Some Matters of Method in the Man Camps of the Bakken

One of the must fulfilling parts of writing up a report from a short field season is working through the successful and less successful aspects of one’s field methods and procedures. I am currently writing up the preliminary results of our 2012 summer field season studying man camps in the Bakken Oil Patch in western North Dakota.

As I reported in this blog earlier, we recorded the camps using paper forms, architectural sketches, and literally thousands of photographs (as well as interviews conducted by another field team working concurrently with us). The extensive use of photography in the field ensured that we collected a data set that is susceptible to querying in the future if our research questions change. 

At the same time, the most significant shortcoming to our methodology was the absence of any kind to rigorous standards for our recording practices. While, on the one hand, a certain flexibility in our recording practices was necessary owing to the diverse character of the various camps (particularly Type 2 and Type 3 camps) and the very preliminary nature of our research. On the other hand, the absence of a systematic and consistent method for documenting both the camps as archaeological artifacts and individual units in the camps, will make it difficult to aggregate and analyze data in a quantitative way.

If we want to do this, we will need to establish a sampling technique for recording individual units within camps (and perhaps eventually camps themselves) in order to produce a representative view of the structure within a given camp. A grab sample of “representative and interesting units” was successful in producing preliminary documentation of the various camps, but aggregating this data into larger sets would not produce a representative image of each settlement. Future work at the camps will require a more rigorously defined and applied sampling strategy that might well include more comprehensive documentation of several camps to determine its suitability. Documenting a camp of 100+ units could easily take several days and the camps of over 300 individual units . 

We also have come to realize that our efforts to document man-camps has provided a snapshot of this form of settlement in time. It has not, however, produce significant evidence for change in the individual camps through time, although we certainly documented some indications that changes had occurred at the camps. Return visits to the camps over time will provide valuable information on the development of the camps through time as well as seasonal patterns and strategies to adapt to the challenging winter months.

Finally, the rather unstructured nature of our field procedure dictated that each individual worked more or less independently. This allowed us to capture a significant amount of data from each camp, but it made it almost impossible to coordinate our data collection. As a result, we did not capture photographs, for example, of every trailer where folks we interviewed live. We also did not necessary do textual descriptions of every unit that Kostis Kourelis, our architectural history, documented with sketches or that John Holmgren documented through photography. Future field work will benefit from coordinating the efforts of the various team members to produce synthetic windows which truly integrate oral history and the documentation of material culture.

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