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The Collapse of Complex Societies (New Studies in Archaeology) Paperback – 29 Mar 1990


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Product details

  • Paperback: 262 pages
  • Publisher: Cambridge University Press; New Ed edition (29 Mar 1990)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 052138673X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0521386739
  • Product Dimensions: 17.4 x 1.5 x 24.7 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (8 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 115,760 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Review

'Tainter's model accommodates all levels of complexity and all kinds of evidence. It deserves to be widely read.' Antiquity

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

Book Description

Any explanation of political collapse carries lessons not just for the study of ancient societies, but for the members of all complex 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.

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A study of why complex societies collapse should begin with a clear picture of what it is that does so. Read the first page
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

27 of 27 people found the following review helpful By ISCA on 17 Oct 2007
Format: Paperback
This book could have been written by and ecologist because the main thrust of it suggests, without ever saying so, that it is the energy flow through systems that give them their life and when that flow is stymied or cut off then those systems die.

The modern state so says Tainter is an anomaly, throughout the several thousand years of our history the common political unit was the small, autonomous community acting independently and largely self-sufficient.
In constrast complex societies such as states have a ruling authority which monopolises sovereignty and delegates power. The ruling class tends to be professional and is largely divorced from the bonds of kinship. The elite have the power to draft labour for war or work, levy taxes and enforce law, but it must be seen to be legitimately constituted. Legitimacy is a recurrent factor in the modern study of the nature of complex societies and is pertinent to understanding their collapse.
Establishing its legitimacy is the state's on going project.
After dispatching various other theories that explain why societies collapse Tainter claims that the proper basis for understanding complex societies is an economic one. The basic premise:
1. Human societies are problem-solving organizations.
2. Sociopolitical systems require energy for their maintenance.
3. Increased complexity carries with it increased costs per capita.
4. Investment in complexity as a problem-solving response often reaches a point of declining marginal returns.
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24 of 24 people found the following review helpful By RenHoek on 14 Sep 2006
Format: Paperback
Essentially a book on how and why societies/empires collapse, i found this to be fascinating reading. Although it has the feel of (and most probably is!) a university textbook, i found it to be accesible and well partitioned off into various sections within the chapters, allowing me to skip the more weighty academic areas. The description of the collapse of the Roman Empire i found very instructive, as all the while I was (rather worryingly) able to clearly match certain trends to modern industrial society. He seems to have grasped the central motivations for collapse and the book is a well argued and convincing read. The last chapter, relating the collapse of past socities to that of today's globalized industrialized world, is both stunning and horrifyingly reasonable.
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12 of 12 people found the following review helpful By Morten Pedersen on 2 May 2010
Format: Paperback
Setting out to create a framework for understanding collapse, the author sets aside anything but the scientific argument, and arrives at the conclusion that societies risk an increased likelihood of collapse, when marginal return on social investment declines.

Simply put, societies collapse, because there's no longer an economic reason for them to exist.

As societies grow, farmers who initially cultivate only the very best lands, are increasingly required to cultivate lands with lower yields. The same pattern is obvious in mineral extraction, where usually the most profitable resources are used first. But this pattern goes further - it also applies to society itself, including education and the processing of information; the rise of bureaucracy.

He then takes this framework, applies it to the Roman, Mayan, and Chacoan collapses, very effectively.

The Roman:
Initial expansion policy had through looting high marginal returns, but eventually this was followed by an increased government expenditure which ultimately lead to debasement of the currency (and thereby inflation), and prohibitively high taxes on a depleted peasant population and a shrinking middle class. In other words, the marginal return on social investment declined.

The Mayan:
Excessive population growth lead to cultivation of marginal lands, and ultimately raids on neighbouring agricultural plots. This led to peasants abandoning these, migrating to the towns where they focused on higher intensity terraced agriculture, which caused a reduced nutritional intake. For defence, they dedicated an increasing amount of resources towards production of art to indicate military strength, but this additional construction made no nutritional return.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful By ZZR600 on 5 Dec 2011
Format: Paperback
I'm neither a historian nor archaeologist, so cannot comment on what other authors may say about the collapse of complex societies, but Tainter's book provides an excellent analysis of what may well be the real problem: a reduction in the marginal return of the investment required to keep complex societies stable. This book is a must read as it puts the current global problems in the economy, energy and the environment in the context of several millennia of history.
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