World’s Largests: Understanding Expressions of Place Character and Efforts to Attract Economic Investment


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Place character is a modern concept in urban sociology that is a critical piece for understanding how processes of economic development can be rooted in socially constructed subjective understandings of place characteristics. Because understanding the processes from which place character emerges implies dealing with social constructions and subjective understandings, it is often a challenging concept for students in urban sociology courses to work with. Through this set of materials, students read leading scholarship (Paulsen, 2004) delineating the place character concept, work with this concept in class discussion, and then apply the place character concept to a documentary which illustrates examples of place character being uniquely expressed through large sculptures in small towns across the US. These large sculptures are roadside attractions which local residents often hope will attract visitors and drive economic investment in these, often economically struggling, communities. Situated within broader study of economic development processes and an understanding of globalization, this assignment may function as a critical counterpoint to optimistic narratives about urban investment in creativity and technological innovation by asking students to reflect on places struggling to attract such investment. This material is relevant for urban sociology and rural sociology courses. The steps of this material are as follows: 1) Students read Paulsen’s (2004) “Making Character Concrete” prior to class. 2) In-class lecture and discussion on concept of place character 3) Students read King and Cazessus’s (2012) review of World’s Largest, “Small Town, Big Totem.” 4) Students watch World’s Largest. 5) Students complete video assignment. Image Credit: The Jon B. Lovelace Collection of California Photographs in Carol M....


Resource Type(s):
Assessment, Assignment, Lecture, PowerPoint 
Colby King, Bridgewater State University 
Date Published:
Subject Area:
Urban Sociology 
Class Level:
College 200 
Class Size:

Usage Notes:

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This assignment works well in an undergraduate urban sociology course, but could be adapted for community sociology, rural sociology, or other courses, or as part of an urban/community/rural sociology unit in an introductory course. The lecture and assignment could be adapted according to the purposes of the instructor. The instructor...

Learning Goals and Assessments:

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Goal 1:
1: Students will be able to define the concept of place character and explain how socially constructed meanings become associated with particular places and patterns of local life.
Assessment 1:
Assessment 1: This goal may be assessed with in-class discussion at the end of the lecture, or short answer essay questions as outlined on the last slide of the lecture or the beginning of the video assignment.
Goal 2:
2: Students will be able to apply Paulsen’s framework for studying place character to various expressions of place character as shown in the documentary World’s Largest.
Assessment 2:
Assessment 2: This goal is assessed through student responses to short answer essay questions in the video assignment, including “How does a world’s largest express place character? Provide an example from the documentary.”
Goal 3:
3: Situated within broader scholarship on economic development, globalization, and deindustrialization, students will be able to describe how social life in towns observed in World’s Largest is shaped by these larger economic processes.
Assessment 3:
Assessment 3: This goal is assessed through student responses to short answer essay questions in the video assignment.

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