Working on Workforce Housing in the Bakken

Over the last two weeks, I’ve been working on a major revision of our “Man Camp Article” that details the results of our first 2.5 years of work in the Bakken. Much of the revision is in direct response to critiques from three external reviewers and the editors at Historical Archaeology. The main thrust of the critiques is that we needed to refocus the article on analytical aspects of our work and cut way back on methodology and descriptive components of the article. Since the article that we submitted ran to over 13,000 words – far too long for any major journal – there was plenty available to be cut.

At the same time, we had intended our article to be a Hesperia-style preliminary report which was rather heavy on methodology and description and more circumspect in terms of analysis. The reviewers, however, were not interested in this, but they were remarkably supportive of our initial, probing interpretations. So, I culled description and methodology, and beefed up interpretation and structured the article more formally around an argument.

Here’s our thesis: Informal, temporary, workforce housing sites in the Bakken oil patch blend elements of traditional American domesticity with practices common to the global periphery.  

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To clarify and focus our argument, we replaced our famous typology of workforce housing with a continuum that ranges from formal to informal settlement types. Our article acknowledges the existence of formal, workforce housing sites in the Bakken like those constructed and managed by global logistics companies, but focuses instead on more informal settlements that range from RV parks to hastily constructed mobile home parks. Our continuum relates to larger conversations of informal urbanism in a global context, but is also tailored to the local situation. For example, even the most formal workforce housing site remains temporary, and less formal sites are even more contingent.  

Next, I argue more forcefully that the Bakken is part of a global periphery. Western North Dakota has long been outside the main centers of capital and dependent upon tenuous links to these centers for economic and political development. Because the local communities have only limited political and economic power, and what they do have is centered in the most densely settled areas of the area, namely towns, short-term workforce housing sites developed just outside the periphery of these communities and draw upon whatever limited infrastructure is available, while standing outside existing community’s ability to exert authority. A similar pattern of settlement is visible throughout the global periphery where large informal settlements cluster outside the somewhat fragile jurisdiction of the urban core – whether these are colonias on the Mexican-American border or favelas surrounding major urban areas in Brazil or the famous Indian slums around Mumbai.

This pattern is distinct, of course, from the typically American suburban  settlements which tend both to be more formal and emphasize a kind of permanence that most informal settlement lacks (although in a global situation might aspire to). The important role of fixity in American expectations of settlement reveals key aspects of the American domestic ideal. Suburbs often emphasize permanence both as an effort to create soothing constancy to a dynamic world, to reinforce the enduring character of the domestic ideal, to convey privilege grounded in long-term stewardship over the land. 

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These suburban ideals influence the structure of informal short-term settlement in the Bakken. We traced the negotiation of domestic life in workforce housing through five material aspects of life in informal camps: insulation practices, architectural enclosures, platforms and paths, demarcated property, and ritual objects. I’ll post more on this maybe next week as I pull together the diverse strands of my argument as they’re manifest in these five aspects of the informal material life in workforce housing.

For now, I’ll emphasize that insulation practices and architectural enclosures arrest the mobility of RVs and transform – even if just symbolically – the mobile character of the RV or mobile home into a permanent space evoking, to be sure, the expectations of suburban life, but doing so in a way that allows the RV to return to its mobile character without any structural changes. Of course architectural enclosures, mudrooms and the like, and insulation also have practical advantages for residents in the Bakken. Insulation is necessary to reinforce the thin outer shell of the RV against the sometimes brutal North Dakota winter and enclosures both expand the livable space of an RV and provide room for residents to remove muddy clothes, creates an airlock in the winter, and adds room for storage to the cramped conditions of the RV.    

Platforms, paths, and demarcated property boundaries represent strategies designed to create personal space in the contingent settlements of the Bakken. The positioning of an RV at one edge of a lot opens space between it and its neighbor. In some cases, residents build a deck here, often of salvaged materials like shipping pallets and scrap plywood. In other cases, residents fill this open area with potted plants, lawns, work areas, and even fence it in to distinguish it from their neighbors and to create personal space similar to the American front yard. In fact, it is not uncommon for residents to maintain the street facing side of their lots and discard unused or broken objects behind their RVs indicating that they understand the street side of the unit as a place for tidy display and the back of the unit as a space of opportunistic discard much the same way that backyards in suburban subdivisions are more private and front yards more public.

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Finally, the objects associated with platforms and property in the Bakken reveal how the hyper masculine work in American extractive industries manifests itself in the publicly visible, domestic assemblages. The presence of grills, free weights, tools and appliances present a complex image of life in contingent settlements. Barbecue grills, tools, and free weights are objects long associated with the performance of masculinity in a domestic setting (we need only to think back to Terrell Owens famous driveway workout interview). Appliances, however, tell a more complicating story and reflect the practical limits of life in an RV.

Informal workforce housing in the Bakken represents a hybridized adaption of peripheral settlement drawing on characteristics of informal, contingent settlement familiar to scholars of settlement on the global periphery and in the developing world, but also shares features with ideals of domesticity manifest in American suburban life.

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