The Value of Coral Reef Research

Lead Research Organisation: University of Exeter
Department Name: Sociology and Philosophy


Coral reefs, a complex mesh of organisms, are acutely sensitive to environmental perturbation - especially climate change which causes 'coral bleaching'. Human construal of coral value is pivotal in evaluating reef damage and its effects on humans. I will explore two closely inter-related aspects of this:
- an ethnographic study of how coral reef researchers construe the notion of value in relation to reefs
- a conceptual analysis of such value attributions and their impact on scientists' behaviour and outputs

I will integrate these in an analysis of the network of values inherent to complex intra-coral relationships and, through this, the impact of these valuation practices on environmental policies.

Research questions
Coral scientists provide an exemplar for exploring the impact of value attribution on scientific investigation of inter-species interaction. Reefs are regarded as single entities with multiple types of value. Balancing their protection with their 'free ecosystem services' can be challenging (Solandt, 2017). Ethnographic study of how scientists attribute value to reefs will clarify the roles of different conceptions of value and so improve related policy outcomes.

The ethnographic study of coral reef scientists will explore aspects such as:
- What value do reef scientists attribute to coral reef as a living entity? Why?
- How can this value be assessed and 'measured'?
- How does this influence their activities?
- How does all this impact the relationship between marine biologists, policy makers, research funders, civil organisations and the public?

I will build a view of the network of value associated with marine scientists and reefs. Ethnography facilitates this, allowing examination of the scientific workplace in action (Latour and Woolgar, 1979), which illuminates the social and biological considerations driving understanding of corals and their value.

The conceptual strand will address questions such as:
- How are conceptions of non-human agency informed by research practice, commitments and assumptions?
- How do biological and social factors determine the content of biological knowledge and understandings of coral stress/damage?

This will include a reflexive examination of the interaction of human researchers with non-human agents - a framework highly suited to examining corals, where the relationship between researchers and objects of study is highly entrenched (Ankeny and Leonelli, forthcoming).

Collaboration and fieldwork
The project will involve collaboration with the MCS (Marine Conservation Society), which will provide: scientific networks for ethnography; opportunity to witness marine scientist fieldwork; a research placement; practical insight into a civil organisation. I will help create an MCS reef policy during a short placement there. The ethnographic study may involve overseas fieldwork at coral reef sites.

Year 1 - MRes covering sociology research methods; engagement with marine scientist networks; refinement of project plan (for years 2-4); training (SWDTP; Exeter).
Year 2 - Literature reviews of 'value', ethnographic studies of scientists, and research impact successes; fieldwork with coral scientists (possibly overseas); dissemination of project concepts and preliminary observations; policy placement; training.
Year 3 - Consolidation of ethnographic and conceptual studies; data analysis; groundwork for impact.
Year 4 - Theoretical analysis and write-up; preparation of publications and 'impact tools'; impact work with MCS; submission of thesis.


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Studentship Projects

Project Reference Relationship Related To Start End Student Name
ES/P000630/1 01/10/2017 30/09/2027
2096506 Studentship ES/P000630/1 01/10/2018 23/03/2023 Elis Rhys Jones