The Collapse of Complex Societies

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Cambridge University Press, Mar 29, 1990 - Social Science - 250 pages
3 Reviews
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.
 

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User Review  - ritaer - LibraryThing

Tainter examines several major cultures that show a rise in complexity and expansion in territory followed by a collapse and decline. Rome is, of course, a primary example, with Mayan culture, Chaco ... Read full review

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I started reading this book with great anticipation and excitement. I disagree with most reviewers, however, on the "excellence" of this account based on two observations:
1) In several long
sections, Tainter seems to confuse quantity with complexity. As I understand it complexity has to do with the network interrelationships that exist among components of a society (or anything else for that matter.) Often, though, the text reads as though growing any single component is equivalent to an increase in complexity. This is inconsistent at the least and erroneous at worst.
2) In discussion of science and technology, Tainter would have us believe that while the discoveries of Einstein and Darwin are examples of science at little expenditure, the consequent growth of activity in physics and biology illustrate that as progress is made at ever increased cost, the subsequent discoveries are of considerably less value than the revolutionary initial ones. According to what metric?
This I believe is simply careless thinking. Take the case of the transistor. I don't know the numbers but I don't think I need an economics training to realize that the investment in research that resulted in its invention is infinitesimal compared to the value to society in economic terms that ensued from this invention.
In summary, the terms are not clearly defined and then applied consistently, and in at least this one example the conclusions are far from convincing.
Jorge Willemsen
 

Contents

Introduction to collapse
1
The nature of complex societies
22
The study of collapse
39
the marginal productivity of sociopolitical change
91
Relationship of marginal and average product
93
Average returns of agriculture
96
Marginal returns of agriculture in India
97
Productivity of caloric intake for increasing life expectancy
98
Reductions in fuel consumption of steam engines resulting from increases in thermal efficiency
110
Marginal yield in a branch of science
113
The marginal product of increasing complexity
119
The marginal product of increasing complexity with technological innovation or acquisition of an energy subsidy
125
complexity and marginal returns in collapsing societies
127
The Roman Empire at the time of Hadrian
130
Roman emperors
131
Debasement of the denarius from Nero to Septimius Severus
136

Patent applications and issues in respect to population and scientifictechnical personnel 18701950
100
Patent applications in respect to research inputs
101
Productivity of the U S health care system 193082
103
American expenditures on higher education 190060
104
Specialization in American education 18701960
105
Productivity of educational investment for the development of specialized expertise
106
British Admiralty statistics 191467
107
specialization 106 Overall economic productivity 108
108
Growth of GNP per capita
109
Emperors and pretenders from 235 to 285 A D
138
The Mayan area showing major subdivisions and selected sites
154
Construction of dated monuments at Classic Maya sites
165
Southern Lowland Mayan radiocarbon dates from elite contexts
168
San Juan Basin and surrounding terrain
176
TheChacoan regional system A D 10501175
181
Summary and implications
193
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