Collaboration and Work Camps out West

Earlier this month, we found out that our Vice President for Research funded a collaborative seed grant for a preliminary, transdisciplinary study of work camps and social change in the oil producing counties in western North Dakota. This relatively modest grant will fund a range of initiatives for a range of scholars from Social Work, Indian Studies, Anthropology, and History. (See below for a copy of our research proposal.)  As readers of this blog know, my contribution to this interdisciplinary party, is an archaeology of work camps. Last week, we had our first meeting as a team and it was exciting to see what the various collaborators could bring to the table and the challenges that working on this environment would entail:

1. Common vocabulary. One of the most interesting things about our team is that we appear to have some basic shared theoretical assumptions ranging from an understanding of a core-periphery model for the study of resource extraction in boom/bust environments, to an appreciation of the value of participant action research (PAR) and a commitment to the integration of both “indigenous” (broadly defined) and “etic” perspectives.  Despite these common intellectual spaces, we do not share a common vocabulary for discussing how we will approach gathering and organizing data from the western part of the state. It is probably not necessary to standardize our theoretical and methodological vocabulary across the entire team, but some kind of concordance would facilitate communication.

2. Perspectives on the Oil Boom. One of the most interesting conversations we had at our first meeting was how to characterize the experiences the oil boom. On the one hand, the challenges facing these western communities are pretty well known (in fact, this list has gone viral over the past five days; but note well: its authenticity is under review.). But, as one archaeologist who has worked out west a good bit over the past few years remarked: it’s nice to work out there because ‘everyone’ is making money, so ‘everyone’ is happy. It is clear that ironic edge to most media reporting has emphasized the negative impact of the sudden prosperity experienced by these counties (with echoes of such great documentary studies as The Beverly Hillbillies). On the other hand, some people have benefited from the oil boom and emphasizing the challenges of the boom as more significant than its benefits will not necessarily be consistent with the experience of participants.

3. Longitudinal Perspectives. Research into the social impact of the North Dakota oil boom has just started in earnest, but the boom itself is at least three years old. As researchers, we are going to insert ourselves into an event that is already underway. While certain kinds of “base line data” are available from state and local agencies, the so-called Bakken counties attracted very little sustained humanistic research interest prior to the oil boom. As a result, it will be challenging to document in a longitudinal way the experiences of individuals in this region. The nostalgia tinged media reports from the counties are already showing signs that local residents are harkening back to a romantic view of the past. While it is vital to give voice to these perspective on the boom, we should keep them in the context of the recent, dramatic changes to the area.

4. Logistics. When telling people of our project one of the first things they tell us is that it is impossible to work in the western counties. The litany of reasons begins slow – there are no hotel rooms or they are only available at exorbitant prices ($600 for a room at a Hotel 6!!) – and get more dire – 2, 3, and 4 hour traffic jams, empty Wallmart shelves, no toilet paper for 300 miles, and drunken mobs roaming the countryside. These admonitions finally culminate with a series of insane statements like entire counties are closed to traffic (echoes of the candid camera “Delaware is Closed Today” episode), food shortages, and flesh-eating, undead zombies released by fracking.  When sanity returns, we have to accept that doing work out west will be challenging. Basic services are pushed to the limits, many local officials are already experiencing “interview fatigue”, and we want to avoid being seen as part of the problem. On the other hand, it is interesting to realize that our own experiences in these areas as researchers will not differ radically from the experiences of individuals who have come from other places to work in this area and live in these communities.

More on my contributions to our research goals later in the week.

Here’s our grant proposal:

One Comment

  1. Great project, Bill. I think your work would be of interest to many residents of upstate NY, where a similar shale gas boom looks likely to begin late this year or next.


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