Making Home in the Bakken Oil Patch

This summer Bret Weber and I have been working on a very overdue contribution to a pretty unique volume edited by my collaborator Kyle Conway. The book will be a reprint of The Williston Report: The Impact of Oil on the Williston Area of North Dakota by Robert Cambell and colleagues and published by The University of North Dakota Press in 1958. It will include a wide range of essays including updated treatments of the North Dakota economy, politics, and, as you can see in our contribution, housing and is scheduled to appear this fall from The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota as part of its soon-to-be-inaugurated Bakken Bookshelf Series which will include the volume edited by me and Kyle Conway, The Bakken Goes Boom: Oil and the Changing Geographies of Western North Dakota (2016), the volume that Bret Weber and I wrote on the Bakken, The Bakken: An Archaeology of An Industrial Landscape (NDSU Press 2017), the forthcoming digital publication of The BeastThe Williston Report at 60, and, in preparation, Bret Weber’s Voices of the Bakken

While this article was written for a very specific context, the article is really the first to really emphasize the voices of residents of the Bakken oil patch alongside our treatment of the material culture. We still have a ways to go in bringing out the “voices of the Bakken,” from my perspective, this short article is a good first step. 

The introduction is below. To download the entire paper from my Humanities Commons site, go here.

If not for the dated photographs, the 1958 Williston Report‘s treatment of housing could apply to the early 21st century Bakken Boom. During both times, a mobile and rapidly changing workforce marked the onset of the boom for older communities in the region, and the arrival of new workers had at least as significant an impact, in the short term, as the rig-counts and the barrels of oil sent to market. In both the 1950s and the 2010s, the influx of new workers in the region produced high rents, limited housing options, and created a sense of social disruption.

During the Bakken’s most recent boom, we led the North Dakota Man Camp Project, which, like the authors of the Williston Report, brought a multi-disciplinary team to the Bakken oil patch (for a review of this project see Caraher et al. 2017; Caraher and Weber 2017; Caraher et al. 2016; Barkdull at al. 2016). Our project focused on documenting the material and social lives of the workers living in the wide range of workforce housing sites across the region. The North Dakota Man Camp Project and the Williston Report both captured a moment in the everchanging space of the Bakken. Indeed, the rapid pace of change, and the resulting housing crisis and social disruption, appear to be a common feature to resource booms around the world. Booms can create collisions when they bring the needs and capital of the center to rural peripheries (Caraher 2016) and “outside” workers arrive in the region and interact with longer-term, more established residents. Despite these structural similarities, there are differences in terms of the scope of the two Bakken booms with each involving distinct policy reactions and economic and political contexts. As a result, we located the 21st-century Bakken boom within its particular historical context with our attention to workforce housing framed by the growing concern for housing in the late modern world.

This chapter provides a critique of the 1958 Report’s treatment of housing, a consideration of the emergent perspectives on workforce housing in the present, and an overview of our research of temporary workforce housing. It concludes with a consideration of how economic booms and busts manifest and accelerate changing ideals about domesticity, and the political ramifications of these changes for community in a global, neoliberal context.

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