All Crises are Unhappy in their Own Way: The role of societal instability in shaping the past

Daniel Hoyer, Samantha Holder, James S Bennett, Pieter François, Harvey Whitehouse, Alan Covey, Gary Feinman, Andrey Korotayev, Vadim Vustiuzhanin, Johannes Preiser-Kapeller, Kathryn Bard, Jill Levine, Jenny Reddish, Georg Orlandi, Rachel Ainsworth, and Peter Turchin
SocArXiv Preprint February 15, 2024 Journal Link


Societal ‘crises’ are periods of turmoil and destabilization in socio-cultural, political, economic, and other systems, often accompanied by varying amounts of violence and sometimes significant changes in social structure. The extensive literature analyzing societal crises has concentrated on relatively few historical examples (large-scale events such the fall of the Roman Empire or the French and Russian Revolutions) emphasizing different aspects of these events as potential causes or consistent effects. To investigate crises and prior approaches to explaining them, and to avoid a potential small-sample size bias present in several previous studies, we sought to uniformly characterize a substantial collection of historical crises, spanning millennia, from the prehistoric to post-industrial, and afflicting a wide range of polities in diverse global regions; the Crisis Database (CrisisDB). Here, we describe this dataset which comprises 168 crises suggested by historians and characterized by a number of significant 'consequences' (such as civil war, epidemics, or loss of population) including also institutional and cultural reforms (for example improved sufferance or constitutional changes) that might occur during and immediately following the crisis period. Our analyses show that the consequences experienced by each crisis is highly variable. The outcomes themselves are uncorrelated with one another and, overall, the set of consequences is largely unpredictable when compared to other large-scale properties of society suggested by previous scholars such as its territorial size, religion, administrative size, or historical recency. We conclude that there is no ‘typical’ societal crisis of the past, but crisis situations can take a variety of different directions. We offer some suggestions on the forces that might drive these varying consequences for exploration in future work.
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