The Collapse of Complex Societies – Joseph Tainter

I recently read Joseph Tainter’s “The Collapse of Complex Societies” which is a fascinating look at complexity and social collapse (loss of complexity, in Tainter’s view). I have been thinking about how Tainter’s argument applies to health systems which are to say the least complex – and whether attempts to “solve” this complexity run into diminishing returns issues along the lines Tainter discusses.

Séamus Sweeney


Somewhere along the way I came across references to Joseph Tainter’s The Collapse of Complex Societies and finally read it in recent weeks. Tainter’s prose style reminded me a little of John Mueller,though somewhat drier. He has a similar eye for the absurdities and hyperbole written by so many in this field. He also has a rather bracing antidote to a lot of this hype. He surveys a wide range of societies that collapse, spending a good bit of time on Rome but also referencing a wide range of pre-Colombian American societies I was not familiar with.


As Tainter points out, we are used to seeing”collapse” in apocalyptic terms. Collapse is simply a reduction in social complexity. For those who live through it, collapse is a solution which may be welcomed. The Germanic kingdoms that succeeded the Roman Empire solved the problems that baffled the Empire much more effectively from…

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