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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Feb 21, Darnell rated it really liked it Shelves: 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. A collapse which turns into conquest by another complex society is not a collapse, under his definition, but one which is conquered by a less complex society is.

A dry read, yes. At a recent visit to a planetarium, I was reminded of this phenomena in watching the stars picking up more mass as they get larger, sucking up the gravitationally weaker gas around them.

That doesn’t sound right. Tainter applies his diminishing marginal returns analysis broadly, to everything from agriculture to scientific progress. For example, did Germany under the Nazis act rationally? The marginal product of increasing complexity.

Apr 20, Ron rated it liked it. On mystical theories, though, Tainter is less convincing. Emperors and pretenders from to A D.

It is just not quantifiable. By using this site, you agree to the Terms of Use and Privacy Policy. Cambridge University Press Amazon. Instead, societies tend to decline over a period of a century domplex more.

May 16, Dave rated it really liked it. It develops insofar as it is beneficial to the majority of its members.

Joseph Tainter – Wikipedia

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. The advance of civilizations is a progression in organizational complexity as a solution to proble 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.


Tainter’s opus is a work sovieties the sort that I have missed in my post-graduate world: He then discounts all of them as inadequate. Joseph Tainter arrived inwith this book, to offer an alternative—namely, total economic determinism filtered through a framework of his own devising. Increasing complexity requires increasing amounts of energy inputs, and when those inputs cease to produce outputs equal to or greater than the cost of the inputs, society devolves to lesser and lesser complexity until the outputs again meet ssocieties exceed the cost of the inputs.

He draws upon far more North and Central American societies in his examples than any from elsewhere. And later still, the latest foodie trend here in Boulder is to disparage the humble wheat stalk, it’s multifarious chromosome threatening our digestion.

Jan 27, Mohammad rated it really liked it. The eastern half, being wealthier, was able to survive longer, and did not collapse but instead succumbed slowly and piecemeal, because unlike the western empire it had powerful neighbors able to take advantage of its weakness. It didn’t hurt them at all, and its citizens are in many ways better off than I am. This allows for the support of specialized roles that do not necessarily contribute to the sustainability of the society aristocrats, pf castes, etc.

Joseph Tainter

However I would say that folk arts are every bit as good as “high” art, which gets defined as high only by the makers of it, after all. His paper Complexity, Problem Solving, and Sustainable Societies focuses on the energy cost of problem solving, and the energy-complexity relation in manmade systems. This is useful because it draws a very clear distinction between ‘social criticism’ and ‘social science.


DMR theory is thus uncomfortably tautological. He uses complexity as both a definitional marker for societies and as a yardstick for measuring their collapse. At low complexity, adding more layers of doers, thinkers, and paper-shufflers makes society more productive and everyone better off, but each additional layer takes energy, and eventually you run into the law societles diminishing marginal returns, meaning that after a certain point society becomes paralyzed under the weight of its own corporate and governmental bureaucracies and can no longer adapt to changing conditions like resource shortage, environmental change, economic shifts, or external threats.

A final idea I’ll offer is that we become josepb.

Subsequent resource extraction be it in the form of new mines, new agricultural lands, or new conquests have a lower return on energy invested generating a smaller surplus to sustain the complex society. Large landowners emerged during the third century in societids numbers in all parts of the Empire. May societiies, DoctorM rated it really liked it Shelves: Kipling perhaps captured the role of moral virtues in civilizations best in “The Gods of the Copybook Headings” This is why purely economic theories for the Great Divergence are always miserably incomplete—they take no account of culture, which cannot be quantified, but is determinative of the course of a civilization.

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. This point seems to decohere from earlier logic about the role of invasions in stressing a society.