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Voices from the Shadows: Investigating the Identity and Wellbeing of Male Mobile Workers in the Contemporary ‘Boom-Sphere’ Context of the Alberta Oil Sands Open Access


Other title
mobile worker
Fort McMurray
shadow population
Alberta Oil Sands
work camps
Type of item
Degree grantor
University of Alberta
Author or creator
Angel, Angela C.
Supervisor and department
Krogman, Naomi (Resource Economics and Environmental Sociology)
Examining committee member and department
Marcoul, Philippe (Resource Economics and Environmental Sociology)
Jardine, Cindy (School of Public Health)
Parkins, John (Resource Economics and Environmental Sociology)
Department of Resource Economics and Environmental Sociology
Rural Sociology
Date accepted
Graduation date
Master of Science
Degree level
Mobile workers are those individuals who commute to and from resource development projects and who live temporarily in work camps, lodges, hotels, private rental suites, or other short-term accommodations. My thesis specifically explores the over-stereotyped and under-researched lives of male mobile workers living and working away from home in the industrial mega-project of the Alberta Oil Sands. The aim of my research is three-fold: 1. to develop a more accurate understanding of the contemporary boomtown context; 2. to gain a fuller, more nuanced understanding of the lived experiences and identities of male mobile workers in the Alberta Oil Sands; and 3. to better understand how the mobile work arrangement affects mobile worker wellbeing. To elucidate the lived experiences of male mobile workers I used a narrative approach, informed by narrative inquiry and the life story interview. This study is based on qualitative semi-structured interviews with 34 research participants. My research participants comprise three categories: mobile workers (16 in total); key informants in the helping profession (11 in total); and ‘mobile work experts’ (7 in total). From these narratives, I documented the ‘storied identities’ of mobile workers and explored mobile worker wellbeing as it is conceptualized in the Being, Belonging and Becoming model developed by Dr. Dennis Raphael and colleagues (Raphael et al. 1996, 1997). Additionally, in following with my narrative approach, and interweaved within my thesis, are what I term ‘narrative threads’. These narrative threads consist of my own personal stories related to mobile work, as well as stories told by my research participants; together, these stories vividly illustrate and reinforce my key research themes. My research findings speak to the three research areas that I have described above. First, to account for the new ‘liquid modern era’ (Bauman 2001a) and the ‘new world of work’ (Beck 2000), I reconceptualize the traditional notion of the boomtown and offer a new boomtown model that specifically centers on the mobile worker’s experience. The boom-sphere comprises the ‘home-sphere’, the ‘commute-sphere’, and the ‘work-camp-sphere’. Second, in terms of mobile worker identity, my research reveals that mobile workers generally fall into one of two ‘archetypal’ identities that I conceptualize as existing at two different ends of a sliding continuum. The ‘Thrivers’ – those who are doing fairly well to very well by overcoming the challenges of mobile work, such as being away from family, working long hours for an extended period of time, living in remote settings, on one end; and the ‘Strugglers’ – those who are really struggling with the mobile work lifestyle due to issues related to money, relationships, and substance abuse – on the opposing end. Third, I identify five key themes related to how the mobile work arrangement affects worker wellbeing. These themes are: 1. the ‘identity-tension’ and stress experienced by workers as they move along the ‘home-sphere’, ‘commute-sphere’, and ‘work-camp-sphere’ trajectory; 2. the danger and opportunity of high pay (facilitates the accumulation of debt/facilitates the achievement of goals); 3. the identity-limiting and alienating spaces of some work camps that made workers feel like they were in prison; 4. ‘The Oil Comes First’ maxim that was loudly implicit within the work sites during the oil boom and that left workers feeling undervalued, alienated, and feeling like a mere “cog in the machine”; and 5. the ‘Shaking of the Pop Bottle’ phenomenon, which involves some workers putting their mental and physical health ‘on hold’ due to the pressures of shiftwork and due to the ‘Big Boys Don’t Cry’ work culture, and then eventually reaching a ‘breaking point’. In terms of the policy implications of my research, I introduce the idea of a Mobile Worker Wellbeing Assessment Tool as a way to assess and improve mobile work environments and, ultimately, as a way to enhance mobile worker wellbeing. Finally, I identify a number of future research areas, including the need to better understand the relationship between masculinity and worker wellbeing in contemporary resource development settings.  
This thesis is made available by the University of Alberta Libraries with permission of the copyright owner solely for the purpose of private, scholarly or scientific research. This thesis, or any portion thereof, may not otherwise be copied or reproduced without the written consent of the copyright owner, except to the extent permitted by Canadian copyright law.
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