Home sweet Bakken?

Social Work’s Bret Weber to present housing research from Bakken oil patch at next Faculty Lecture

As a member of the Grand Forks City Council and a variety of regional housing boards, professor Bret Weber had a vested interest in living conditions of the Bakken oil field. He's presenting findings of his research on Wednesday. Photo by Connor Murphy/UND Today

As a member of the Grand Forks City Council and a variety of regional housing boards, professor Bret Weber had a vested interest in living conditions of the Bakken oil field. He’s presenting findings of his research on Wednesday. Photo by Connor Murphy/UND Today.

If you go:

North Dakota Man Camps: The Fall of Conviviality and the Rise of the Precariat by UND Social Work Associate Professor Bret Weber is the latest presentation of the Faculty Lecture Series. It’s set for 4:30 p.m., on Wednesday (Nov. 14) at the Memorial Union Lecture Bowl. A reception precedes the lecture, starting at 4 p.m. Everyone is welcome.

Life amid chaos

UND Associate Professor Bret Weber will present the latest installment of the Faculty Lecture Series on Wednesday, Nov. 14: North Dakota Man Camps: The Fall of Conviviality and the Rise of the Precariat.

For years, Weber and UND History Professor Bill Caraher have led the “North Dakota Man Camp Project” – investigative research that’s taken them to the heart of the state’s most recent oil boom. Their work—in collaboration with fellow archaeologists, social workers, architects and photographers—has, so far, produced chapters, books and contributions to media coverage of the boom.

Weber’s research is concerned with life amid the ever-changing environment of the boom, and especially the temporary settlements developed to house incoming workers, sanctioned or not. He’s conducted dozens of interviews in 50 individual camps across the Bakken, as well as with local community residents and leaders.

A professor of social work, Weber also serves on the Grand Forks City Council and a variety of housing boards in the region. Thus, he was genuinely interested in the impact of the boom on housing. An aspect he quickly discovered was the tension between those who would identify as “true” North Dakotans and the workers relegated to living in impromptu settlements due to lack of permanent housing in the Bakken’s rural communities. Perhaps not surprisingly, he found that, rather than stark differences, they often had a great deal in common.

William Caraher and Bret Weber, UND associate professors of history and social work, respectively, have released the latest edition of a growing library of co-authored books about life in the oil-laden Bakken area of western North Dakota. (Above) Weber and Caraher are center in a photo taken in 2015 in the heart of the Bakken Oil Formation, with fellow Bakken researchers, John Holmgren, faculty member at Franklin & Marshall College in Pennsylvania; Aaron Hoffman, a student at Franklin & Marshall College, Richard Rothaus, North Dakota University System vice chancellor; and Kostis Kourelis, from Franklin & Marshall College. Image courtesy of John Holmgren.

(Above) Brett Weber and William “Bill” Caraher are center in a photo taken in 2015 in the heart of the Bakken Oil Formation, with fellow Bakken researchers, John Holmgren, faculty member at Franklin & Marshall College in Pennsylvania; Aaron Hoffman, a student at Franklin & Marshall College, Richard Rothaus, North Dakota University System vice chancellor; and Kostis Kourelis, from Franklin & Marshall College. Image courtesy of John Holmgren.

Skeptical introduction

Ten years ago, Caraher recruited Weber, who also trained as a historian, to help with a dig in Cyprus. Caraher was researching a Christian church that stood 1,000 years ago. While they were marching around the Mediterranean hills, placing GPS markers, the Bakken shale oil bonanza was kicking off back home.

“Part of what we were studying at this church wasn’t just the church itself, but the workforce housing that was around the area,” Weber recalled. “We were looking at man camps from 1,000 years ago, talking about man camps developing in North Dakota and we started the Man Camp Project soon after.”

Previous bursts in North Dakota oil production in the 1950s and 1980s have been well-documented from a technical perspective, Weber says, but the North Dakota Man Camp Project is on the forefront of socially archiving the 21st-century boom.

Weber and Caraher spent weeks living at a time living and working in the Bakken zone.

At first, Weber said, “we would try to dress appropriately for the patch,” he said. “But in the end, we always looked like a bunch of academics wandering around on the weekend.”

While Caraher recorded material aspects of the camps, such as the number of units that had an outdoor freezer for storing groceries, Weber would approach residents – typically to a reaction that he was some sort of solicitor. Once it was made clear he wasn’t peddling religion or merchandise, people quickly opened up about their experiences.

Most patch workers living in camps worked long, hard shifts and were desperately lonely, says Weber. It was tough to get away once people realized he was truly interested in their stories.

Bret Weber

Weber spends an evening at a Bakken oil well site, with natural gas flaring in the background, in this stylized image of his research in western North Dakota. Image courtesy of Bret Weber.

Historical context

The North Dakota Man Camp Project’s research has prompted Weber to examine the role of extractive industries in housing around the world. An assessment that’s becoming more common is that the 21st century is the “century of the camp.” He says such examination has made him more aware of the global phenomenon of housing insecurity.

“The reality is that the commodification of housing is creating increasingly insecure cultures around housing,” Weber said. “From Bakken man camps to thinking about what housing looks like for people in the 21st century, we have refugee camps and an epidemic of evictions where housing is less about providing a home than it is providing investments for larger economic dynamics.”

What he’s seen in the Bakken is evidence that while people have faith in the industry, the industry doesn’t see profit in providing permanent housing. Even when permanent housing is built, it’s at such a price point where only oil workers making six figures can afford it. This doesn’t account for the hundreds of essential staff—teachers, social workers, nurses, law enforcement, etc.—who are necessary for community stability.

“Williston, Dickinson, Watford City, Stanley, Ray, all these communities have their own set of attempts to deal with those problems,” Weber said. “They’re still working on it. As scholars, we’re still working on it. But if we look back at the earlier booms, and we try to search for those lessons, there isn’t any data. We’re trying to address that absence.”