Tainter initially describes two prime concepts necessary to understand complexity within a society: inequality and heterogeneity. Tainter defines "inequality" as "vertical differentiation, ranking, or unequal access to material and social resources." (p. 23). "Heterogeneity" "refers to the number of distinctive parts or components to a society, and at the same time to the ways in which a population is distributed among these parts." (p. 23). A society with large or high levels of heterogeneity is complex; one with a low level is not. Tainter compares, for instance, between a hunter-gatherer society with only a few dozen distinct social roles, versus the tens of thousands of unique occupational roles in a modern society, with a concomitant number of distinct social roles numbering in the millions. Tainter maintains, however, that there is no direct correlation between inequality and heterogeneity. That is, a primitive society with low heterogeneity may have a high level of inequality. However, complex societies tend toward high levels of inequality.
Tainter also notes (and I assume this will become more important as we progress into the book), that complex societies tend to be "nearly decomposable systems"--that is, "they are at least partly built up of social units that are themselves potentially stable and independent, and indeed at one time may have been so." (p. 23). Thus, "[t]o the extent that these states, ethnic groups, or villages retain the potential for independence and stability, the collapse process may result in reversion (decomposition) to these 'building blocks' of complexity." (pp. 23-24).
There are numerous features that distinguish a simpler (and necessarily, smaller) society from a complex society. Probably the most significant of these features is that at the tribal, and even chiefdom level, the society is organized on a kinship basis. While a tribe or chiefdom may occupy a territory, the territory is not the focus of the societal structure. Conversely, states are organized and, to a large extent, defined by their territory. "States tend to be overwhelmingly concerned with maintaining their territorial integrity. This is, indeed, one of their primary characteristics." (p. 27). Membership in a state does not depend on kinship, but whether one lives within the territory governed by the state.
Another principle difference is leadership. Tainter observes that leadership in the simplest societies tends to be minimal: "Hierarchical control is not institutionalized, but is limited to definite spheres of activity at specific times, and rests substantially on persuasion." (p. 24). Moreover, "[l]eaders, where they exist, are constrained from exercising authority, amassing wealth, or acquiring excessive prestige. Where there are differences in control of economic resources these must be exercised generously." (p. 24). Thus, political power, such as it exists, requires the accumulation of a surplus of resources (e.g., food or other goods), "and to distribute these in such a way that one establishes prestige in the community, and creates a following and a faction." (p. 25). In observing more complex societies, such as chiefdoms, the authority of the leader is still restrained. "The ruler is limited in his or her actions by the moorings of kinship, and by possessing, not a monopoly of force, but only a marginal advantage." (p. 25). Similar to the tribal society, "Chiefly generosity is the basis of politics and economics: downward distribution of amassed resources ensures loyalty." (p. 25).
Conversely, in states:
... a ruling authority monopolizes sovereignty and delegates all power. The ruling class tends to be professional, and is largely divorced from the bonds of kinship. This ruling class supplies the personnel for government, which is a specialized decision-making organization with a monopoly of force, and with the power to draft for war or work, levy and collect taxes, and decree and enforce laws. The government is legitimately constituted, which is to say that a common, society-wide ideology exists that serves in part to validate the political organization of society. And states, of course, are in general larger and more populous than tribal societies, so that social categorization, stratification, and specialization are both possible and necessary.
It pertains to individual rulers , to decisions, to broad policies, to parties , and to entire forms of government. The support that members are willing to extend to a political system is essential for its survival. Decline in support will not necessarily lead to the fall of a regime, for to a certain extent coercion can replace commitment to ensure compliance. Coercion, though , is a costly, ineffective strategy which can never be completely or permanently successful. Even with coercion, decline in popular support below some critical minimum leads infallibly to political failure. Establishing moral validity is a less costly and more effective approach .
Complex societies are focused on a center, which may not be located physically where it is literally implied, but which is the symbolic source of the framework of society . It is not only the location of legal and governmental institutions, but is the source of order, and the symbol of moral authority and social continuity . The center partakes of the nature of the sacred. In this sense, every complex society has an official religion. The moral authority and sacred aura of the center not only are essential in maintaining complex societies, but were crucial in their emergence. One critical impediment to the development of complexity in stateless societies was the need to integrate many localized, autonomous units, which would each have their own peculiar interests, feuds, and jealousies. A ruler drawn from any one of these units is automatically suspect by the others, who rightly fear favoritism toward his/her natal group and locality, particularly in dispute resolution. This problem has crippled many modern African nations.
The solution to this structural limitation was to explicitly link leadership in early complex societies to the supernatural. When a leader is imbued with an aura of sacred neutrality, his identification with natal group and territory can be superseded by ritually sanctioned authority which rises above purely local concerns. An early complex society is likely to have an avowedly sacred basis of legitimacy, in which disparate, formerly independent groups are united by an over arching level of shared ideology, symbols, and cosmology.
... Sacred legitimization provides a binding framework until real vehicles of power have been consolidated. Once this has been achieved the need for religious integration declines, and indeed conflict between secular and sacred authorities may thereafter ensue. Yet as noted, the sacred aura of the center never disappears, not even in contemporary secular governments. Astute politicians have always exploited this fact. It is a critical element in the maintenance of legitimacy.
Despite the undoubted power of supernatural legitimization, support for leadership must also have a genuine material basis. Easton suggests that legitimacy declines mainly under conditions of what he calls 'output failure'. Output failure occurs where authorities are unable to meet the demands of the support population, or do not take anticipatory actions to counter adversities. Outputs can be political or material. Output expectations are continuous, and impose on leadership a never-ending need to mobilize resources to maintain support. The attainment and perpetuation of legitimacy thus require more than the manipulation of ideological symbols. They require the assessment and commitment of real resources, at satisfactory levels, and are a genuine cost that any complex society must bear. Legitimacy is a recurrent factor in the modern study of the nature of complex societies , and is pertinent to understanding their collapse.
Complex societies are problem-solving organizations, in which more parts, different kinds of parts, more social differentiation, more inequality, and more kinds of centralization and control emerge as circumstances require. Growth of complexity has involved a change from small, internally homogeneous, minimally differentiated groups characterized by equal access to resources, shifting, ephemeral leadership, and
unstable political formations, to large, heterogeneous, internally differentiated, class structured, controlled societies in which the resources that sustain life are not equally available to all. This latter kind of society, with which we today are most familiar, is an anomaly of history, and where present requires constant legitimization and reinforcement.
The process of collapse, as discussed in the previous chapter, is a matter of rapid, substantial decline in an established level of complexity . A society that has collapsed is suddenly smaller, less differentiated and heterogeneous, and characterized by fewer specialized parts ; it displays less social differentiation; and it is able to exercise less control over the behavior of its members . It is able at the same time to command
smaller surpluses, to offer fewer benefits and inducements to membership; and it is less capable of providing subsistence and defensive security for a regional population. It may decompose to some of the constituent building blocks (e . g . , states, ethnic groups, villages) out of which it was created.
The loss of complexity, like its emergence, is a continuous variable. Collapse may involve a drop between the major levels of complexity envisioned by many anthropologists (e. g . , state to chiefdom), or it may equally well involve a drop within a level (larger to smaller, or Transitional to Typical or Inchoate states). Collapse offers an interesting perspective for the typological approach . It is a process of major, rapid
change from one structurally stable level to another. This is the type of change that evolutionary typologies imply, but in the reverse direction.
It seems obvious, for example, that the costs and benefits of stratification are not always as balanced as integration theory might imply. Compensation of elites does not always match their contribution to society, and throughout their history, elites have probably been overcompensated relative to performance more often than the reverse. Coercion, and authoritarian, exploitative regimes, are undeniable facts of history .