Sunk-Cost Effects and Vulnerability to Collapse in Ancient Societies

TitleSunk-Cost Effects and Vulnerability to Collapse in Ancient Societies
Publication TypeJournal Article
Year of Publication2003
AuthorsJanssen MA, Kohler TA, Scheffer M
JournalCurrent Anthropology
Start Page722
Date Published12/2003
Keywordssunk cost

Judging by the variety of explanations proffered in the literature, societies apparently collapse for a variety of reasons. In an influential review, Tainter (1988:39-90) reports that published explanations for the famous collapses of the Classic Maya, the western Roman Empire, and many other less famous expisodes such as the demise of the Chimu of Peru or the Chacoan system in the U.S. Southwest tend to fall into 11 major categories, with resource depletion or deterioration being one of the most commonly adduced causes (see, for example, Hodell, Curtis, and Brenner 1995, Weiss and Bradley 2001). Another common explanation is insufficient response to circumstances, or "failure to adapt." 

Tainter (1988:50, emphasis added) rejects both such explanations. Resource-degredation explanations raise the question why 

societies sit by and watch the encroaching weakness without taking corrective actions... As it becomes apparent to the members or administrators of a complex society that a resource base is deteriorating, it seems most reasonable to assume that some rational steps are taken towards a resolution... If a society cannot deal with resource depletion (which all societies are to some extent designed to do) then the truly interesting questions revolve around the society, not the resource. What structural, political, or economic factors in a society prevented an approporiate response?

As to the possibility that societies fail becasue they are inherently fragile or static or incapable of shifting directions, Tainter (1988:54-61, 89) considers this not so much an explanation as something that, if true in particular cases, must be explained. 

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