Theory and Society

, Volume 48, Issue 1, pp 1–37 | Cite as

Hydraulic society and a “stupid little fish”: toward a historical ontology of endangerment

  • Caleb ScovilleEmail author


Endangered species are objects of intense scientific scrutiny and political conflict. This article focuses on the interplay among human-nonhuman relations, knowledge production, and the politics of endangerment. Advancing a historical ontology of endangerment, it highlights the role of transforming the nonhuman world in the coming to be of new objects of environmental knowledge. Such knowledge can provide the basis for credible claims of endangerment, facilitating mobilizations against the very human-nonhuman relations that produced it. An in-depth case study of the delta smelt, an endangered species of fish caught in the center of California’s “water wars,” shows how changes in the instrumentalization of the nonhuman environment can 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 water delivery system, efforts to save the species from extinction have reduced flows to farms and cities, fomenting conflict between environmentalists and water users. This article demonstrates that the taxonomic classification of the delta smelt as a species and evidence of its decline arose directly from the reengineering of California’s rivers for extractive ends. Ironically, the knowledge on which environmental advocates relied was a product of the instrumental relation to nature that they sought to transform.


Biological classification California water Endangered species Environmental politics Human-nonhuman relations Taxonomic science 



The research presented in this article was partially supported with funding from the University of California, Berkeley Center for the Study of Law & Society’s Berkeley Empirical Studies Fellowship. I am deeply indebted to Razvan Amironesei, Rebecca Elliott, Neil Fligstein, Marion Fourcade, Andrew Lakoff, and John Lie for their detailed comments. I acknowledge additional helpful comments during various stages of this project by Irene Bloemraad, Boroka Bo, Jonah Stuart Brundage, Michael Burawoy, Olivier Clain, Alex DiBranco, Cyrus Dioun, Holly Doremus, Martin Eiermann, Michel Estefan, Julian Fulton, Isabel García, Pat Hastings, Jacob Hellman, Andrew Jaeger, Xuan Jin, Sunmin Kim, Daniel N. Kluttz, Michael Kowen, Joe Labriola, Santiago Molina, Calvin Morrill, Richard Norgaard, Michelle Phillips, Alex Roehrkasse, Nina Golec Scoville, Ike Sharpless, Benjamin Shestakofsky, Mary Shi, Sameer Srivastava, Matthew J. Stimpson, Adam Storer, Ann Swidler, Byron Villacis, Richard Walker, and Uğur Yıldırım. The Editors and reviewers at Theory and Society, as well as anonymous reviewers in a previous review process, were also very helpful. All errors are my own. Earlier versions of this work were presented at the 2016 Genial and Ephemeral Meeting in Sociology, the Center for Culture, Organizations, and Politics workshop in 2017, and the 2017 conference, “The Hydraulic Society, Revisited,” all at the University of California, Berkeley, as well as the “Politics, Ethics, Ontology” seminar at the University of California, San Diego in 2016, and the 2017 meeting of the American Sociological Association in Montréal.


  1. Alagona, P. S. (2013). After the grizzly: Endangered species and the politics of place in California. Berkeley: University of California Press.Google Scholar
  2. Angelo, H. (2013). Bird in hand: how experience makes nature. Theory and Society, 42(4), 351–368.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Appuhn, K. (2009). A forest on the sea: Environmental expertise in renaissance Venice. Johns Hopkins University Press.Google Scholar
  4. Bailly, N. (2015). Salmo olidus Pallas, 1814. In R. Froese. and D. Pauly (Eds.). FishBase. Accessed through: World register of marine species at Accessed 16 Aug 2016.
  5. Bakker, K. J. (2010). Privatizing water: Governance failure and the world’s urban water crisis. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.Google Scholar
  6. Beck, U. (1992). Risk society: Towards a new modernity. London: Sage Publications.Google Scholar
  7. Benford, R. D., & Snow, D. A. (2000). Framing processes and social movements: an overview and assessment. Annual Review of Sociology, 26(1), 611–639.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Bijker, W. E. (2007). American and Dutch coastal engineering: differences in risk conception and differences in technological culture. Social Studies of Science, 37, 143–151.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Bloor, D. (1999). Anti-Latour. Studies in History and Philosophy of Science, 30(1), 81–112.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Boxall, B. (2016). A Delta Tunnel Project’s lofty ambitions have been scaled Back. Los Angeles Times. Accessed 28 Oct 2016.
  11. Bureau of Reclamation (2013). “Central Valley Project”. United States Bureau of Reclamation. United States Department of the Interior, 15 March 2013. Accessed 16 Aug 2016.
  12. Callon, M. (1998). The embeddedness of economic markets in economics. In M. Callon (Ed.), The laws of the markets. Oxford: Blackwell.Google Scholar
  13. Campbell, J. K., O'Rourke, M., & Slater, M. H. (2011). Carving nature at its joints: Natural kinds in metaphysics and science. Cambridge: MIT Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Carroll, P. (2012). Water and technoscientific state formation in California. Social Studies of Science, 42(4), 489–516.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Carroll-Burke, P. (2002). Material designs: engineering cultures and engineering states—Ireland 1650–1900. Theory and Society, 31(1), 75–114.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Chico Enterprise-Record (2015). Little fish could be Delta’s savior. Editorial. Chico Enterprise-Record, 13 January 2015. Accessed 28 Oct 2016.
  17. Clark, F. N. (1928). The smelts of the San Pedro wholesale fish markets. California Fish and Game, 14(1), 16–21.Google Scholar
  18. Clarke, C. (2014). Representative Devin Nunes versus the ‘stupid’ Delta smelt. KCET, February 2014. Accessed 28 Oct 2016.
  19. Clausen, R., & York, R. (2008). Global biodiversity decline of marine and freshwater fish: a cross-national analysis of economic, demographic, and ecological influences. Social Science Research, 37(4), 1310–1320.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Coad, B. W. (2010). Bibliography of Donald Evan McAllister. Canadian Field-Naturalist, 124(4), 336–358.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Colvin, J., & Knickmeyer, E. (2016). Trump vows to ‘open up the water’ in drought-stricken California. PBS, 27 May 2016. Accessed 28 Oct 2016.
  22. Cook, F. R., Coad, B. W., Renaud, C., Gruchy, C. G., & Alfonso, N. R. (2010). Donald Evan Mcallister, 1934–2001: the growth of ichthyological research at the National Museum of Canada/Canadian Museum of Nature. Canadian Field Naturalist, 124(4), 330–335.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Cronon, W. (1997). Nature’s metropolis: Chicago and the great west. New York: W.W. Norton.Google Scholar
  24. Dang, P. T. (2001). A tribute to Don E. Mcallister. Biodiversity, 2(3), 22–23.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. Daston, L. (2012). The sciences of the archive. Osiris, 27(1), 156–187.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. Department of Fish and Game (1966). Ecological studies of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta: Part 2, Fishes of the Delta. Fish Bulletin 136. State of California Resources Agency Department of Fish and Game.Google Scholar
  27. Department of Fish and Wildlife (2016). Department of Fish and Game celebrates 130 years of serving California. California Department of Fish and Wildlife. Accessed 17 Aug 2016.
  28. Department of the Interior (2003). Endangered Species Act of 1972 As Amended through the 108th Congress. Accessed 16 Aug 2016.
  29. Department of Water Resources (1961). Memorandum of understanding between water resources and fish and game regarding objectives and scope of Delta water project and fish and wildlife protection study, 10 August 1961.Google Scholar
  30. Department of Water Resources (2010). California State water project. California Department of Water Resources. State of California, 11 August 2010. Accessed 8 Dec 2014.
  31. Domínguez Rubio, F. (2016). On the discrepancy between objects and things: an ecological approach. Journal of Material Culture, 21(1), 59–86.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. Doremus, H. (2010). The endangered species act: static law meets dynamic world. Washington University Journal of Law and Policy, 32, 175–235.Google Scholar
  33. Driscoll Ed. (2011). I think we can safely say she’s still courting new media. PJ Media, 11 February 2011. Accessed 10 Jan 2019.
  34. Drymond, J. R. (1964). A history of ichthyology in Canada. Copeia, 1, 2–33.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. Dupré, J. (2002). Humans and other animals. Oxford: Clarendon Press.Google Scholar
  36. Epstein, S. (2007). Inclusion: The politics of difference in medical research. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  37. Erkkila, L. F. (1950). Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta fishery resources: Effects of Tracy pumping plant and Delta cross channel. Washington: US Fish and Wildlife Service.Google Scholar
  38. Espeland, W. (1998). The struggle for water: Politics, rationality and identity in the American southwest. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.Google Scholar
  39. Evans, R., & Kay, T. (2008). How environmentalists ‘greened’ trade policy: strategic action and the architecture of field overlap. American Sociological Review, 73(6), 970–991.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  40. Farrell, J. (2015). the battle for yellowstone: Morality and the sacred roots of environmental conflict. Princeton: Princeton University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  41. Feenberg, A. (1999). Questioning technology. London: Routledge.Google Scholar
  42. Finley, C. (2011). All the fish in the sea: Maximum sustainable yield and the failure of fisheries management. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  43. Fleck, L. (1979). Genesis and development of a scientific fact. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.Google Scholar
  44. Fligstein, N., & McAdam, D. (2012). A theory of fields. New York: Oxford University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  45. Foucault, M. (1970). The order of things: An archaeology of the human sciences. New York: Pantheon Books.Google Scholar
  46. Foucault, M. (1984). What is enlightenment? In P. Rabinow (Ed.), The Foucault reader (pp. 32–50). New York: Pantheon Books.Google Scholar
  47. Foucault, M. (2006). In J. D. Faubion (Ed.), Aesthetics, method, and epistemology. New York: New Press.Google Scholar
  48. Fourcade, M. (2011). Cents and sensibility: economic valuation and the nature of “nature”. American Journal of Sociology, 116(6), 1721–1777.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  49. Hacking, I. (1991). A tradition of natural kinds. Philosophical Studies, 61(1991), 109–126.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  50. Hacking, I. (1995). The looping effects of human kinds. Causal cognition: A multidisciplinary debate, pp. 351–394.Google Scholar
  51. Hacking, I. (1999). The social construction of what? Cambridge: Harvard University Press.Google Scholar
  52. Hacking, I. (2002). Historical ontology. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  53. Hacking, I. (2007). Natural kinds: Rosy Dawn, scholastic twilight. Royal Institute of Philosophy Supplement, 82(61), 203–239.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  54. Halverson, A. (2010). An entirely synthetic fish: How rainbow trout beguiled America and overran the world. New Haven: Yale University Press.Google Scholar
  55. Hamada, K. (1957). A new fish, Hypomesus sakhalinus new species, obtained from Lake Taraika, Sakhalin. 魚類学雑誌 5(3–6): 136–141.Google Scholar
  56. Hamada, K. (1961). Taxonomic and ecological studies of the genus Hypomesus of Japan. Memoirs of the Faculty of Fisheries Hokkaido University, 9(1), 1–55.Google Scholar
  57. Hamilton, A. (Ed.). (2013). The evolution of phylogenetic systematics. Berkeley: University of California Press.Google Scholar
  58. Hannigan, J. A. (2006). Environmental Sociology. London: Routledge.Google Scholar
  59. Heise, U. K. (2016). Imagining extinction: The cultural meanings of endangered species. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  60. Hennig, W. (1965). Phylogenetic systematics. Annual Review of Entomology, 10, 97–116.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  61. Hoffmann, J. P. (2004). Social and environmental influences on endangered species: a cross-national study. Sociological Perspectives, 47(1), 79–107.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  62. Horkheimer, M., & Adorno, T. W. (1972). Dialectic of enlightenment. New York: Herder and Herder.Google Scholar
  63. Hubbs, C.L. (1925). A revision of the Osmerid fishes of the North Pacific. Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington, pp. 49–55.Google Scholar
  64. Hundley, N. (2001). The great thirst: Californians and water: A history. Berkeley: University of California Press.Google Scholar
  65. Jerolmack, C. (2008). How pigeons became rats: the cultural-spatial logic of problem animals. Social Problems, 55(1), 72–94.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  66. Jerolmack, C., & Tavory, I. (2014). Molds and totems: nonhumans and the constitution of the social self. Sociological Theory, 32(1), 64–77.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  67. Jordan, D. S., & Hubbs, C. L. (1922). Record of fishes obtained by David Starr Jordan in Japan. Pittsburgh: Carnegie Institute.Google Scholar
  68. Jordan, D.S., Tanaka, S., & Snyder, J.O. (1913). A catalogue of the fishes of Japan. Tokyo: Tokyo Imperial University.Google Scholar
  69. Kohler, R. E. (2013). All creatures: Naturalists, collectors, and biodiversity, 1850–1950. Princeton: Princeton University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  70. Kohn, E. (2015). Anthropology of ontologies. Annual Review of Anthropology, 44(1), 311–327.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  71. Kolbert, E. (2014). The sixth extinction: An unnatural history. New York: Henry Holt and Company.Google Scholar
  72. Krause, F. (2017). Towards an amphibious anthropology of Delta life. Human Ecology, 45(3), 403–408.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  73. Krieger, L.M. (2015). Delta smelt almost gone, except in hatchery. Chico Enterprise-Record. 17 April 2015. Accessed 28 Oct 2016.
  74. Lakoff, A. (2016a). The indicator species: tracking ecosystem collapse in arid California. Public Culture, 28(2), 237–258.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  75. Lakoff, A. (2016b). The zone of entrainment. Limn 7
  76. Latour, B. (2005). Reassembling the social: An introduction to actor-network-theory. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  77. Latour, B., & Woolgar, S. (1986). Laboratory life: The construction of scientific facts. Princeton: Princeton University Press.Google Scholar
  78. Lemke, T. (2015). New materialisms: foucault and the ‘government of things’. Theory, Culture and Society, 32(4), 3–25.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  79. Linton, J. (2010). What is water? The history of a modern abstraction. Vancouver: UBC Press.Google Scholar
  80. Lund, J. R., Hanak, E., Fleenor, W. E., Mount, J. F., & Moyle, P. B. (2010). Comparing futures for the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. Berkeley: University of California Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  81. Lynch, M. (2013). Ontography: investigating the production of things, deflating ontology. Social Studies of Science, 43(3), 444–462.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  82. MacKenzie, D. (1976). Eugenics in Britain. Social Studies of Science, 6, 499–532.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  83. Martin, L. J. (2018). Proving grounds: Ecological fieldwork in the Pacific and the materialization of ecosystems. Environmental History, 23(3), 567–592.Google Scholar
  84. McAllister, D. E. (1962). Review of: silent spring by Rachel Carson. Canadian Field-Naturalist, 76(4), 220–221.Google Scholar
  85. McAllister, D.E. (1963). A revision of the smelt family, Osmeridae. National Museum of Canada Bulletin 191, Biological Series 71. Ottawa: Dept. of Northern Affairs and National Resources.Google Scholar
  86. McEvoy, A. F. (1990). The fisherman’s problem: Ecology and law in the California fisheries, 1850-1980. Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  87. Mosquin, T. (2002). Some reflections on the life and work of Don E. McAllister. Biodiversity, 3(1), 7–10.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  88. Moyle, P. B. (2002). Inland fishes of California. Berkeley: University of California Press.Google Scholar
  89. Moyle, P. (2015). Prepare for extinction of Delta smelt. California WaterBlog. UC Davis Center for Watershed Sciences, 18 March 2015. Accessed 26 Feb 2017.
  90. Moyle, P., & Hobbs, J. (2017). California WaterFix and Delta smelt. California WaterBlog. 13 August 2017. Accessed 13 Aug 2017
  91. Mukerji, C. (2009). Impossible engineering: Technology and territoriality on the canal Du Midi. Princeton: Princeton University Press.Google Scholar
  92. Pinch, T. (2008). Technology and institutions: living in a material world. Theory and Society, 37(5), 461–483.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  93. Plater, Z. J. B. (2013). The snail darter and the dam: How pork-barrel politics endangered a little fish and killed a river. New Haven: Yale University Press.Google Scholar
  94. Porter, T. M. (1995). Trust in numbers: the pursuit of objectivity in science and public life. Princeton University Press.Google Scholar
  95. Pritchard, S. B. (2011). Confluence: The nature of technology and the remaking of the Rhône. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  96. Quinton, A. (2016). Delta smelt populations plummet 2nd year in a row. Capital Public Radio. 3 July 2016. Accessed 18 Aug 2016.
  97. Reisner, M. (1993). Cadillac desert: The American west and its disappearing water. New York: Penguin Books.Google Scholar
  98. Restore the Delta (2017). So what is your solution? Restore the Delta. Accessed 12 Feb 2018.
  99. Restore the Delta (2018). Delta Smelt Spawning March: March for the Delta. Accessed 23 Mar 2018.
  100. Ritvo, H. (1997). The platypus and the mermaid, and other figments of the classifying imagination. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.Google Scholar
  101. Ruyak, B. (2015). UC Davis fish biologist: Delta smelt ‘functionally extinct’. Capital Public Radio. 18 March 2015. Accessed 18 Aug 2016.
  102. Sayes, E. (2014). Actor–network theory and methodology: Just what does it mean to say that nonhumans have agency? Social Studies of Science, 44(1), 134–149.Google Scholar
  103. Scofield, W.L. (1935). “Fisheries statistics: achievements through flexibility” in “commercial fish catch of California for the years 1930–1944, inclusive”. Fish Bulletin 44. Division of Fish & Game, pp. 8–13.Google Scholar
  104. Scott, J. C. (1999). Seeing like a state: How certain schemes to improve the human condition have failed. New Haven: Yale University Press.Google Scholar
  105. Siders, D. (2016). Carly Fiorina doubles down on Delta smelt. The Sacramento Bee. 30 April 2016. Accessed 18 August 2016.
  106. Sismondo, S. (2004). An introduction to science and technology studies. Malden: Blackwell.Google Scholar
  107. Skinner, J.E. (1962). An historical review of the fish and wildlife resources of the San Francisco Bay Area. California Department of Fish and Game, Water Project Branch Report 1.Google Scholar
  108. Stafleu, F.A., & Cowan, R (1983). Taxonomic literature: A selective guide to botanical publications and collections with dates, commentaries and types. Vol. 4. Accessed 16 Aug 2016.
  109. Stanley, S. E., Moyle, P. B., & Bradley Shaffer, H. (1995). Allozyme analysis of Delta smelt, Hypomesus transpacificus and longfin smelt, Spirinchus Thaleichthys in the Sacramento-San Joaquin estuary, California. Copeia, 1995(2), 390–396.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  110. Star, S. L., & Griesemer, J. R. (1989). Institutional ecology, ‘translations’ and boundary objects: amateurs and professionals in Berkeley’s Museum of Vertebrate Zoology, 1907–39. Social Studies of Science, 19(3), 387–420.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  111. Swyngedouw, E. (2004). Social power and the urbanization of water: Flows of power. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  112. Taylor, J. E., III. (1999). Making Salmon: An environmental history of the northwest fisheries crisis. Seattle: University of Washington Press.Google Scholar
  113. Thayer, R. L. (2003). Lifeplace: Bioregional thought and practice. Berkeley: University of California Press.Google Scholar
  114. Trenham, P. C., Bradley Shaffer, H., & Moyle, P. B. (1998). Biochemical identification and assessment of population subdivision in morphologically similar native and invading smelt species (Hypomesus) in the Sacramento–San Joaquin estuary, California. Transactions of the American Fisheries Society, 127(3), 417–424.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  115. Uexküll, J. (2010). A foray into the worlds of animals and humans: With a theory of meaning. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.Google Scholar
  116. Unger, Z. (2016). California’s Delta: On the front lines of the State’s water issues. Breakthroughs: the Magazine of the UC Berkeley College of Natural Resources, Winter, 2016. Accessed 10 Jan 2019.
  117. United States Fish and Wildlife Service (2016). Section 7 Explanation.” Department of the Interior. 25 Feb. 2016. Web. Accessed 17 Aug 2016
  118. Vidal, F., & Dias, N. (Eds.). (2016). Endangerment, biodiversity and culture. London: Routledge.Google Scholar
  119. Wales, J. H. (1962). Introduction of pond smelt from Japan into California. California Fish & Game, 48(2), 141.Google Scholar
  120. Wall Street Journal (2009). California’s man-made drought. Editorial. Wall Street Journal. 2 September 2009.Google Scholar
  121. Wilkins, J. S. (2009). Defining species: A sourcebook from antiquity to today. New York: P. Lang.Google Scholar
  122. Worster, D. (1985). Rivers of empire: Water, aridity, and the growth of the American west. New York: Pantheon Books.Google Scholar
  123. Worster, D. (1992). Under Western skies: Nature and history in the American west. New York: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Nature B.V. 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of SociologyUniversity of California, BerkeleyBerkeleyUSA

Personalised recommendations