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The Collapse of Complex Societies (New Studies in Archaeology)

The Collapse of Complex Societies (New Studies in Archaeology) [Kindle Edition]

Joseph A. Tainter , Colin Renfrew
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'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

Über das Produkt

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.


  • Format: Kindle Edition
  • Dateigröße: 3961 KB
  • Seitenzahl der Print-Ausgabe: 264 Seiten
  • Gleichzeitige Verwendung von Geräten: Bis zu 4 Geräte gleichzeitig, je nach vom Verlag festgelegter Grenze
  • Verlag: Cambridge University Press (27. Mai 1988)
  • Verkauf durch: Amazon Media EU S.à r.l.
  • Sprache: Englisch
  • ASIN: B001AOZ3PM
  • Text-to-Speech (Vorlesemodus): Aktiviert
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  • Durchschnittliche Kundenbewertung: 4.0 von 5 Sternen  Alle Rezensionen anzeigen (2 Kundenrezensionen)
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4 von 5 Kunden fanden die folgende Rezension hilfreich
5.0 von 5 Sternen Are Collapses Social or "Thing" events? 4. Dezember 1999
Von G. A. Ure
While lots of authors look for a simplistic "single cause" of collapse (that another reviewer seems to have bought into!) Tainter's view is a lot more global. Single causes? Maybe...but they all have a common element: declining marginal return for additional effort. That's the underlying issue that sparked massive protest at the WTO meetings in Seattle. Folks are working harder and harder just to stay even. If Y2K'ers don't understand that our marginal rate of return has headed south, they're missing Tainter's point.
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6 von 10 Kunden fanden die folgende Rezension hilfreich
3.0 von 5 Sternen Not particularly useful for Y2K'ers 31. August 1999
Von Ein Kunde
Yourdon recommends Joseph Tainter's book, _The Collapse of Complex Societies_ (1988).
From a Y2K perspective, after a quick skim, not sure it is worth reading unless you are really interested in detailed history and economics. This book does not attempt to describe the collapses or provide especially helpful info in our context, I think.
The author IS rather proud of himself, though, as he beats up on many other theories of how civilizations collapse (e.g., Roman, Mayan). Other authors have proposed causes such as:
1. Depletion of vital resources, 2. Discovery of brand new resources, 3. Catastrophes, 4. Insufficient response to circumstances, 5. Competition from other complex societies, 6. Intruders, 7. Class conflict, societal contradictions, elite mismanagement/misbehavior, 8. Social dysfunction, 9. Mystical, 10. Chance concatenation of bad things
He says the cause is not these things, but instead, the fact that the society had achieved a level of complexity such that the economic overhead for maintaining the bureaucracy, etc was so great that the society was weakened. Then, when items like 1-10 occur, the society is less able to handle it.
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488 von 491 Kunden fanden die folgende Rezension hilfreich
5.0 von 5 Sternen Fascinating and deeply disturbing 29. Mai 2004
Von Chris Stolz - Veröffentlicht auf
Tainter's project here is to articulate his grand unifying theory to explain the strange and disturbing fact that every complex civilisation the world has ever seen has collapsed.

Tainter first elegantly disposes of the usual theories of social decline (disappearance of natural resources, invasions of barbarians, etc). He then lays out his theory of decline: as societies become more complex, the costs of meeting new challenges increase, until there comes a point where extra resources devoted to meeting new challenges produce diminihsing and then negative returns. At this point, societies become less complex (they collapse into smaller societies). For Tainter, social problems are always (ultimately) a problem of recruiting enough energy to "fuel" the increasing social complexity which is necessary to solve ever-newer problems.

Complexity, writes Tainter, describes a variety of characteristics in a number of societies. SOm aspects of complexity include many differentiated social roles, a large class of administrators not involved in the production of primary resources, energy devoted to different kinds of communication, centralised government, etc. Societies become more complex in order to solve problems. Complexity, for Tainter, is quantifiable. Where, for example, the Cherokee natives of the U.S. had about 5,000 cultural artifacts (things ranging from recipes to tools to tents) which were integral to their culture, the Allied troops landing on the Normandy coast in 1944 had about 40,000.

Herein, however, lies the rub. Since, as Tainter writes, the "number of challenges with which the Universe can confront a society is, for practical purposes, infinite," complex societies need to keep on increasing their level of complexity in order to survive new challenges. Tainter's thesis is that these "investments in aditional complexity" produce fewer and fewer returns with time, until eventually society cannot muster enough energy to fuel complexity. At this point, society collapses.

Consider this example: A simple hunter-gatherer society with limited agriculture (i.e. garden plots) is faced with a problem, such as a seasonal drop in food production (or an invasion from its neighbours who have the same problem and are coming over for food). The bottom line is, this society faces an energy shortage. This society could respond to the food crisis by either voluntarily declining in numbers (die-off, and unlikely) or by increasing production. Most societies choose the latter. In order to increase production, this society will need to either expand territorially (invade somebody else)or increase agricultural production . In either case, this investment can pay off substantially in either increased access to already-produced food or increased food production.

But the hunter-gatheres of the above example incur costs as they try to solve their food-shortage problem. If they conquer their neighbours, they have to garrison those territories, thus raising the cost of government. If they start agriculture on a larger or more intense scale in their own territories, they have to create a new class of citizens to man the farms, distribute and store the grain, and guard it from animals and invaders. In either case, the increases in access to energy (food) are offset somewhat by the increased cost of social complexity.

But, as the society gets MORE complex to confront newer challenges, the returns on these increases in complexity diminish. Eventually, the costs of maintaining garrisons (as the Romans found) is so high that both home and occupied populations revolt, and welcome the invaders with their simpler way of life and their lower taxes. Or, agricultural challenges (a massive drought, or degradation of soils) are so great that the society cannot muster the energy reserves to deal with them.

Tainter's book examines the Mayan, Chacoan and Roman collapses in terms of his theory of diminishing marginal returns on investments in complexity. This is the fascinating part of the book; the disturbing sections are Chapter Four and the final chapter. In Chapter 4, Tainter musters a massive array of statistics that show that modern society has been facing diminishing returns on investments in complexity. There is a very simple reason for this: we solve the easiest problems first. Take oil, for example. In 1950, spending the energy equivalent of one barrel of oil in searching for more oil yielded 100 barrels in discovered oil. In 2004, the world's five largest energy companies found less oil energy than they expended in looking for that energy. The per-dollar return on R&D investment has dropped for fifty years. In education, additional investments in programs, technology etc. no longer produce increases in outcomes. In short, industrial society is looking at steadily fewer returns on its investments in both non-human and human capital.

When a new challenge comes, Tainter argues, society will eventually be unable to muster the necessary resources to deal with the crisis, and will revert-- in a painful and unhappy way-- to a much simpler way of life.

In his final chapter, Tainter describes the modern world's "arms race of complexity" and makes some uncomfortable suggestions about our own future. (...). In an age where, for example, the U.S. invasion of Iraq has yielded net negative returns on investment even for the invaders (where's that cheap oil?), and where additional investments in education and health care in industrialised countries make no significant increases in outcomes, the historical focus of Tainter's work starts to become eerily prescient.

The scary thing about this deeply thoughtful and thoroughly researched book is its contention that the future, for all our knowledge and technology, might be an awful lot like the past.
82 von 84 Kunden fanden die folgende Rezension hilfreich
5.0 von 5 Sternen Scholarly but gripping 31. März 2006
Von Erik D. Curren - Veröffentlicht auf
In contrast to Jered Diamond's "Collapse," this volume does not just focus on one theory of why societies collapse--depletion of natural resources--but presents in summary several different theories. In academic style, Tainter examines the pros and cons of each, offering a cornucopia of references that would be an invaluable source for future research.

While he sees some merit to most theories, one he holds in complete contempt, while another he tends to prefer. Tainter has no patience for "mystical" notions that societies collapse because their moral fiber has degenerated, a theory made famous by Gibbon, Spengler and Toynbee. What he does believe is that complex societies always at some point reach a stage where they become too complex, where the costs to citizens and elites alike begin to outweigh the benefits of keeping the society together. At that point, the society is vulnerable to breaking up.

This is what happened to the Western Roman Empire in the fifth century. The burden of inflation and taxes became so heavy on the populace that even the Italians began to yearn for "liberation" by barbarian tribes. And collapse is not always a bad thing: tribes like the Vandals actually governed their sections of the old empire more effectively.

So, what about us? Because of globalization, any collapse would affect all industrialized countries together. So, the US cannot collapse without either being taken over by a competitor or bringing everyone else down with us. Oil running out might be the end of our era of complexity, an anomaly in human history, but we still have time to make changes that could forestall collapse. Overall, a fresh view of history key to understanding the present.
39 von 41 Kunden fanden die folgende Rezension hilfreich
5.0 von 5 Sternen Best explanation of the rise and fall of civilization 19. Juli 2008
Von Dirk J. Willard - Veröffentlicht auf
Format:Taschenbuch|Verifizierter Kauf
What I found interesting about Joseph Tainter's treatise on civilizations is his application of economic theory to explain how they collapse. After a methodical review the two basic theories of why civilizations develop in the first place, the integration theory and the conflict theory, he launches into why he thinks economics is useful: it explains marginal returns.

In simple terms, societies are machines for solving social problems. As problems become more difficult, solutions become more complicated, eating into resources. Eventually, all societies are faced with marginal returns on their investment. Economics is a study of how supply meets demand and management of scarce resources.

Tainter begins by exploring the two concepts of civilization. Actually, it really does not matter whether you subscribe to the integration theory or the conflict theory. Economics helps explain complexity. Screw drivers exist because hammers weren't enough. Power drills were eventually developed and so on. Societies created such things as cash because lugging things around to exchange slowed commerce. Eventually, monetary policies developed to both explain transactions and allow regulation and taxation. Taxation pays for society.

Here is where the two theories on civilization diverge. Integration theory proposes that societies become more complex because of a growth in people's wants and needs. Conflict theory says that societies exist because an upper class wants to control the output of society to further their own comfort and avarice. Personally, I agree with Tainter that neither theory works, although many societies I've read about, including our own can lean in one of these directions or another. Tainter agrees that economic theory cannot explain everything. After all, society and people have a rational and irrational half. For example, he explains how the taxation of citizens in the later Roman Empire became so unbearable that citizens frequently welcomed invading barbarians; miners in one central European province went over to the barbarians en-mass. Meanwhile, the rich in Rome fled to the countryside to avoid being conscripted into a failing series of governments. Peasants were encouraged to migrate to the cities, where they became a burden, because Roman governments deprived them of even subsistence --- all went to taxes.

Getting back to Tainter's approach with economic theory, he supports this theory very well. There are figures showing the declining returns on increased investments in agriculture, medicine, education, pollution control, nutrition and scientific research. Taken as a whole it is very impressive.

Unfortunately, I think the author relied too much on Rome as an example. Perhaps it was one he was extensively familiar or just a well-documented example. There are several examples of societies that have moderated their behavior and survived, at least long enough to be taken over by the current, predominant western culture: e.g., Japan. Faced with resource problems since the beginning they showed a remarkable ability to adapt without the widespread famines that seemed to plague the Chinese.

As for the current crisis that western civilization is experiencing now, Tainter provides a few clues but no concrete predictions. He believes that the civilization will adapt and survive. I believe that instead it will break down. Some countries will be abandoned to their fate while others, such as India and the European Union will strive to exist as separate entities long after the collapse of the United States and China. Tainter believes, while providing a few historical examples as proof, that societies existing together, like the European Union, cannot collapse because they are bonded together in competition. I, however, feel that as collapse becomes inevitable, worrying about what your neighbors will do becomes less important than worrying about your own survival.

Eventually, we in the US will climb out of the hole created by our demise but generations to come will wonder at our foolishness.

If this review helps, please add your vote.
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4.0 von 5 Sternen Flawed but fascinating 4. Oktober 2011
Von Breck Jack - Veröffentlicht auf
Tainter develops a theory for why civilizations collapse. His theory is to my taste more disciplined and maybe more persuasive than Toynbee's or Spengler's. That doesn't mean Tainter's theory is right. He summarizes his theory on page 93 as follows:

"Four concepts ... can lead to an understanding of why complex societies collapse. These concepts are:

"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 sociopolitical complexity as a problem-solving response often reaches a point of declining marginal returns."

I see three problems with his theory:

--Tainter measures complexity by energy use. According the World Bank figures, in the US and some other developed countries per capita energy consumption has been flat (with some fluctuation) since the early 1970s. For example, in 1973 the US used 8,164 kg of oil equivalents per capita; in 2007, the figure was 7,759. So either Tainter is wrong in using energy as a measure of complexity; or he is wrong is saying that complexity increases over time. Many people find it difficult to believe our per capita energy use is roughly flat. If you are skeptical, you should check for yourself. The World Bank is not the only relevant source: the US Energy Outlook 2010 has a chart showing the same thing.

--The Law of Diminishing Returns was developed in the context of using labor and materials to produce goods. It can plausibly be extended to the production of services. But does it apply to an abstraction like complexity? Recall the classic explanation of diminishing returns, that businesses will use the most easily available resources first, so that as the need for resources grows, businesses have to use resources that are more and more difficult to get. Contrast complexity. When society is faced with a problem, does it systematically seek out the least complex solution, as the law of diminishing returns would imply? Or does it seek out the solution that (a) will work and (b) is palatable to a sufficient number of politically influential groups? To give an example, Nixon's solution to the problem of inflation was wage and price controls, which are complex indeed. Jimmy Carter's solution was simple: appoint a tight money sadist, Paul Volcker. It was brutal but it worked. Nixon undoubtedly knew about the tight money solution, but chose not to use it, probably because of the short-term political blowback Carter in fact encountered. So what actually happened was that society tried a complex solution, and when it didn't work, tried a simple one. That doesn't fit Tainter's theory.

--Tainter's theory is like much of the economic theory he draws on: it is post hoc. The US in 1900 was a much more complex society in any common-sense meaning than it was in 1800; yet it did not collapse. Why not? Apparently it wasn't complex enough? The US in 2000 was a much more complex society than it was in 1900; yet it did not collapse. Still not complex enough? At what point does complexity become excessive? Tainter's theory gives no way to answer this question, except after the fact. In 1970 Somalia was a less complex society in any common-sense meaning than the US. Yet Somalia collapsed, and the US hasn't. Why not? Tainter's theory sheds no light except to say that technology may make complexity more feasible, a post hoc explanation

Some other facts that conflict with his theory:

1. Tainter on page 116 says that "Once developed, complex social features are rarely dropped." He is simply wrong. Forty years ago, the US had a draft; we had unions in much of the private sector; and we had government regulation of some prices, for example airline prices. In these respects, things have become simpler. I could give other examples.

2. On page 116 Tainter claims that tax rates go up more often than they go down and that standing armies rarely get smaller. Among developed countries in the last half century, income tax rates have generally gone down, and standing armies have generally gotten smaller.

Notwithstanding the foregoing, I respect and admire Tainter's achievement in this book. He tackles a big issue, and tackles it intelligently, with creative thinking and scholarship. His theory may be flawed, but he provides a solid foundation for further thinking. I wish we had more people like him.
29 von 38 Kunden fanden die folgende Rezension hilfreich
5.0 von 5 Sternen Great book for understanding collapse (to an extent) 26. Juli 2005
Von Cevat Cokol - Veröffentlicht auf
Tainter's book is a seminal and thorough analysis on the collapse of societies. Writing in a somewhat academic language, the author gives the stories of collapsed civilizations and one by one refutes the generally accepted theories searching for a explanation with a larger scope, which accounts for the outcome of all the collapse stories. Naturally, he comes up with one and in the real contribution of the book, the second half, gives this explanation in detail.

Other reviewers have very nicely summarized the refuted theories (catastrophe, intruders and the like) and the idea of the book: More investment brings less marginal return and then society will inevitably collapse.

I very much like the integration of the beautiful law of "declining marginal returns" which is functioning in all cases all the the time, into this context. But quite frankly, I think the Tainter's theory on collapse is a revised version of the resource depletion theory. Extreme makeover maybe, but a makeover. Simply put, if there were no resource depletion, there would be no reason to jump into the next level of complexity. And since obviously first the easiest resources are the first to be depleted, the return from the next resource will inevitably be smaller.

Tainter, while refuting the previous ideas for collapse, gives an analogy between a dinosaur and a complex society. He says, it is often thought they are both giants locked in an evolutionary dead-end. They are both adapted to their present surrounding but will die away if it changes. But he then says a complex society is in itself something designed to adapt to its changing surroundings. So this analogy cannot be true. I actually think it is true, and the author fails to scrutinize his own theory as he did the previous "incomplete" theories. After reading his view, a very trivial question to ask the author would be "Why the once triumphant complex societies did not find a new resource, or a new way to govern that had a high marginal return, when they realized that their returns were diminishing?" A fine example could be: Why did Romans not use petroleum, why didn't Ottomans discover the New World? I do not believe Tainter answers this question, and the obvious answer to this question is, they were locked up in an evolutionary dead-end: They were dinosaurs!

A minor thing to add is, while the idea that complexity and civilization is something that emerged only in the last several thousand years and it could prove to be a bad experiment is cute, it is flawed in the sense that only in the same range humanity has accrued a certain population density.

Still, the book is marvelous in its scale and content, and I think it adds a lot to our thinking on how societies collapse and how we can avoid our fate: Find new ways for getting returns, the new ways which have large marginal returns (or use birth control and somehow avoid arms race between nations).
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