Relational values of nature in empirical research: a systematic review.
In the past 5 years, scholarly and policy attention to relational values, a concept that articulates plural values of nature, has grown steadily. To date, there are no published syntheses of empirical research that explicitly addresses relational values. We perform a systematic literature review of n = 72 empirical studies of relational values to summarize the state of current research and to identify opportunities for future research and conceptual development. In our analysis, we categorize what authors identify as relational values and summarize study characteristics (e.g. study location, methods approach). Authors collectively report n = 312 unique relational values. Categories of identity, social cohesion, livelihoods, connection to place/human-nature connection and sacred are most common. Scholarship that explicitly addresses relational values has increased since 2017 and exhibits substantial diversity: in how relational values are conceptualized (or not); in disciplinary associations; in geographical location and in data collection methods. We find that most empirical research on relational values does not justify how its results reflect characteristics that establish the relational values concept as unique from other environmental values concepts. As a result, diverse interpretations of the relational values concept pose the risk of the relational values concept being so broad and inclusive that it becomes meaningless, or at least meaning-light. Policy implications. Understanding why and how nature matters to people is critical to inform effective and just conservation. Relational values can offer nuanced perspectives on the significance associated with people-nature relationships. We argue that empirical relational values research that grounds itself in the concept's 'core' characteristics can foster conceptual coherence and bolster the relevance of research findings to sustainability and conservation science.