PACS Blog / June 27, 2024

Reflections on the Civil Society and Sustainability Conference with Professor Patricia Bromley

Stanford professor Patricia Bromley reflects on the Civil Society and Sustainability Conference, hosted by Stanford PACS and the Global Civil Society & Sustainable Development lab. She explains how interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary spaces are key to innovation and the importance of collaboration between civil society leaders and academic researchers.

Stanford PACS and civil society leaders. Photo taken by Kathryn Mazie Davis.

Stanford PACS and civil society leaders. Photo taken by Kathryn Mazie Davis.

On June 4-5, the Global Civil Society & Sustainable Development (GCSSD) lab hosted their second annual Civil Society and Sustainability Conference at Stanford University. The conference, led by Stanford PACS’ faculty director Patricia Bromley and Associate Director of Research and Scholar Programs Lisa Overbey, is designed to strengthen the community of scholars developing a knowledge base to support and amplify civil society activities for sustainable development. The conference featured both early-stage papers as well as more developed work with presenters representing a broad range of fields including sociology, political science, business, education, public policy, public administration, and social ecology. 

Based on feedback from last year’s conference, this year we invited civil society organization leaders into the discussion to give scholars the opportunity to hear challenges community leaders face and discuss ways researchers can contribute to innovative solutions. 

Professor Bromley and I spoke via Zoom, and our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

What are your key takeaways from this conference?

One of the main takeaways was about how complex contemporary activism is in the environmental space. There were several papers that talked about this in different ways. One initial paper talked about how protests can have diffuse consequences. The gist of it is that protests of any kind related to the natural world can have widespread consequences on the environment and the world. 

Another topic about activism that came up is how disruptive events, such as damaging museums or disrupting traffic, can be very counterproductive. Studies are showing that these actually undermine general public support for a cause, so activists need to be conscious about the type of tactic they’re pursuing and in what context they’re pursuing it. For example, we had several scholars presenting about activism in China and Egypt, where these contexts are much more regulated than in the US. Even the word “activism” is highly contentious. In places like Egypt, people we would label as “activists” would never refer to themselves that way. They would refer to themselves as “climate ambassadors.” Generally, in more authoritarian contexts, confrontational tactics backfire and often lead to crackdowns and total block of engagement and discussion about regulatory activities. So, what climate activism should look like around the world varies. 

The last topic is around the growing amount of activism that is working to undermine climate science and climate policy. In civil society scholarship, there’s been a long-standing idea that these are “good actors” working for the benefit of the natural world, but increasingly, that’s an assumption we can’t make. We can’t assume civil society actors are working for the benefit of the natural world. There are many civil society organizations that are actively seeking to undermine support for climate adaptation and mitigation strategies. Some of these represent business strategies, but others represent a cultural organization that are anti-science entities. 

You mentioned that research suggests disruptive events can be counterproductive. How can we get this research out to activists so that they are aware of their counterproductive tactics? 

The challenge with a lot of academic research is that it’s behind paywalls and only people with access to university subscriptions can find the results. Some ideas to get around this is for scholars to post abstracts of their core findings on their own websites, or make sure abstracts, which often are publicly available, contain relevant information that would be useful. Another idea is to try and partner with people who are experts in translating research across contexts. 

A hurdle to this is that academics are great at research but don’t have the skill or time to do this additional job of translating to the communities of practice. There are definitely an increasing number of people with those skills. Perhaps building research transalation into part of the research process or into the community partner’s side of it by hiring someone who has the capabilities to read academic research and translate it in their own settings. But being able to access research findings is the first step. 

After hearing about the challenges civil society leaders and their organizations encounter in their work, how can academic researchers actively help meet the needs of civil society leaders and the communities they serve?

It’s really helpful to think about the ways this relationship between civil society leaders and academic researchers would look. The gist of the discussions is that an optimal approach is to find targeted projects or areas that meet the needs of both academia and community partners. Not all information needs of a community partner will be best suited for academia. Sometimes organizations face local problems that they want to know how to evaluate a specific program offering, producing knowledge that isn’t generalizable and is specific to that organization. In contrast, the goal of academic research is usually to try and find generalizable or abstract kinds of knowledge. The sweet spot for how academics can help is to find those things that are both a specific, local problem and have the potential to be generalizable knowledge. It takes some discussion from both ends– from community partners to understand the long-term research needs that often happen in academia and for researchers to understand the immediate problem solving needs that are often there at the organizational level. 

In our discussions, there seems to be a need for two kinds of knowledge production for these partnerships. The first is the immediate partner needs, not peer- reviewed, just an immediate assessment of a context or situation– maybe using access to the wide library of information that we have as academics and our own expertise in an area. But this would not necessarily address the second kind – the long term abstract knowledge creation. It does take a commitment from the public and community for this long term knowledge creation. There are many famous quotes about this. One of my favorite is Marie Curie reflecting on her journey: “The way of progress is neither swift nor easy.” The idea is that with knowledge creation, we don’t know where it’s headed or what it would be useful for. An ideal activity of a university is to create that kind of knowledge. It’s the kind of knowledge that other actors are not as well suited to produce. There are ways each side can benefit from these types of transdisciplinary collaborations. Transdisciplinary collaboration is this idea of finding specific partnerships that meet both the needs of community partners and long-term generalizable knowledge creation.

How do convenings like the Civil Society and Sustainability Conference help shape research agendas and solutions to addressing sustainability challenges?

This conference is unique in that it’s both an interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary space. We have faculty from public administration, sociology, political science, economics, public policy, and social ecology while in the transdisciplinary space we have civil society leaders. Having a broad reach like this is a key source of innovation. Ways of thinking and doing science from one arena across disciplines, from the university into society and back again can travel through convenings like this. The idea is that the theory of change is motivated by innovation and generating new ideas by bringing together like-minded scholars who are open to inter- and transdisciplinary work to share ideas and help them spread across different domains. In some cases it’s just hearing presentations by others, in other cases it has developed into full blown collaborations where we have big grant proposals to the government and share research ideas, so it ends up being a range of ways ideas can travel.

What do you hope attendees took away as a result of this conference?

I hope that it sparks new collaborations and ideas for the first time participants. For those who have attended the prior iteration of the conference, I hope it gave them a chance to deepen those ideas. We curated the selection of attendees very carefully and for some, they are used to this interdisciplinary space. For those who are new to the inter- and transdisciplinary space, I hope it sparked an interest and excitement in these spaces that reach across boundaries. 

Stanford PACS would like to extend our sincerest gratitude to the civil society leaders, discussants,  and scholars for making this conference a successful and fruitful one. You can hear more discussions about the Civil Society and Sustainability conference with Professor Bromley through the Stanford Graduate School of Business podcast hosted by William P. Barnett and Stanford student Charlotte Kramer. 

Civil society panelists

Elena Chavez-Quezada

Senior Advisor for Social Innovation, Office of Governor Gavin Newsom

Violet Saena

Funder and Executive Director, Climate Resilient Communities

Sarah Mostafa

Program Director, Families & Workers Fund

Kinari Webb

Founder, Health in Harmony


Woody Hastings

Program Manager, The Climate Center

Sarah Spengeman

Deputy Communiations Director, Crux Alliance


“Interdisciplinary conferences like this are incredibly important and inspirational for researchers to cross pollinate ideas. It makes the chances that our work impacts policy that much greater because it helps us speak to different audiences.”

“I left the conference feeling inspired and motivated to continue my work on civil society and sustainability issues.  Few (if any) others at my university are working at this intersection, so the opportunity to connect with a community of engaged scholars and practitioners with diverse expertise is invaluable to my research and makes me a better scholar.”

“As a lawyer with very limited social science training, the conference was a rare opportunity to stretch my imagination and has been transformative. The variety of social science methods colleagues used challenged me to think more about how to adopt or develop methods to make my own sociolegal research design stronger.”