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  • Why Do We Do What We Do? Motivation in History and the Social Sciences by Ramsay MacMullen
  • Peter N. Stearns
Why Do We Do What We Do? Motivation in History and the Social Sciences. By Ramsay MacMullen (Warsaw, Poland, De Gruyter Open Ltd., 2014) 158 pp. $112.00 cloth or free, via open access, at

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 chapter addressing psychology contains useful comments about the limitations inherent in certain cultural databases and the tendency to focus on individuals, but MacMullen evinces a concomitant willingness to utilize [End Page 225] disciplinary findings, particularly about child-rearing results. An ensuing section deals with classic anthropological studies of primitive peoples, again with some reservations about the limitations in findings. MacMullen does not systematically explore sociology, though he utilizes Max Weber and others in his discussions. Economists receive extended treatment, especially regarding an understandable concern about the resort to rational-actor models (and other scientific approaches that assume undue rationality).

The book ultimately singles out the importance of cultural analysis as holding the real keys to human motivation. MacMullen is clearly delighted with the erstwhile cultural turn in his own discipline (the study of classical Greece), though he also explores approaches through moral philosophy. National-character frameworks gain surprisingly favorable treatment, with emphasis on Western and Confucian cases (MacMullen’s wider cosmopolitanism flags to some extent at this point). The cultural approach also justifies some compelling observations about why historians should strive for reasonable explanations rather than some impossible standard of exactitude.

MacMullen’s impressive reading list may favor classic works more than recent ones, though it includes important examples of the latter. Bronislaw Malinowski is cited for Tahiti, but not Robert Levy. Herbert Simon, and the decision-making strategy that he termed satisficing, is conspicuously missing from the survey of the economists. The interest in the cultural approach does not extend to recent efforts in fields like the history of emotions, and neuroscience receives short shrift.

Ultimately, the book suffers from a lack of cohesion. It does not offer any extended case study that combines the various disciplinary contributions into an illustrative effort to elucidate motivational issues. Instead, it offers acute observations about a number of disciplinary emphases. Historians will certainly enjoy the kind words that MacMullen has for their distinctive contributions. The book might usefully circulate in wider interdisciplinary discussions in which historians are involved, though counter-arguments or amendments from the social sciences would not be out of place.

Peter N. Stearns
George Mason University


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pp. 225-226
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