This immensely erudite book ranges over various social- and behavioral-science disciplines to probe affinities with the historical concern for figuring out what motivates people and groups, while also explaining why historical methods are necessarily distinctive. The result is an engaging conversation about disciplinary relations, both positive and negative. It is not, however, as clear-cut or useful a probe of human motivations as the title implies.

MacMullen offers scattered historical examples to illustrate the kinds of motivational concerns that historians should explore in dealing with their interest in change over time—what motivated, say, American revolutionaries or abolitionists or, in Rome, upper-class benefactors of public monuments? Biographical issues are not germane; the focus is on group behaviors, with special attention to non-elite sectors whose impulses may be particularly difficult to probe. Thus, MacMullen lingers on some of the classic sociohistorical studies of crowds.

The book is partly organized into disciplinary segments. The...

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