The Collapse of Complex Societies

by Jospeh A. Tainter

Rating: ★★★★

Tainter's work here is a dissection of what it means for a society to 'collapse', and an attempt at a rigorous causal explanation for why that collapse happens. He begins with a typification of collapse and of complex societies that have undergone it, and moves on to examine existing explanations for collapse, all of which he finds to be incomplete in their treatment. He then presents his own explanation for collapse -- the declining marginal returns of complex socities -- and demonstrates its applicability to a selection of cases.

While for the most part convincing, Tainter's thesis has a few holes worthy of highlight. His rejections of existing theories as incomplete seem to often focus on theories not spelling out a full causal chain between cause and effect to his satisfaction, rather than proper rejection of a causal link, and in that light his identification of declining marginal returns as the key factor can be cast in doubt compared to, for example, resource depletion, which seems more central to the economic argument he builds -- declining marginal returns being a seemingly unavoidable factor, but societies which discover new energy sources seeming to survive despite it. His treatment of modern staving off of collapse touches on this. A second hole is his treatment of collapse as happening only in a power vacuum, and that collapse cannot happen where there are competing societies which would predate upon weakening ones. At best, it would seem that this is a surface definition of collapse which leaves aside the possibility that collapses can be masked by conquests. At worst, it seems to suggest that complex societies that collapse must be isolated, or else that all their neighbours being less complex counts as such. 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. This point seems to decohere from earlier logic about the role of invasions in stressing a society.

On a somewhat less challenging note, Tainter's selection of examples seems unusual. He draws upon far more North and Central American societies in his examples than any from elsewhere. This may reflect his own background in archaeology, and is not necessarily problematic in a world literature which focuses heavily on the histories of Eurasian societies, but I do partly wonder if the choices of societies are motivated by popular concerns. Tainter's main examples are Romans, the Maya and the Chacoans, a combination which seems to lean heavily towards relevance to the modern United States, Rome being the cultural predecessor and the other two societies being roughly geographical ones. Tainter shows an awareness of popular interest in collapses, and I wonder if he thought of representativeness or cultural connection when building this analysis.

Disagreements aside, Tainter does seem to build a convincing explanation for collapses, even if his focus within the model is probably slightly askew. The level of scholarship is high, and his examples are well-argued. Lacking the ability to build quantitative tests of these theories, he has proceeded with a duly empirical presentation of cases, which is likely as best he can do. I expect that there will be developments which follow on from Tainter and adjust his model in various important ways, but I also expect that his field will not judge him as significantly misguided.