What Does It Mean to Collapse?

Posted by: teofilo  :  Category: collapse

In the previous post on Joseph Tainter’s review article on overshoot and collapse in the archaeological record I mentioned briefly that Tainter’s definition of “collapse” relies heavily on the notion of “complexity.”  Here’s the definition he uses:

rapid loss of an established level of social, political, and/or economic complexity

Two ideas seem to be of primary importance in this definition:

  1. Collapse happens rapidly.
  2. Collapse means a shift from a higher to a lower level of complexity.

Note that population size is not explicitly included as a factor in this definition, although it could be argued that more “complex” societies necessarily involve more people.  By way of comparison, here’s the definition Jared Diamond uses in his book, as quoted by Tainter:

By collapse, I mean a drastic decrease in human population size and/or political/economic/social complexity, over a considerable area, for an extended time.

This is pretty similar to Tainter’s definition, but it involves more ideas.  The core criteria seem to be:

  1. Collapse involves a major loss of population.
  2. Collapse involves a loss of complexity.
  3. Collapse occurs over a large geographic area.
  4. The changes brought about by collapse persist for a long time.

Note that 1 and 2 here are apparently being offered as alternatives, so only one appears to be necessary to define a collapse.  This is presumably how Diamond manages to fit unsuccessful colonization attempts, which involve loss of population but not necessarily of complexity, into his set of case studies.  Tainter’s criteria clearly exclude such events, and his review is quite critical of Diamond’s inclusion of them.  Note also that Diamond explicitly refers to both spatial and temporal scale in defining collapse, which Tainter doesn’t do, although it’s possible that scale is folded into his concept of “complexity.”

Complexity is really the key to both of these definitions, but what does it mean?  Tainter doesn’t define it in his review article, which is understandable since it’s not necessarily relevant in that context.  In fact, defining “complexity” has been a longstanding issue in anthropology and archaeology, and debate over the best way to approach it has often been rancorous.  One important contribution to this debate came from Ben Nelson, an archaeologist at Arizona State University who specializes in northern Mexico, in an article from 1995 comparing Chaco Canyon to the northern Mexican site of La Quemada.  He says:

The term complexity, while easy enough to grasp intuitively, refers in archaeological practice to a web of properties whose interrelationships are poorly understood. Social systems are considered complex if they are comparatively large demographically and spatially, encompass multiple settlements in an integrated political structure, and exhibit horizontal and vertical social differentiation. Other properties associated with complexity are hereditary ranking, production of surplus and its appropriation by an elite, craft specialization, and long-distance exchange.

Under this definition, “collapse” would involve the loss of one or more of these characteristics in a society that previously had them.  Note that large population and geographic scale are considered aspects of complexity here, so if Tainter is using this definition his criteria for collapse are mostly the same as Diamond’s.  Nelson goes on to question this definition on theoretical grounds and to argue that these criteria should be considered separately.  He makes a good case for that, but given that the collapse literature tends to throw the term “complexity” around without examining it in depth, it’s probably best to interpret uses of the concept in that literature in terms of a unified theory of complexity.

That’s all I’ll say on this for now, but keep these definitions in mind.  They’ll be important later when I talk about the role Chaco plays in all this.

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7 Responses to “What Does It Mean to Collapse?”

  1. sambo Says:

    Has there been any parallels drawn between this field and others in these definitions. For instance, you could compare complexity and collapse to similar definitions such as complexity and reliability in engineering. Even concepts such as stability are well defined in engineering and could be useful in such contexts. I didn’t look at Tainter’s article, so I don’t know if he defines stability or a similar concept.

  2. teofilo Says:

    I don’t know of any such parallels that have been drawn, but it would certainly be an interesting thing to do, and it’s quite possible that someone has done it.  Certainly the flipside of collapse is stability, which Tainter doesn’t discuss in this article but which is clearly an important concept to define in the same context.

  3. teofilo Says:

    Probably the best place to look for research along those lines (comparing concepts of complexity in the physical sciences to those in the social sciences) would be the Santa Fe Institute, which has done a lot of interesting stuff involving complexity and related issues.  I don’t know much about the specifics of work being done there, however.

  4. isaacschumann Says:

    This is a very interesting topic, one which I have limited knowledge on.
    This is just on offhand comment, but if a sudden loss of complexity seems to be the defining feature of ‘collapse’, and complexity is defined as “hereditary ranking, production of surplus and its appropriation by an elite, craft specialization, and long-distance exchange.”
    It seems odd to me that those most commonly prone to believing that ecological and economic collapse are imminent (the political left, of which I am grudgingly a part) are those most likely to be adamantly opposed to those characteristics that comprise complexity (surplus i.e. profit, appropriation of that profit by an elite, specialization and long distance trade i.e. free trade/globalization).
    How widely accepted is Ben Nelson’s definition of complexity? I find it appropriate, but I am a non-specialist. Specialization and trade are two areas where I often disagree with many environmentalists as they tend to see trade and economic activity as the prime culprits in humanities demise.
    I look forward to more on this topic, thanks!

  5. teofilo Says:

    I actually don’t think it’s that odd that the left tends to both oppose characteristics of societal “complexity” and warn of impending collapse.  The idea is that increasing complexity makes a society “brittle” and therefore prone to collapse.  In other words, if we hadn’t developed all that complexity in the first place, things would be fine and we wouldn’t be facing all these problems, grumble grumble etc.  Obviously this is just one of many views on the broad spectrum that constitutes the “left”; Marxists, for example, see things differently and generally don’t buy the “collapse” stuff at all.
    Nelson’s definition is pretty widespread, I think.  In the context of the article he’s setting it up as the consensus view in order to challenge it.

  6. Collide-a-scape » Blog Archive » Collide-a-scape >> Did Chaco Collapse? Says:

    [...] and/or CollapseNewYorkJ on Plan ZTom Fuller on Plan ZMarlowe Johnson on The Brushbackteofilo on What Does It Mean to Collapse?isaacschumann on What Does It Mean to Collapse?willard on The BrushbackKeith Kloor on The [...]

  7. Pascvaks Says:

    Collapse of  “complexity”?  Think collapse of “order”.  Think NOLA and Katrina and no Federal releaf, transport, supplies, or money for rebuilding. Na’lins would be a ghost town today.  A flooded, likely buried, Chaco tomorrow.  When you think “complexity”, think of a huge house of cards with its own unique rules -an ‘ordered’ system.

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