what happened to the Western Roman Empire in the fifth... read more
Anthony Cullen advances an argument for a particular approach to the interpretation of non-international armed conflict in international humanitarian law. The first part examines the origins of the ...