Three Thing Thursday: Cities of Salt, Digital Practice, and Borders

Maybe I’ll make a habit of this over the next few months. Or maybe not. (I’m tempted to be one of those bloggers who releases shorter posts throughout the day. In fact, I’m tempted enough to write those posts, but not as tempted to push them out over the course of the day.)

Anyway, here are three unrelated things that are flitting through my addled mind.

1. Abdelrahmen Munif’s Cities of Salt should be required reading in North Dakota. The novel describes the disruptions experienced in an unnamed Middle Eastern country with the discovery of oil. It begins in a verdant oasis which is destroyed and, then, moves on to a dreary coastal town where the American company houses Arab workers, many displaced from their previous homes in the oasis, in a series of man camps. The first camps were tents set up along the beach in neat lines and after they worked to construct an American-style town to accommodate the American workers, they were moved to a series of barracks where the lead used in the tin roofs dripped down on them during the day as it melted in the sun. Both the American-style town and the various camps for the Arab workers were set apart from each other and their surrounding by barbed wire and access control points. Munif set these in contrast to the oasis, which despite being a physically distinct environment from the surrounding desert, nonetheless saw the constant flow of caravans and other movement that emphasized its integration with the rest of the world.

While I haven’t finished the book, Munif provides a dynamic and deeply social portrayal on the way that extractive industries can disrupt the interplay between society and the environment. (For more on this, see my Tuesday post.)

2. The Character of Digital Practice. I spent a little time yesterday afternoon and last night fiddling with a paper that some colleagues and I will give at next week’s Society of American Archaeology annual meeting. One of the things that my co-authors, Derek Counts and Erin Averett, have really prompted me to think about some of the binaries that shape how we think and talk about archaeological work. For example, the distinction between data collection and analysis, between data and interpretation, between being in the field and being in the lab or in the office, between doing and thinking. These binaries both reflect long-standing philosophical divisions between, say, mind and body, here and there, and describing and interpreting, but they also represent differences in experience between being hot and dirty and tired in the field and being clean and rest and cool in one’s office or coordinating team leaders and trench supervisors on the ground and running statistical analysis on a dataset.

It is easy enough to characterize these binaries as false and unhelpful. For example, we understand that certain assumption, expectations, and structures of digital data collection directly shape the kind of archaeological interpretations and knowledge that we make. At the same time, these divisions are real and they do shape our approach to the tools – digital or otherwise. For me, negotiating this tension seems to be very close to the heart of how we understand digital practices in field archaeology. While I am always quick to lump all aspects of archaeology together as “interpretation and knowledge making,” I think that this kind of lumping might be reaching the end of its usefulness in the case of understanding digital practices in the field. Digital technologies do present ways to break through certain binaries, of course, but they also exist in a particular place and moment of archaeological practices.

3. Borders. Yesterday, I had the real pleasure of hearing Viet Thanh Nguyen speak about his work, including his 2016 Pulitzer Prize winning novel The Sympathizers. As a Vietnamese-American writer he talked a good bit about how various borders – physical, literary, and economic – served to define the limits of how a minority author could express himself or herself. He talked about how he worked to defy literary expectations and instead of writing, what he called “little brown realism,” he sought to write in a more self-consciously literary style. It was a novel written by a minority and the son of refugees that wasn’t a minority novel. 

He likewise discusses the roles of borders in defining groups and impeding movement while acknowledging that his family’s experience as refugees from Vietnam was made possible by Cold War politics and the favorable optics of the United States accepting refugees from a communist country. He also recognized that this kind of permeability of borders with information, culture, animals, tacos (yum!), and capital crossing from one country to the next. This permeability of borders, for Nguyen, held forth the future of the world where borders don’t exist. At worst, humans would flow like capital and best like culture.


Tourism, Enclosure, and Extractive Industries

About a year ago I submitted a manuscript to a university press that purports to be a tourist guide to the Bakken oil patch. Longtime readers might remember some of the posts here that fed into this project, and while my publisher wanted me to pull down most of the content produce prior to writing the book, I’m still producing content.

This weekend I read big chunks of Rob Nixon’s Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor (Harvard 2011). It’s really good. The book made me understand some things about my own work that I probably didn’t get when I wrote my tourist guide. It’s not enough to make me want my manuscript back, but enough to make me want to start to build a new scaffolding around that texts that makes it less “clever” and make more sense.

(I have to admit that I was too enamored by the gimmick of a tourist guide and its quaint generic conventions, and not thoughtful enough about what I was trying to do with the genre and the gimmick.)

Nixon brought to my attention work by Jamaica Kincaid, Njabulo Ndebele, and June Jordan, who explicitly connected tourism with practices of exclusion (and race). For my purposes, I’m more interested in the link between tourism, exclusion, and labor. Tourist resorts in the Caribbean and game lodges in South Africa each depend upon practices associated with exclusion. They not only limited where tourists can (or should) go but also hides from sight the places set aside for the labor that allows for tourists to have a tidy experience. Tourists, in effect, come to place and extract from it an experience built in part upon local labor (or, in some cases, natural beauty). Moreover, tourists are short term visitors who arrive, are shuttled to their destination, and whose encounter with their environment is strictly managed.

In my tourist guide, I make an effort to reframe our encounter with the Bakken as tourism but I’m not sure that I understood how deep these parallels extended. Workforce comes to the Bakken to extract oil and in doing so encounters the landscape and the place in a strictly managed way. The worker in the Bakken experiences the partitioned encounter between the secure confines of workforce housing and the clearly delimited worksite. In many cases, the worker has very little to do with the relatively unstructured world of longterm residents in the Bakken counties. As with most extractive industries, the workers engagement with the landscape leaves both physical scars and waste as well as social disruption in its wake. To be fair, the oil industry in the Bakken also provides wealth and opportunities to the communities that it impacts, but these opportunities come at a cost of dependence on outside capital and workforce at least for the foreseeable future. And since transnational oil companies do not come to North Dakota (or anywhere) to share their revenues, it is difficult to imagine a scenario where the communities impacted by the Bakken boom are left better off than they were prior to the most recent boom. Evidence for this comes from communities impacted by extractive industries around the world  which have shared only unevenly in the benefits of oil and shouldered most of the short and longterm environmental, economic, and social burdens. The controversial protests associated with the Dakota Access Pipeline and the recent budget short falls (and ensuing fiscal chaos) at the state level clearly point in this direction. 

The same, of course, can be said about tourism. The tourism industry thrives on the low labor costs, neatly managed (and insulated) experiences, and outside capital. The social, economic, and political costs of this structured dependency are well known.

Three Things Thursday

I know, this is getting to be kind of lame, but whatever… I have a few fun little posts for this week that I’ll bring together here.

Bakken Goes Bust

First, everyone should go and read my buddy Kyle Conway’s recent work on the Bakken. He and I have been talking lately about producing something that discusses how the Bakken Goes Bust. In many ways, this is a follow up and expansion of our 2016 edited volume, The Bakken Goes Boom (2016).

So far, he’s written two posts with the hope that other people chime in, but as we’ve discovered, things are never that easy. So we’ve chatted a bit about a virtual conference on the topic, and I think that might work, but we’d have to figure out exactly how to structure it. 

The UND Writers Conference

The UND writers conference is the highlight of every spring here in the North Dakotaland. Even when I don’t love the theme or the speakers, the event is amazing. This year, I do like the them “Citizen” so check out the program and plan to wander over to UND’s campus. Here’s the director talking about this year’s conference.

It looks great.

American School of Classical Studies at Athens Annual Meeting

One of the strangest and (sometimes) wonderful things about archaeology is that archaeological knowledge disseminates in a wide range of ways. The annual meeting of the foreign schools in Athens is one of the bests ways to learn about ongoing archaeological work as each school summarizes the work of its projects over the course of the year. This information comes out in advance of international conference papers, published reports, peer-reviewed articles, and, certainly, final publication. There is something profoundly local about the practice of the annual meetings and the practice of presenting the results of the year in Athens ties the provenience of objects and the location of sites to the public venue where results and analysis are first disseminated.

I remember the first times I went to the annual meeting and the feeling that I had “insider” information that was not immediately available to people living outside of Athens. There was a feeling that archaeology was about being in that place.

 Of course, technology has changed this (and I thought about this change in a more systematic way here). You can watch the American School of Classical Studies’ Annual Meeting live stream here. It’s tomorrow at 7 pm EET (or 11 am CST). 

Migrant Dubai and the Bakken

I’ve been working my way through Laavanya Kathiravelu’s book, Migrant Dubai: Low Wage Workers and the Construction of the Global City (2016) thanks to the Kostis Kourelis Reading Group ™. In it, she unpacks the remarkable tension between the global stature of Dubai and its global population and the workers who literally construct this city. Drawing heavily on critiques of the particular brand of neoliberalism prevalent in the Arab World (where the state is a pervasively player in the local economy), she explores the complex strategies of exclusion and control present in this city-state that depends upon both wealthy and poor foreign workers to support its economy, but also seeks to manage the diverse cultural impacts that globalization brings to this conservative country.

I read this work primarily with an eye toward strategies used to accommodate outside workers in the Bakken during the most recent oil boom. While the comparison is not precise as guest workers in Dubai tend to be low-paid and participants in the Bakken boom are consistently middle class, the experience of both living in temporary housing and being excluded in various ways from full participation in the life of the community is intriguing to me. The author, for example, describes the challenge of even gaining access to low-wage worker housing in Dubai and the efforts made to keep this housing at the margins in order to protect Dubai’s affluent and cosmopolitan urban image. Interestingly, gated communities with carefully controlled (and centrally financed and constructed) complexes of apartments serve to insulate affluent foreigners working in extractive industries, finance, and educational sectors from the general population and low wage workers. In other words, practices of exclusion and control shaped the lived experience of both high and low wage worked, but in different ways.

It was also interesting that when Kathiravelu visited a very modest, low-wage workers hut at a work site, she noted that the occupants have taped pictures of affluent gated communities to the walls as motivation. A recent review of A. Ghosh’s Great Derangement, pointed out that the 21st century has experienced a telling inversion in who experiences the future first. For most of the 20th century, the wealthy experienced future in air travel, technologies, and conveniences. In the 21st century, as the gap between the wealthy and the poor continues to grow and wealth impacts the world in more and more tangible ways, the poor experience the future first.

In Dubai, low-wage and affluent guest workers encounter a regime based on exclusion, surveillance, and transience. In the Bakken, workforce housing located workers in marginal spaces, gated communities, and sometimes on work sites, and the contingent experience of these workers and the spaces where they lived have demonstrated that domestically ideals associated with traditional middle class life are already deeply eroded. The parallels between the living conditions of middle class workers in the Bakken and low-wage workers in Dubai reminds us that global capital has a similar impact on the living conditions of workers the world over, and efforts both to control physically the movement of individuals and to require that they exist in ever more contingent conditions.    

Altas.ti and the North Dakota Man Camp Project

For the past few years, I’ve been fretting about how to begin to analyze the large body of relatively unstructured data collected from our research in the Bakken oil patch. This includes thousands of photographs, hours of video, interviews, and various notes. Most of our preliminary analysis has drawn upon our field notes and selective and impressionistic readings of the data that we collected. This is not to suggest that our analysis is wrong, but it lacked a certain amount of nuance in part because we were overwhelmed by the quantity of data that our methods produced.

The issue is partly because we decided early on to collect data at the regional level largely because we we were not entirely sure what our sites would look like and how to best document them. After a few trips, however, we had identified over 50 workforce housing sites across the region that clearly housed workers associated with the oil boom, had a diversity of units (generally RVs) and approaches to life in “the patch,” and showed signs of change through time. We then used photography and video to document these sites over the course of numerous short field seasons of only a few days. The resulting archive captured the dynamism of the Bakken oil patch through time and a remarkable level of detail about individual workforce housing sites and units.

Over the summer, I had a few fascinating conversations with a Colorado Ph.D. student, Erin Baxter, whose dissertation research used Atlas.ti to organize and analyze photographs that formed the only historical record of a century-old excavation by Earl Morris in the American southwest. She explained to me how she used the software to track various features of the excavation through multiple photographs. Atlas.ti also made it easier for her to organize and analyze the photographs including certain features or chronological indicators that would allow her to reconstruct the history of the excavation. (I’m sure it much more complex than what I described, but that was my take away!) 

This prompted me to write a little grant and get a copy of Atlas.ti (which isn’t cheap!) and to begin to use it to code my photographs from the Bakken. This week, I ran a pretty basic trial of 70 photos taken in October 2014. These photos produce the following list of codes which correspond either to features or conditions visible in the photographs:


The code list is still in a bit of flux and will undoubtedly be expanded, but after even just 70 photos, it is a pretty good summary of objects and conditions associated with workforce housing in the Bakken.

The photographs that produced this code list are group according to date and camp number and when possible by unit in a camp. This will allow me to consider changes through time and across different camps while also controlling for our tendency to take more photographs of particularly interesting units or units with substantial number of associated features and objects. While we are not coding images to produce explicitly quantifiable data, it looks like we can use the grouping function in Atlas.ti to allow us to document the distribution of features proportionately across our study sites.

Finally, Atlas.ti will also allow us to code video and text which we can also group according to site. With any luck this allows us to connect more explicitly our evidence from interviews and systematic video with our photographic documentation. 

So, stay tuned as I explore how Atlas.ti can create a more nuanced image of workforce housing during the Bakken boom. 

An Archaeology of Care in the Bakken Oil Patch

This past week my colleague Richard Rothaus presented a paper for the North Dakota Man Camp project on a session dedicated to “An Archaeology of Care” at the Society for Historical Archaeology Annual Meeting in Ft. Worth, Texas. We’re still working through the idea, but each iteration and conversation gets us closer to distinguishing the concept from the range of similar frameworks already at play in archaeology (e.g. ethical archaeology, public archaeology, et c.) and weaving together a recognizable body of theory and practice.   

By all accounts, the paper and the panel went well, and Richard graciously allowed me to share the final draft of the paper here (although I’ve found that the final draft of a paper for Richard may only have a passing resemblance to what he presents at the conference!): 

An Archaeology of Care in the Bakken Oil Patch (North Dakota, USA)

A Paper Presented at the Society for Historical Archaeology
January 2017
Ft. Worth, Texas  

Richard Rothaus (North Dakota University System)
William Caraher (University of North Dakota)
Bret Weber (University of North Dakota)

I think I coined the term of “archaeology of care” impromptu during a podcast. I was searching for a descriptor of archaeological practice that intersects with living people in a way that they find positive and relevant; an archaeological practice that leaves subjects feeling valued and worthy of study, not gawked at, not as descendants of lost or vanishing lifeways. In this sense, “archaeology of care” is a contribution to conversations emphasizing the production of a more ethical archaeology that avoids the occasional anti-humanistic tendencies of the discipline. Such projects have surfaced across a wide range of both theoretical perspective and practices with particularly productive developments around community archaeology, indigenous archaeology, and public archaeology. These developments look to create common ground between archeologists and the communities in which they work, and to find shared values in archaeological practice and knowledge.


For the University of North Dakota Mancamp Project, an archaeology of care emerged at the intersection of archaeology of the contemporary world and historical research in the Bakken oil patch. We began the project as citizens of North Dakota using an academic toolkit to response to the massive influx of population that came with the Bakken unconventional shale play. In this context, our archaeology of care developed two-fold: first, by regular and sustained interactions with the residents of the Bakken living amidst the material culture that we were studying and second, by immersing ourselves in research that, out of the myriad of possible questions, chose some relevant to the lifeways of the residents of this region. We were valued in the field because we came not to fix anything, but rather to understand what was happening. 

[SLIDE 4]. 

As we travelled, invariably residents of the workforce housing sites inquired about our work. During these informal interactions with the residents of the Bakke, we became aware that our research interest in the lives of these people constituted a meaningful form of interaction for all parties. The residents of the area appreciated that scholars from the regional university considered their experiences worthy of study.  Investigators and residents recognized a shared understanding of the significance of the boom historically, and this revealed an intersection of our research goals with the experiences of individuals. The Man Camp project was an archaeology of care not just because we treated individuals with respect and involved them, but more deeply, because our academic approach to lifeways, economics, and material culture eschewed ironic and counterintuitive hypothesis building and instead found significant overlap with the experiences and expectations of residents of the Bakken.


While we would express it in different ways, the members of the academic North Dakota Man Camp Project and the residents of the region share many of the same concerns and expectations for how a range of social actors conceptualized the labor of the boom.  Central to these overlapping sensibilities is the issue of agency: while the vast majority of workers viewed themselves as free agents making rational choices, the reality was far more varied.  Many of the workers in the Bakken are trained professionals for whom life in crew camps and long periods of absence from home are common parts of their trade.  Distinct from that population are the large numbers of individuals who lost jobs or otherwise had their lives disrupted by the Great Recession.  There is a continuum stretching from those for whom the erratic boom/bust cycle is a regular part of their careers, to those for whom seeking employment in the oil patch was the best, worst option available during a period of great social and economic unsettlement.  Our presence and interest in the lives of the workers and residents of the Bakken oil patch is part of a totalizing discourse of the modern world. We appeared not as omniscient outsiders looking in, ready to pass judgment or solve the problems of others, but as co-residents of a world created, crafted, and interpreted by corporate and extractive industries. In distinction to certain expressions of indigenous archaeology or public archaeology, the archaeology of care subverts the paradigm that construes archaeological outreach or collaboration as between disciplinary archaeologists and “others”.

 [SLIDE 6]

The Bakken Oil Boom, and the influx of temporary labor into the Bakken in the aftermath of the “Great Recession” of 2007-2009 reflects global trends that Saskia Sassen has summarized as expulsions (2014). Displaced from their homes on account of the mortgage crisis, untethered from the historical fixity of middle-class life, caught up in dynamics of just-in-time manufacturing and contingent labor, and buffeted by the increased speed of an industrial boom-bust cycle, many of the migrant Bakken workers manifest the deterritorialized politics and the overlapping economy of the 21st-century world. The Bakken reflects the expulsions that shape a disrupted world and the tense emergence of new forms of settlement designed to accommodate and normalize the experience of the migrant, the refugee, the modern worker, and in some real ways the archaeologist and the academic. Archaeology is still developing the tools to understand what Cresswell has termed diasporic public spheres, a form without the arbitration of the nation-state, where “no place is privileged, no place is better than another, as from no place the horizon is nearer than from any other” (Cresswell 2006). Short-term settlement and movement in the landscape trace faint lines in the archaeological record and form a basis for the shared significance of the Bakken boom to archaeologists documenting the ephemeral and workers seeking a place within the unsettled modern world.


The North Dakota Man Camp Project identified 50 workforce housing sites in the Bakken region of North Dakota for systematic investigation. Our research sites were visited regularly over a four-year period and documented through video, photography, sketches, and text descriptions. We complemented the material culture documentation with oral interview. The open-ended sampling method captured not just the stories of workers, but also of spouses and children, of camp managers, and even long-term residents of Western North Dakota. People were almost always eager to share their stories, and seemed to quickly comprehend the intention of the study: they told their unique tales about lives lived during this specific historical moment of resource extraction. Despite the hardships, people were generally optimistic, dogged, even indomitable.


The interviews captured a thick description of life in temporary worker housing. Beyond basic demographic data, interview subjects were always asked where they came from, how long they had been in the patch, what brought them there, and what sort of work and fortunes they had found or failed to find. They were also asked about where ‘home’ was. After responses that were often emphatic (home is here in the Bakken! Or home is back where I make mortgage payments), follow-up questions generally provided interview subjects with an opportunity to produce more nuanced and complicated descriptions of what they meant by home.


To deal with the variations among the mancamps in the region, we developed a typology of three classes of camps, all of which are defined by the level of formal organization visible to outsiders and which reflect both historical and contemporary understandings by residents of the camps and their surrounding communities. The ethos, but maybe not the reality, of the Bakken Boom was not that of a worker ending up at the predestined factory job, but the cowboy-entrepreneur, fully cognizant of his own commodification and choosing his own path. These are the denizens of the 21st-century “wage earner’s frontier.” For many the choice of where to live was part of a rational decision to join the boom. For many others, life was ‘hell’ and living in the man camps was an unfortunate but necessary sacrifice, and one that disproportionately consumed a large portion of their earnings. Nonetheless, interviewees had commonly not only thought about this, they could articulate it, and our interest in their choices and articulations was a large part of the archaeology of care.

[SLIDE 10]

The type I camps, run by large providers, are the most highly organized both externally and internally, and inhabited primarily by skilled employees of the major oil companies. An individual lives in a type I camp by virtue of employment arrangement, although it must be noted that the choice to live there is almost always optional. The Type I camps typify the depersonalized non-place, and outside visitors frequently describe them as “sterile” and “prisons”.  The camps are organized as identical living spaces arranged either axially or on a grid. The function of the camps is defined by the interchangeability of parts and people. The profitability of the housing arrangement for the provider depends on its modularity, mobility, and temporal flexibility; the camp can move to where it is needed, when it is needed, and changes are easy as all parts are the same.

[SLIDE 11]

Typically, type I inhabitants are individuals who come in for 21 day stints, working 12 or more hours a day in hard and dangerous working conditions. They are physically and temporally committed exclusively to work during their stay, and thus have minimum need for living space beyond eating, bathing, and sleeping. The Type I camps are a non-place, and the workers are in a window of non-life with no sense of community and certainly no political involvement in the area or processes where they earn their living. They do not personalize their living space, because their life is not here, it is elsewhere, and it is the flow back to their real-world that punctuates time. So it is not that these are people who do not care about domestic space (although there are some such folks among them); rather the Type I camps are inhabited by people who have organized their life around the optimized, maximally efficient deployment of their labor. While we found people in Type I camps who were nonplussed by the arrangements, and reasonably happy to accumulating capital to spend at their other place, we also found other people who had turned themselves ‘off’ to become temporary cogs, waiting to return to actual lives—lives that were ‘generally’ disrupted in damaging ways.

[SLIDE 12]

Type III camps are at the opposite end of spectrum: ephemeral, chaotic places that primarily existed in the earlier days of the boom. Like the Type I camps, the organization of the Type III camps reflects the labor of those within them. The Type III camps are inhabited by semi-skilled people who had wandered to the Bakken to find jobs and careers outside of the orderly movement of skilled labor. Where the Type I camps are uniform and undifferentiated, the Type III camps were individualized conglomerations of tents, trailers, shipping containers, and piles of stuff left in shelter belts. The Type I camps were ephemeral at the discretion of the company, the Type III camps are ephemeral at the discretion of the individuals or local law enforcement. At Type III camps, individuals piece together an extralegal existence that they fully expect to be temporary. The individualization does not, for the most part, represent an intent to define personality and space, but rather an ad hoc, highly independent period of existence.

[SLIDE 13]

Type II camps are akin to RV parks. These camps, like much that one sees in the patch, are often owned by outside interests, investment groups who have sometimes never set foot in North Dakota. Within the camps, housing units are often individually owned trailers, situated in ways that most closely replicate the sense of community found in working-class suburbs. As a result, units that are only meant for temporary living have increasingly become near permanent housing structures operating independent of building and safety codes. The Type II camps occupied most of our time and effort, because within these we were able to see the complexity of individual organization and choices. Such complexity certainly was contained in Type I and III camps as well, but there it was obscured by uniformity or chaos.

[SLIDE 14]

We were drawn to the Type II camps because of the diversity and visibility of material culture. Type II camps facilitate study of the spaces between the trailers. There we are able to observe individuals adapting material culture manufactured for impermanence into at least a simulacrum of permanence. The hyper-abundance of wooden pallets, insulation, fences, gardens, grills, freezers and miscellanea opened the door to the study of personal, temporal and seasonal variations. We found our window to engage fully in an archaeology of care by not asking about the boom, but by asking the question “how have you chosen to live within a boom.” The answers, alas, do not fit within our time limits, so we refer you to our forthcoming papers in Historical Archaeology and the Journal of Contemporary Archaeology.

[SLIDE 15]

What makes the UND Mancamp project truly an archaeology of care is our relentless focus not on external economic and organizational structures, but on the organizational structures developed by the workers whose time and bodies have been commoditized in a late-capitalist 24/7 globalized extractive industry (Crary 2014). Our shared investment in understanding the modern world has caused us to arrive, to our own surprise, at a somewhat radical intellectual space, and interestingly, while we did not get there by chance, we also did not get there on purpose. Like many of those living and working in the Bakken, our study entered the stream of what British Economist Guy Standing refers to as a global reality of precariousness in which people from across a multitude of racial, educational, and income categories strive to make sense of the present neo-liberal driven uncertainties that disrupt both our social and economic lives.  While superficially our work drew upon many different disciplines to understand what was happening in the Bakken, we discovered that common ground between the workforce in the Bakken and our work as researchers at a micro-level has proved the most beneficial. How interesting that we arrived at an archaeology of care by focusing on the lifeways of commoditized labor, and in turn we found an archaeology that helps us understand ourselves, our neighbors, and the worlds we work in. We are pleased to bring humanistic tools to bear on the changing nature of labor , and our experiences in the Bakken illustrate that many non-academics are surprisingly in agreement (McKenzie Wark).

[SLIDE 16]




Caraher, W., K. Kourellis, R. Rothaus and B. Weber. “The Archaeology of Home in the Bakken Oil Fields.” Historical Archaeology, forthcoming.

Caraher, W., R. Rothaus, B. Weber. “Lessons from the Bakken Oil Patch.” Journal of Contemporary Archaeology, forthcoming.

Crary, Jonathan. 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep. Verso, 2014.

Cresswell, Tim. On the Move: Mobility in the Modern Western World.  Taylor & Francis, 2006.

Sassen, Saskia. Expulsions: Brutality and Complexity in the Global Economy. Harvard University Press, 2014.

Standing, Guy. The Precariat: The New Dangerous Class. Bloomsbury Academic, 2011.

Wark, McKenzie. Molecular Red: Theory for the Anthropocene. Verso, 2015.

Mobility and North Dakota

This weekend, I binge read Tim Cresswell’s On the Move: Mobility in the Modern Western World (Routledge 2006). I was familiar with his Place: A Short Introduction which I read a few years back alongside Raymond Williams’ Border Country. The book is as good an introduction to mobility as I’ve ever read, and it should be required reading for anyone living in North Dakota.

The introduction is particularly useful for understanding the social issues facing the state of North Dakota. He makes clear that mobility is both a product of modernity, but also something that – for both historical and political reasons – seen as a threat. For example, the tourist or the mobile worker is expected element of the modern world where travel for work or pleasure is common. At the same time, there persists a distrust of certain kinds of mobility. Refugees, vagrants, and “drifters” continue to be stigmatized as individuals who lack commitment to a place. Cresswell recognizes mobility then as a central and politically charged element in the discourse of modernity and explores its intersection with such diverse expressions as dance, photography, airport architecture, and women’s suffrage. Mobility becomes a way of talking about the contradictions that core of modern experience and the impetus to move embodies both the pace of modern capital (and Marx’s (and David Harvey’s) that time obliterates space) and the growth of what many critics have called the carceral landscape (riffing as it were on Foucault’s carceral state).

Cresswell could have just as easily considered the role of fossil fuels in the construction of modern mobility. They both make travel and the shrinking of the world possible and require a kind of urgent globalization as extractive industries relentlessly search for new resources. The need to move fossil fuels – oil, gas, and coal – from the ground to refineries and markets has attracted attention lately. In some ways the movement of fossil fuels via pipeline, train, truck, and ship reflect another aspect of their problematic character in the modern world.

Here in North Dakota, the intersection of mobility, politics, and fossil fuels demonstrates the political uses of mobility in our modern discourse. Recently, supporters of the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) have called the protestors camped at Cannon Ball river “outside agitators” and using their purported lack of connection to the place as a way of delegitimizing their protests. At the same time, the (albeit somewhat faded) vitality of the oil industry in western North Dakota relies on workers from outside the region to extract the oil, build the pipelines, and maintain the infrastructure in the Bakken oil patch. These workers, of course, are not universally embraced as the antithesis of outside agitators and often seen as threats to the stable life in the small rural communities across the western part of the state. In an effort to replace the mobile workforce with a more permanent one, community leaders have resisted and discouraged the use of crew and man camps in the region preferring to invest in the construction of houses, condominiums, and apartments. In sum, outside agitators and workers are threats even if they contribute in a meaningful way to the economic or ecological future of the state. The risk, it seems, is in their mobility tempered by political expediency.

As an aside, the media can enjoy the irony of the DAPL protesters enduring the polar vortex in their temporary protest camp which for some embodies the a fleeting nature of the protest in the face of the inevitability of the pipeline. The same media was far less attentive, smug, and ironic in their reporting of oil workers huddled in substandard housing while working to extract oil that keeps so much of the country warm. 

My experience of the Bakken oil patch was one of unmitigated movement and I chose the genre of the tourist guide to represent this sense of movement in the landscape. I wish I had been more familiar with Cresswell’s book while I was working on the guide!

Violent Borders

Nothing like an unexpected snow day to give me some time to catch up on reading (and grading). This week, I finally finished Reece Jones’s Violent Borders: Refugees and the Right to Move (Verso 2016). Richard Rothaus brought the book to my attention largely in connection to a recent, short paper that we wrote that considered the parallels between the modern European refugee crisis and Bakken oil book. You can read that paper here

Reece’s book argues that national borders are to blame for the current crises of movement in the late modern world. He connects the plight of political and economic refugees through his attention to borders which impede the flow of people away from danger and toward economic opportunities provided by the global movement of capital. In fact, he argues that borders work to preserve low cost labor pools reinforced by uneven laws protecting workers’ rights. In Reecee’s work, borders become tools for an increasingly militarized state to preserve labor markets while, at the same time, permitting the flow of goods and capital. He goes on to note that the disjunction between national economies and global flow of capital works to make it difficult to manage, say, the environmental problems like climate change through institutions, like the United Nations, which rely upon the idea of national sovereignty to function. Here Reece makes a nice observation that border fences themselves are transformative when they impede the movement of animals, the flow of water, and the integrity of local ecosystem. In other words, there is a real (if almost symbolic in comparison to larger, global issues like climate change) impact of borders on the natural world.

The connection between economic and political refugees and the role of the nation in defining the character of modern movement has increasingly informed my thinking about workforce housing in the Bakken. Workforce housing represents the material manifestation of the movement in human capital as it ebbs and flows in a world where a “periphery” may no longer imply a core. In some of my recent works, I’ve toyed a bit ineptly with idea like Andre Gunter Frank’s “development of underdevelopment” (pdf) which argued that the core had a vested interest in preserving the underdeveloped status of the periphery (e.g. see my contribution to this volume). Reece’s work helped me understand that part of the strategy to preserve the underdeveloped status of certain “peripheries” involved the establishment of national border and restrictions on movement of human capital from these places. He is careful, though, and does not suggest that borders alone prevent movement. As the arrival of a new workforce in North Dakota demonstrates, even when people are free to move into a new area to take advantage of economic opportunities, they still consider someplace else to be home. Only time will tell whether the increasing pace of global capital will erode this sense of home as people move more and more frequently to support the contingencies of profit.

This, then, is the broader context for a broader questions that Reece and I have both flirted with a bit. If we assume that history as a discipline – at least in its modern guise – emerged alongside and in the service of the nationstate, can we envision a post-national history? In particular, if our notions of place and time are deeply indebted to national spaces and time, can the discipline as it is now constituted adapt to the speed of capital and a world without borders?

A Deep Map of the Bakken

Over the long weekend, I immersed myself in William Least Heat-Moon’s PrairyErth: (a deep map). (1991). I didn’t know this book until a conversation with a few graduate students this summer after my tortured attempts to explain my tourist guide to the Bakken project. I wasn’t particularly familiar with the term “deep map,” but as I explored PrairyErth, I came to realize that Heat-Moon’s project with this work, which explores a single county in Kansas, was fundamentally similar to what I wanted to do with my tourist guide. The biggest difference was that Heat-Moon was a kind of story-teller, ethnographer, and oral historians where my speciality was in things.

So, the base map for the deep map that I want to prepare for the Bakken is the tourist guide (which should appear next year from NDUS Press). It provides a route through the space of the Bakken which runs across US Route 2 before turning south at 13-Mile Corner to trace US Route 85. This inverted L forms the main artery of the Bakken both from its origins around Tioga to its current heart in William and McKenzie Counties. Our anchors are the towns of Ray, Stanley, Tinga, Williston, and Watford City, but we recognize that the Bakken is also made of places like the abandoned town of Wheelock, the depopulated township of Manitou, the area called Johnson’s Corner, and the numerous nameless agglomerations of tanks, unit yards, mobile workforce housing, and gas plants. This is the framework for a deep map.

When we submitted the original draft of the guide to new Heritage Guide series editor at the NDSU Press, he suggested that we add more people to our work. I begrudgingly did this, thinking all the while, that tourist guides aren’t really about people but about places, monuments, and stories. If people do appear, they’re past people or individuals who make short cameos (like the kindly priest who has the keys to the historic church or the vivacious merchant who will offer you tea while you browse his wares). Complicating matters more is that our guide is not about a landscape forged in the distant past but about a dynamic contemporary space. In other words, historic personages who populate traditional tourist guides played a relatively small role in our work because our primary focus was on the present. While I don’t regret the decision of inserting a few people in our guide, I think the object-oriented approach to our guide limits how one can encounter the Bakken landscape.  

Heat-Moon’s deep map is, in contrast, all about people. Most short chapters, even those with a rather more empirical bent, focus on the people from Chase County, Kansas. In fact, he uses the ugly word “countians” so many times that I am almost comfortable with it. For the Bakken, we have hundreds of pages of transcribed interviews that could populate our deep map and we received a small grant from the University of North Dakota to publish these interviews next year.

Heat-Moon’s deep map is more than just people, though. He uses people to tell the geological, the historical, the political, the cultural and the economic story of the county’s various landscapes and places. We’re fortunate for western North Dakota to have not only an outstanding (and new) geological history, but also have an intriguing (and growing) body of literature about the region and some solid historical treatments of the places. 

As I continue to turn the idea of a deep map over in my head, I’m becoming increasingly convinced that guide to the Bakken is just a beginning for a deep map.