Sociological readings of apocalyptic scenarios abound (here's me on zombies. And again), but as Mark notes popular cultural texts, and even less sociology, deal with the descent into decay itself. Books/films/TV like The Stand and Outbreak see the evisceration of humanity by plague. In the former it's what plays out after that matters whereas the latter has Uncle Sam's lab-coated finest saving the day. In The Terminator series human societies disappear under CGI mushroom clouds. Breakdown scenarios, of society sliding into formlessness are around, such as the original Mad Max and the upcoming Walking Dead spin-off set during the emergence of our brain eatin', flesh rottin' friends, but all too often social dislocation and disintegration is identified with outright criminality and lawlessness. It's always the return of the Hobbesian repressed, of the nasty and the brutish.
What Mark contends then is "if some general philosophical propositions (the epistemology of civilizational collapse) could be explored through an analysis of fictional representations (the representation of civilizational collapse) to shed more light on the character of social processes (the sociology of civilizational collapse)?"
There are a huge load of questions that must preface a venture into speculative sociology, however. What, for instance, constitutes a civilisational collapse? Nazi Germany on the one hand was the collapse of civilisation considered in Enlightenment terms, and yet there were plenty of social continuities with what went before and after. Did the demise of the Soviet Union constitute a collapse, despite (especially) the continuity of elites between the old system and the restoration of capitalism? Wherever individual freedom is tightly circumscribed at present and in the future, is an excess of authoritarian collectivism, be it concentrated in the state as per 1984 or dispersed as per The Borg congruent with collapse? Or does a civilisational collapse require the physical liquidation of social relations via the deaths of large numbers of people? Even then, that in itself is no guarantee. Consider the awful 2012 for instance: billions die but civilisation persists thanks to mega arks stuffed full of the super rich and their hangers on. Or how, in societies that have suffered catastrophe, such as the collapse of the state in Somalia, the Rwandan genocide, the Russian and Chinese civil wars, the collapse of institutional order doesn't necessarily mean the collapse of social order.
Therefore theorising about collapse has to take into consideration is the durability of social relations. At certain levels of abstraction, sociology assumes the durability of social relationships because they have proven to be just that. There is social change, but the - on paper - precariously balanced division of labour with its innumerable interdependencies has not just survived, but has thrived economic shocks and world wars, and has spread itself across the globe. The social substance is elastic and tough, I'd wager, because on the one hand capitalist societies are constituted in their production and reproduction by irreducibly antagonistic relationships, and on the other human beings cannot be anything but social, meaning-making beings in the Goffman mode who, in turn, constitute/reproduce social structures as per Giddens and Bourdieu. It's also worth noting that crisis tendencies are organic to capitalism, that each of its myriad points of tension are pregnant with destruction and creation, of enculturation and barbarism. In other words, while there are precedents from history of civilisations coming and going, none have attained the level of social complexity and productive prowess as our own. Fundamentally speaking, the Romans, the Mayans, the Hittites, and the Babylonians were static societies. The advanced capitalist, industrial societies of today are dynamic and fluidic. They have momentum that might carry them through a huge disaster, or allow them to adapt to real and imagined threats posed by climate change, pandemics, artificial intelligence, and so on.
Where then has this exercise got us? Declinism, disorder, and threat are dialectically inseparable from their opposite. We are a society that lives among its ruins while throwing up the new. It's nigh-on impossible to isolate trends toward a collapse when, at anyone time, they stretch in all directions and are constantly rewritten, overwritten, strengthened/weakened/abolished/renewed. Existential threats present themselves not as portents of doom but profit-making opportunities as cultural leitmotifs to be exploited, and technical challenges to be met.
None of this is to say that a sociology of civilisational collapse is a waste of time. Why should the forecasting of social trends be left to science fiction, conspiracy-types, and apocalypse junkies? Yet our thinking must always be prefaced with the durability of relations, the fact they always carry the seeds of crisis within them, and the irreducibly social character of human beings as a species.