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How Places Make People Believe

We may not realize it, but truth and place are inextricably linked. For ancient Greeks, temples and statues clustered on the side of Mount Parnassus affirmed their belief that predictions from the oracle at Delphi were accurate. The trust we have in Thoreau’s wisdom depends in part on how skillfully he made Walden Pond into a perfect place for discerning timeless truths about the universe. Courthouses and laboratories are designed and built to exacting specifications so that their architectural conditions legitimate the rendering of justice and discovery of natural fact. The on-site commemoration of the struggle for civil rights—Seneca, Selma, and Stonewall—reminds people of slow but significant political progress and of unfinished business. What do all these places have in common? Thomas F. Gieryn calls these locations “truth-spots,” places that lend credibility to beliefs and claims about natural and social reality, about the past and future, and about identity and the transcendent.

In Truth-Spots, Gieryn gives readers an elegant, rigorous rendering of the provenance of ideas, uncovering the geographic location where they are found or made, a spot built up with material stuff and endowed with cultural meaning and value. These kinds of places—including botanical gardens, naturalists’ field-sites, Henry Ford’s open-air historical museum, and churches and chapels along the pilgrimage way to Santiago de Compostela in Spain—would seem at first to have little in common. But each is a truth-spot, a place that makes people believe. Truth may well be the daughter of time, Gieryn argues, but it is also the son of place.

208 pages | 5 1/2 x 8 1/2 | © 2018

Geography: Cultural and Historical Geography

History: Discoveries and Exploration

Sociology: General Sociology

Travel and Tourism: Tourism and History


Truth-Spots is a compelling book on an entirely original topic in sociology. Beautifully written, it is fashioned after a travelogue, where each stop is a “truth spot,” or a place that “makes people believe.” It offers a fascinating tour, albeit one that ends perhaps a bit too soon. . . . Gieryn is one of sociology’s most perceptive observers when it comes to the material and cultural dimensions of place. If he has led us to recognize the truth spots around us, Gieryn suggests in closing, then his job here is done. The book clearly succeeds by this criterion. Truth-Spots is an eye-opening contribution, and is full of consequence for how urban sociologists perceive and interpret the places we study. . . . Like the book’s topic, Gieryn is one-of-a-kind, a sociologist whose lyrical, descriptive prose is laced with sharp analytical clarity. In short, he’s a stimulating tour guide — a combination of curiosity and novel insight propels this book forward on its whirlwind voyage across centuries and around the globe. . . . An important book for urban sociologists to consider, absolutely vital for those who have an interest in the cultural and political implications of place.”

City and Community

“In rich ethnographic detail, Gieryn explores the varying shades of truth, the interplay between faith and objectivity, and the nuanced ways the identities of places shift even as they stake their claims to authenticity. . . . Truth-Spots offers great insight into the processes through which people and places co-constitute each other at different times and locations. The book offers complex theoretical insights in an engaging prose that makes it a promising read for both an academic audience and the general public. It will be of particular interest to cultural geographers interested in questions of identity, space and place, and cultural history and transformation. As Gieryn guides his readers through different places, masterfully narrating the complex and contested stories about them, sifting through facts and fictions, to finally unveil the predominant but not fixed grounds of identities, the reader feels them materializing on the pages in ways that force us to reimagine not just general but also scholarly understandings of our relationship to such places.”

Journal of Cultural Geography

“In this elegant volume, Gieryn demonstrates the wildly divergent ways by which specific places give rise to interpretive frames for making sense of experience. Along the way, Gieryn serves as a masterly tour guide—the sort of guide who offers insight rather than patter, open-endedness in place of simplistic closure, and just enough of his own personality to keep us interested but never so much that we grow weary of him. Gieryn completely convinces us not just that place matters, but that different places matter differently. This is a charming, thoughtful, and clever book by a gifted writer.”

Steven Epstein, Northwestern University

“In a globalizing world of digitized everything and virtual reality, have particular places become as unreal and irrelevant as some claim? Gieryn’s answer to this question is a firm no. These truth-spots include places of prophecy or individual enlightenment, pilgrim roads and sites where science is made, courthouses where justice or injustice is served, and the commemorative birthplaces of social movements. Gieryn develops his exemplary cases not as a sociological treatise but as a kind of travelogue. The result is one of the most engaging and readable books that I’ve read in some time, as entertaining as it is enlightening.”

Robert Kohler, University of Pennsylvania

“Gieryn’s greatest contribution is encouraging social scientists to reconsider how their own environments, or those they visit for research, are instrumental to procedures of “truth” creation. There are no simple answers in Truth-Spots—readers will not come away with a set of instructions on how to create “truthful” spaces. Rather, if Gieryn is successful, readers will look about themselves and consider what aspects of their environment play into “truthing” procedures.”

Symbolic Interaction

"Long on supporting anecdote and short on obfuscating jargon,Truth-Spots makes a novel conceptual contribution with far-ranging disciplinary applications...Gieryn possesses wide-ranging erudition wielded with a soft touch, sprinkling in fun facts about the original Potemkin village and Diego Rivera’s incongruous partnership with Henry Ford. The range of examples is effective in showing the portable quality of his heuristic device...his genial authorial persona should not distract the reader from the urgency of his contribution. Gieryn joins the discipline’s growing attention to space and place as core factors in understanding cultural identities, political affiliations, and opportunity structures."

Richard D. Lloyd | American Journal of Sociology

Table of Contents

1              Oracular Tourism
2              Ground-Truthing at Walden Pond
3              Linnaeus’s Credibilizing Transit
4              Ford’s Potemkin Villages
5              Trapdoor to the Transcendent
6              The Whole Truth and Nothing But
7              Obama’s Three Birthplaces
8              Ultra Clean Lab


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