Project Summary

Project Goals

This project will explicitly lay out the core aspects of coral reef value and how these relate to coral science and human activity: an understanding that is crucial to shaping humankind’s response to the impending ecological crisis facing corals. It focuses on understanding why and how value is attributed to coral reefs, particularly in the context of coral science and protection efforts. Value here takes many forms (e.g. ecological, economic, cultural and intrinsic). I will produce an account of how coral value is conceptualised by coral reef scientists, through a combination of interviews, ethnography and theoretical analysis. Coral scientists provide a unique and interesting case study for human-coral interaction, due to their personal and scientific connections with their objects of study.

I will relate an account of coral value from the perspective of scientists (constructed through interviews) to the practice and content of coral reef science (examined through ethnographic and theoretical studies). The output of this project will be a PhD thesis (and academic publications/wider dissemination materials) detailing the process of, and justifications for, attribution of value to coral from a scientific perspective. This will link to the literature on value and coral biology/ecology and will feature specific coral science case studies.

This research is funded through an Economic and Social Research Council Scholarship via the South West Doctoral Training Partnership. It is based within Egenis (the Centre for the Study of Life Sciences) and the Sociology, Philosophy and Anthropology department at the University of Exeter (UK). Egenis is a multi-disciplinary institute dedicated to bringing together research across the biological and social sciences – hosting a wide range of scholars in diverse fields. The project involves concepts and techniques from the social sciences, life sciences, and philosophy and history of science, and is supervised by Professors Sabina Leonelli and John Dupré.


The project has two strands – an empirical study of the practice and content of coral reef science and a theoretical analysis of value and coral biology/ecology. The empirical strand is an ethnographic study of coral reef science in action, including interviews with coral reef scientists. The latter will establish how coral reef scientists think about value in relation to their objects of study, practices and understandings of their own work. Important themes drawn out of empirical observations and interview data will be integrated with the theoretical strand to produce an account of why and how value is attributed to coral reefs by coral reef scientists.

Background Information

Rapidly accelerating ecological crises (not least anthropogenic climate change) have a direct and significant bearing on coral health, coral science and its practitioners. The vivid bleaching events of the last few decades strikingly display the need for action to protect coral reefs. Coral reefs themselves are often held up as exceptionally valuable parts of nature (e.g. in ecological analyses, economic valuations and cultural heritage). So far coral value has only been discussed piecemeal. Effectively communicating exactly what this value entails has never been more important in encouraging important actors to pay more attention to the challenges corals face.

Elis Jones – PhD Candidate, Egenis (Centre for the Study of Life Sciences), University of Exeter, UK