By popular demand, we welcome Joseph Tainter, USU professor and author of The Collapse Of Complex Societies (free book download here). Author: Joseph Tainter The Collapse of Complex Societies, though written by an archaeologist, will therefore strike a chord Dr. Tainter describes nearly two dozen cases of collapse and reviews more than years of explanations. 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.

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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. 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. 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.

Nick Kardulias, American Journal of Archaeology “The Collapse of Complex Societies contains much useful historical and archeological information on empires that have abruptly disappeared. 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.

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. Would you like to tell us about a lower price?

Collapse of Complex Societies by Dr. Joseph Tai

If you are a seller for this product, would you like to suggest updates through seller support? 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. Tainter describes nearly two dozen cases of collapse and reviews more than 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.

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Joseph Tainter

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How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed: Ships from and sold by Amazon. Customers who bought this item also bought. Page 1 of 1 Start over Page 1 of 1. The Five Stages of Collapse: 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. New Studies in Archaeology Paperback: Try the Kindle edition and experience these great reading features: Share your thoughts with other customers.

Write a customer review. Read reviews that mention complex societies marginal returns roman empire diminishing returns law of diminishing declining marginal dr.josepn depletion joseph tainter climate change complex society years ago returns on investments diminishing marginal western roman rise and fall new mexico marginal return investments in complexity societies become jared diamond.

Showing of 72 reviews. Top Reviews Dr.jseph recent Top Reviews. There was a problem filtering reviews right now. Please try again later. Not a very successful framework, to be sure, but at least one that provides some food for thought. Tainter is an anthropologist, so he views history though that prism. Moreover, “he Collapse of Complex Societies” is an academic monograph, so it has all the defects of that genre. Nobody would call the writing spicy, although there are flashes of humor. The author deliberately frequently summarizes and repeats, even though this is a short book, and he constantly cites other equally boring academics for minor points.


Thus, we learn a great deal about the state of anthropological and archaeological knowledge as of thirty years ago. But, since tainrer is a narrow anthropological analysis, we are denied any substantial linking of that knowledge to history, of which Tainter seems under-informed at best. He has the soul of an economist trapped at the desk of an anthropologist.

This is a minor strength and a major weakness of his book. It is a strength in that his hypothesis is somewhat testable, at least relative to a Toynbee-type analysis. It is a weakness in that it leads to a materialist reductio ad absurdum.

All cultures as culture are imprisoned in the iron framework that Tainter builds, subject to the inevitable pressure of econometrics.

They are mere ephemera randomly associated with the purely material factors that are wholly determinative of the arc of every society in human history. He uses complexity as both a definitional marker for societies and as a yardstick for measuring their collapse.

Societjes is unexceptional enough, in that it paints the definition with a broad enough brush that few would disagree. He paints the Ik, in Uganda, as an example of extreme collapse, socueties, for example, that children are abandoned by their mothers at age three and that sharing is nonexistent in the society.

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

This is well trodden ground, from dr.josepy like Francis Fukuyama who ascribe most development of complex societies to warfare to those with a more anarchist bent, like James C. Dr.jozeph, who view complex societies as a dubious blessing resulting from changes in food production. He boldly decides that both are partially right, and moves on, since, after all, what he cares about is complexity, not how we got there. Tainter proceeds to evaluate the study of collapse itself, with an eye to establishing himself as unique, and all predecessors as pretenders.

Similarly, he rejects as not wrong, but incoherent, the idea that civilized societies are superior to uncivilized societies. For Tainter the economic determinist, superiority is only superior when it is measurable, using a scale of which he approves, and all other superiority is a value judgment, and hence anathema. Complexity calls these traditions into being, for such art and literature serve social and economic purposes and classes that exist only in complex settings.

He evaluates, both in the abstract and by reference to one or more collapsed civilizations, and rejects, all of these theories, rd.joseph either just wrong, or as insufficient and needing to be integrated into a more competent theory not yet advanced no prize for guessing whose theory that is. Most of his focus, though, is on class conflict theories and mystical theories, both of which he dr.joeeph in scathing terms. On mystical theories, though, Tainter is less convincing. At no point, though, does he make any effort to actually address any such theory; he bootstraps his vr.joseph into a conclusion, in essence treating Toynbee as no better than an Aztec priest tearing the hearts out of sacrificial victims to appease Huitzilopochtli and ensure ssocieties rising of the Sun.

A scholar trained in anthropology learns early on that such valuations are scientifically inadmissible, detrimental to the cause of understanding, intellectual indefensible, and simply unfair.

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.

But that does not mean that virtue arguments have nothing to offer. Any person with a deep knowledge of history which Tainter very evidently lacks knows that there is a tide in the affairs of men, that is purely qualitative yet is very real. It is just not quantifiable.


This is not to say that what Tainter offers is wrong, but it is most definitely incomplete. Virtue cannot be quantified, and if it can be quantified it is not virtue, but that does not mean that virtue, as well as other intangible cultural characteristics, do not exist and are not critically important for the growth and decline of a civilization, or for the globe itself. All this is pretty obvious, actually, just prettied up with graphs and attempts at quantification. Tainter applies his diminishing marginal returns analysis broadly, to everything from agriculture to scientific progress.

Along with James C.

Collapse of Complex Societies by Joseph A. Tainter

Scott in “Against the Grain,” Tainter thinks that the costs of a complex society may simply exceed its benefits to the people in that society, who will therefore be better off at a less complex level of organization. A collapsed society has not failed to adapt; it has taken the best path available.

We may listen to tunes on a reed flute rather than Bach, and die in our twenties, but at least our marginal returns on investing in complexity will be up!

He nods vaguely in this direction when answering the anticipated criticism that he does not take into account possible equilibria, but only vaguely. Arguably this make sense, for all past complex societies have been strongly hierarchical in nature. However, there is a plausible argument that modern technology, as well as modern habits of thought, whatever their drawbacks may be, permit a society to be organized with dispersed problem solving by networks, which may, to some extent, be immune from diminishing returns.

Finally, Tainter applies his model to today. He notes that the modern world is different, not in its possible non-hierarchical approach to complexity, but in that collapse can only occur in a power vacuum, where no competitor will move in immediately, and no such power vacuum exists in the modern world on any relevant scale. This is an interesting book. First published in the late 80’s, it warrants renewed attention nowadays in light of all the end-of-the world hysterias currently emanating from concerns over economic turmoil, religious strife, nuclear terrorism, viral epidemics, and climate change.

Even if most of us don’t believe the worst is yet upon us, it’s hard not to worry with so many books and movies out there depicting post-industrial societies where humans are left with their animal needs and violent proclivities, but none of the protections afforded by modern civilization.

Joseph Tainter, though, is no hysteric. He’s a buttoned-down scholar without any apparent pre-conceived agenda and certainly no intent to sensationalize. He’s actually a little boring, and casual readers expecting lurid thrills from this book are likely to put it down after the first few pages. Like other students of history over the years, he seems haunted by the fact that so many of the world’s once-vibrant civilizations have vanished for no obvious reason.

The tasks he’s taken on to himself here are to a catalogue the major lost civilizations b summarize known facts surrounding their rise and fall c distill the academic literature regarding the causes of societal collapse down to a handful common theories, and d establish the framework for his own general theory.

Since it’s obvious from the start of the book that he’s ultimately looking forward into dynamics that might one day lead to the demise of our own world, this book really grabs your attention once you begin to suspect he may know what he’s talking about.

Tainter starts with a brief survey of eighteen vanished civilizations around the world which provide the substance for his study. His professional discipline is archeology, and several of his societies are ones, like the Minoans and the Chacoans, about which archeology tells us everything we know, since they left no written records.

For others, like the ancient Romans and China’s Western Chou Empire, he intrudes onto historians’ turf because the written record provides a key part of the story.