I am a doctoral student in the Department of Sociology at the University of California, Berkeley, where I study environmental politics. I am a 2017-18 Berkeley Empirical Legal Studies Fellow at the Center for the Study of Law and Society.

I am interested in how “nature” is configured and deployed as a cultural, moral, and political category. My primary empirical focus is the politics and science of endangered species conservation and water management in California. I have three active research projects on this topic: one historical project on the relationship between biological taxonomic knowledge and shifting human-nonhuman relations; one on how environmental scientists manage the division of intellectual labor between instrumental and substantive rationality (2017 in Science as Culture); and another on political rationalities of groundwater management (with Razvan Amironesei).

Other research topics (past and present) include “ecological citizenship” as a political theoretical concept (2016 in Citizenship Studies); the concept of nature in the history of philosophy (with Razvan Amironesei and Olivier Clain); an analysis of extant applications of field theory (with Neil Fligstein); and sovereign credit ratings and moral classifications (with Marion Fourcade).

I earned my M.A. in sociology at UC Berkeley in 2016, and expect to complete my Ph.D. in 2020. Before enrolling at Berkeley, I was a graduate student in the Department of Political Science at the University of California, San Diego where I earned an M.A., passing exams in political theory, 20th and 21st century political and social thought, and comparative politics with distinction. I earned my B.A. summa cum laude in political science and economics from Portland State University.


Published and Forthcoming Work

Amironesei, Razvan and Caleb Scoville (Equal Authorship). “Opposing California’s WaterFix: The Trump Administration and the Future of Environmental Advocacy.” Ethics, Policy, and Environment 21.1 (2018). [read online]

Scoville, Caleb and Neil Fligstein. “The Promise of Field Theory for the Study of Political Institutions.” In The New Handbook of Political Sociology: States, Parties, Movements, Citizenship and Globalization edited by Thomas Janoski, Cedric DeLeon, Joy Misra, and Isaac Martin, Forthcoming 2018, Cambridge University Press.

Scoville, Caleb. “‘We Need Social Scientists!’ The Allure and Assumptions of Economistic Optimization in Applied Environmental Science.” Science as Culture 26.4 (2017). [read online]

Scoville, Caleb. “George Orwell and Ecological Citizenship: Moral Agency and Modern Estrangement.” Citizenship Studies 20.6-7 (2016): 830-845. [read online]

Scoville, Caleb. “Reclaiming Water Politics: California’s Drought and the Eclipse of the Public.” Berkeley Journal of Sociology 59 (2015): 35-43. [read online] [republished by The Hampton Institute]


Current Projects

“Hydraulic Society and ‘A Stupid Little Fish: Toward a Historical Ontology of the Nonhuman” (Manuscript Under Review)

  • Herbert Blumer Prize for Best Paper Written by a Berkeley Sociology Student
  • Jane Goodall Award for Graduate Student Scholarship, Animals & Society Section, American Sociological Association

This article develops a “historical ontology of the nonhuman,” whereby the objectification of nonhuman beings is both a consequence and contributor to social transformation. Changes in concrete human-nonhuman relations — and specifically, the way that the nonhuman environment is instrumentalized — facilitate the emergence of new objects of knowledge. These objects allow actors to make claims and form coalitions in efforts to transform the very human-nonhuman relations that produced them. An illustrative case study of the delta smelt, an endangered species of fish caught in the center of California’s “water wars,” shows how shifting ways of instrumentalizing the nonhuman environment produce new knowledge of nature that allows actors to make claims and form coalitions that would be otherwise inconceivable. Because its sole habitat is the hub of California’s hydraulic infrastructure, efforts to save the delta smelt from extinction have reduced flows to farms and cities, fomenting ongoing conflict between environmentalists and water users. This article demonstrates that the classification of the delta smelt as a species — a condition of possibility of the conflict surrounding its endangerment — arose directly from the reengineering of California’s hydrology for extractive ends. Ironically, in this case, the knowledge of nature that environmental advocates relied upon to make credible claims was a direct product of the human-nonhuman relations they sought to transform.

“Groundwater in California: From Juridical Object to Biosecurity Apparatus” with Razvan Amironesei (Manuscript Under Review)

This article analyzes the emergence of a new political rationality of groundwater in contemporary California. It does so by contrasting a juridical model of groundwater governance exemplified in crucial 20th century decisions in California case law with a “biosecurity apparatus,” operative in the case of the Orange County Water District. Drawing on Foucault, this analysis articulates a “biopolitics of nature,” an approach which is distinct from environmental research in the critical theory and phenomenological traditions. The case is analyzed along the axes of collective subjectivity, temporality and space, opening to a novel way of conceptualizing the relation between power and nature.

“‘What Are We Trying to Preserve?’ Reflexive Science in Uncertain Times” (Manuscript in Preparation)

Ecological crises are intrinsically political problems, but responses to them rely heavily on scientific expertise. As scientists are brought into various stages of the policy process, they are forced to contend with questions, not merely of precision and accuracy, but also of ultimate ends. Much of the extant scholarship on environmental politics shows how science is mobilized by nonscientists for political ends. What happens when scientists themselves are confronted with questions such as “what is this science for” or “what are we trying to preserve”? This study leverages ethnographic observations of applied environmental scientists engaging with their peers and publics to show how they respond to fundamental questions about the purpose of science, its relation to society, and often by extension, questions about humanity’s relationship with nature. Based on data collected in the context of the management of one of the United State’s most contentious ecosystems, I provide a four-fold typology of science’s relation to itself and society along the conceptual axes of: the degree of reflexivity engaged in by scientists; and the autonomy attributed to science vis-à-vis extra-scientific organs of society like political decision makers or the democratic process. I find that when confronted with questions of ultimate ends, scientists either: reflect on and critique their guiding assumptions; pragmatically adjust their methods or concepts; treat science and society as interlocutors; or act as technicians. This study opens up lines of inquiry for literatures on the sociological study of scientific rationality, the co-production of knowledge and the socio-political order, and science and democracy.

“Resuscitating Nature: Science, Law, and the Morality of Endangered Species Conservation in California” (Manuscript in Preparation)

Since the passage of The Endangered Species Act (ESA) in 1973, it has been the purview of the U.S. government to ensure that no species living under its territorial jurisdiction goes extinct. While this statute (along with its counterparts at the state level) is among the most powerful tools for environmental protection in the contemporary U.S., its application raises puzzling questions for scientists and decision makers that strike at the heart of humanity’s relationship with the nonhuman environment. Attempts to save species from extinction raise not only technical and scientific questions, but also moral, political, and even metaphysical ones that were unforeseen by the framers of the ESA. Yet, answers to these questions – including what nature is and how humans should relate to it; the ontological status of genetic lineages including species and higher and lower taxa; the value of biodiversity and how to best measure it; how and to what end one should distinguish between “wild” and “artificial” environments; and the relevant baseline conditions to guide ecological restoration – are necessarily refracted through legal institutions.

How does the law contribute to the constitution of “nature” as a scientific, moral, and political category? I address this question in the context of water management and endangered species conservation in California with the case of the delta smelt as my focal point. The delta smelt is a tiny endangered species of fish caught in the center of California’s “water wars,” which has become a crucial talking point in debates over society’s rightful relationship with nature in California and beyond. Its sole habitat, and the broader context of the case, the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta (“the Delta”), is both the nexus of California’s increasingly vulnerable water conveyance apparatus and one of the nation’s highest profile ecosystems, often described by scientists and environmentalists as being on the verge of collapse. Efforts to save the species have included the largest court-ordered water diversions in California history, by requiring the pumps that send water to the world’s most productive agricultural region to be shut off at several occasions, stoking protest from constituencies reliant on a steady flow of water. But the politics surrounding the delta smelt are not merely distributional. They also reveal tensions between analytical binaries such as nature/artifice that are enshrined in environmental laws like the ESA, and the inescapable reality that the preservation of “nature” in the face of systemic anthropogenic change requires deliberate interventions into the nonhuman environment both constrained and animated by politics, morality, culture, and law.

EVENT: “The Hydraulic Society, Revisited,” April 21st 2017, UC Berkeley

Coordinated with Andrew Lakoff (University of Southern California)
Friday, April 21st 2017, University of California, Berkeley
What is California’s relationship with water today? In this one-day workshop we will forge a conversation about how social scientific and humanistic research can help us address this question. Thirty-five years ago, the environmental historian Donald Worster described California as “a modern hydraulic society – a social order founded on the intensive management of water.” The issues that motivated Worster’s political, economic, and ecological analysis remain relevant: the reliance of commercial agriculture and municipal growth on ongoing diversions, the relationship between economic interests and bureaucratic imperatives, the shared fate of humans and their natural environment, and the vulnerability of a civilization dependent on technologies for importing water. However, our relation to water has also evolved significantly in recent decades. One cannot understand water in California today without addressing topics such as: the entanglement of endangered species conservation and water policy, the proliferation of new groundwater management institutions and technologies, the institutionalization of adaptive management regimes, the specters of anthropogenic climate change and seismic vulnerability, and the increasing salience and visibility of environmental justice concerns. In this workshop, we will revisit the “hydraulic society thesis” in order to assess its promises and limitations in light of our own research on water in California. With Worster’s classic formulation as a shared point of departure, we will convene a diverse group of scholars in the social sciences and humanities to forge a new multi-faceted agenda for understanding California’s relationship with water.

Politics, Ethics, Ontology: An Inquiry into the Ontologies of Nature

Collaborative Research Group at the Institute of Arts and Humanities with Razvan Amironesei, Ike Sharpless, and Jacob Hellman