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The Collapse of Complex Societies (New Studies in Archaeology) Reprint Edition

4.2 out of 5 stars 59 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0521386739
ISBN-10: 052138673X
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Editorial Reviews

Review

"While the theoretical part of the book is quite remarkable and based on exceptional erudition, I also found the accumulation of the supporting data to be interesting reading . . . The merit of the book is that it is interesting. It modifies some of our views about early states and their collapse mainly by using data. It also shows how archaeology in alliance with social sciences opens the way for a comparative analysis of change in political and other cultural institutions." European Cultural Heritage

"Tainter's is an attractive and compelling thesis of a genre which is nearly extinct among domestic historians." History Today

"This is a lucid and stimulating book. Tainter does provide a framework for organizing and evaluating the evidence of collapse. One of the strengths of his framework is the broadness of its terms of reference...Tainter's model accomodates all levels of complexity and all kinds of evidence, from fiscal policy to the acquisition of raw materials. It deserves to be widely read." Antiquity

"Tainter has provided copious grist for the intellectual mill in this remarkable piece of scholarship. The breadth of its coverage is given order by a model that qualifies, I believe, as one of the covering laws archaeologists have sought. In addition, Old World and New World scholars alike can profit from a reading of this book." P. Nick Kardulias, American Journal of Archaeology

"The Collapse of Complex Societies contains much useful historical and archeological information on empires that have abruptly disappeared." James B. Rule, SUNY, Stony Brook, in Population and Environment

"The book is thought-provoking, engaging, and often witty, and well illustrates the relevancy of classical antiquity to contemporary concerns." Classical World

Book Description

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.
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Product Details

  • Series: New Studies in Archaeology
  • Paperback: 264 pages
  • Publisher: Cambridge University Press; Reprint edition (March 30, 1990)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 052138673X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0521386739
  • Product Dimensions: 6.8 x 0.6 x 9.7 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (59 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #150,192 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Paperback
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 differentiated social roles, a large class of administrators not involved in the production of primary resources, energy devoted to different kinds of communication, centralised government, etc. Societies become more complex in order to solve problems. Complexity, for Tainter, is quantifiable. Where, for example, the Cherokee natives of the U.S. had about 5,000 cultural artifacts (things ranging from recipes to tools to tents) which were integral to their culture, the Allied troops landing on the Normandy coast in 1944 had about 40,000.

Herein, however, lies the rub. Since, as Tainter writes, the "number of challenges with which the Universe can confront a society is, for practical purposes, infinite," complex societies need to keep on increasing their level of complexity in order to survive new challenges.
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Format: Paperback
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 century. The burden of inflation and taxes became so heavy on the populace that even the Italians began to yearn for "liberation" by barbarian tribes. And collapse is not always a bad thing: tribes like the Vandals actually governed their sections of the old empire more effectively.

So, what about us? Because of globalization, any collapse would affect all industrialized countries together. So, the US cannot collapse without either being taken over by a competitor or bringing everyone else down with us. Oil running out might be the end of our era of complexity, an anomaly in human history, but we still have time to make changes that could forestall collapse. Overall, a fresh view of history key to understanding the present.
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What I found interesting about Joseph Tainter's treatise on civilizations is his application of economic theory to explain how they collapse. After a methodical review the two basic theories of why civilizations develop in the first place, the integration theory and the conflict theory, he launches into why he thinks economics is useful: it explains marginal returns.

In simple terms, societies are machines for solving social problems. As problems become more difficult, solutions become more complicated, eating into resources. Eventually, all societies are faced with marginal returns on their investment. Economics is a study of how supply meets demand and management of scarce resources.

Tainter begins by exploring the two concepts of civilization. Actually, it really does not matter whether you subscribe to the integration theory or the conflict theory. Economics helps explain complexity. Screw drivers exist because hammers weren't enough. Power drills were eventually developed and so on. Societies created such things as cash because lugging things around to exchange slowed commerce. Eventually, monetary policies developed to both explain transactions and allow regulation and taxation. Taxation pays for society.

Here is where the two theories on civilization diverge. Integration theory proposes that societies become more complex because of a growth in people's wants and needs. Conflict theory says that societies exist because an upper class wants to control the output of society to further their own comfort and avarice. Personally, I agree with Tainter that neither theory works, although many societies I've read about, including our own can lean in one of these directions or another. Tainter agrees that economic theory cannot explain everything.
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