Archaeology of Consumer Culture and North Dakota Work Camps

I finished reading Paul R. Mullins’ newish book, The Archaeology of Consumer Culture, in the excellent University Press of Florida’s The American Experience in Archaeological Perspective Series. The book provides a concise and readable overview of archaeology’s engagement with the consumption of mass produced goods. Rich in case studies and examples, Mullins’ reflects on the intersection of consumer culture and the archaeological indications of wealth and poverty, the mechanisms of demand, the impact of moralizing attitudes toward consumption, as well as issues of identity, gender, and ethnicity. The bibliography alone is worth the very reasonable price of the book.

I read this book as I continued to think about my short field season in the western part of North Dakota this summer where I hope to document the material signature of active work camps in the landscape. As readers of this blog know, the Western North Dakota is experiencing an oil boom right now that is bringing unprecedented prosperity, demographic growth, and problems to the communities associated with the Bakken Oil Fields. Among the numerous tropes of circulating about the oil boom, the change in consumption patterns among both local (pre-boom) residents of the affected counties and brought into the region by the newcomers who have arrived to work in the oil fields. Most of our information on these shifting patterns remains at the level of literary trope or fictional constructs. There might be a kernel of truth to the various mythic tales coming from the west, but the stories remain instructive in understanding how the various communities imagine changes in their collective material culture.

For example, in a now infamous and largely fictional memo circulated to various media outlets in January, it was reported that the local Walmart no longer restocked shelves, but just moved pallets of goods into the aisles for the newcomers to devour. According to the same memo, some local fast-food restaurants are only operating drive-ins because staff are too difficult to find and retain and those that are open have waits of up to an hour for tables. Finally, the Williston GM dealership is the top seller of Corvettes in the Northern Plains. Investigations of the many of these claims have proven them to be untrue, but the sentiments remain the same: booming economies should strain and change local patterns of consumption.

Mullins’ book does not look specifically at consumption in boom time economies, but he does look at the way in which patterns of consumption can serve to create or obscure markers of socio-economic differences, produce various local, national, and international identities, and locate core and periphery within the topography of consumption and production.

1. Poverty and Wealth. One of the most interesting aspects of the Western North Dakota Oil Boom is that it has pushed tremendous amounts of new money into the local economies. Both the new workers and local residents have access to more disposable income. Local traditions of modesty – so typical in agricultural communities where prosperity tends to be cyclical and dictated by chance – will shape how residents express newly found wealth. Among newer groups to the community, patterns of consumption will perhaps mark out boundaries between differing reasons for coming to the area and different access to wealth depending on the jobs they performed in the boom economy. Documenting differences in consumption and attempting to correlate variation across the work camps will play a key role in my research this summer.

2. Identity. The outsiders in the Bakken fields bring to the community distinct material and consumption practices. Some of these differences emerge from the relationship between newcomers and their companies (uniforms that feature the name Halliburton, for example).  Other patterns in consumption mark out ethnic or regional difference (e.g. brand preferences, styles, et c.). It will be particularly useful to attempt to see how different communities of workers mark themselves out as distinct.

3. Cores and Peripheries. It is easy to see the oil boom in Western North Dakota as fitting into a pattern where the core – vested transnational companies and the demands for natural resources away from the region where they are being produced – exploits the periphery. Local residents are then displaced – economically, socially, and culturally – for the needs of the core.

On the other hand, the expansion of consumer culture and national chains has blurred the difference between consumption patterns at the core and those at the periphery. This has the potential to obscure the distinction between the newcomers and the long time residents and mitigate the impact of long term community integration. While the difference between local residents and newcomers extend beyond consumption patterns to be sure, the growing integration between core and periphery makes it difficult for outside interest to control variables (i.e. the company town) as well as to distinguish between locals and newcomers based on tastes and practices.

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