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Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats (SWOT) Analysis: A

template for addressing the social dimension in the study of socio-

scientific issues
Tasos Hovardas, Ph.D.


Recent research has stressed the particularities and importance
Tasos Hovardas is an Adjunct behind the social component in the study of socio-scientific
Lecturer at the Department of issues (SSIs). However, teachers face difficulties when they
Primary Education, University of have to develop pedagogical plans for dealing with the social
Thessaly, Greece, and at the dimension of SSIs, which mainly relate to the lack of relevant
Department of Education, materials and the need to provide students with decision-
University of Cyprus, Cyprus. making heuristics. The objective of the current paper is to
respond to these calls by presenting the template of ‘Strengths
email: and Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats’ (SWOT) analysis
as a tool for addressing the social component in the study of
SSIs. A pilot implementation of the template is presented,
which involved pre-service primary teachers and concentrated
on bear conservation in three NATURA 2000 sites in Central
Greece. Implications for environmental education and
education for sustainability are examined, including the contrast
between the instrumental and emancipatory approaches in
environmental education and a procedural conceptualization of
K E Y W O R D S (in alphabetical order): Social heterogeneity; Socio-scientific issues; Stakeholders;
Sustainability; SWOT analysis

Introduction is a series of ethical questions that arise in SSIs

Socio-scientific issues (SSIs) usually appear due to multifaceted interactions between science
in the form of social dilemmas, which are and society (Hovardas and Korfiatis 2011; Sadler
characterized by a predominant linkage to 2004;). Therefore, among the core learning goals
science (Sadler 2004). Many SSIs reveal a focus in studying SSIs is the learners’ ability to form
on environment/nature and these are most reasoned judgments which integrate multiple
frequently dealt with in environmental education knowledge claims, stakeholder positions and
and education for sustainability (Klosterman et moral implications (Bell 2004; Boerwinkel et al.
al. 2012; Laws et al. 2004; Robottom 2012; 2014; Carleton-Hug and Hug 2010; Lundblad et
Tomas and Ritchie 2012; Van Weelie and Wals al. 2012; Sadler and Zeidler 2004; Zemplén
2002). Despite the fact that the study of SSIs has 2007).
to be built on a solid scientific knowledge base Recent research has stressed the particularities
(Lewis and Leach 2006; Robottom 2012), there as well as the importance of the social

Tasos Hovardas, SWOT analysis of the social dimension in socio-scientific issues

component in the study of SSIs. Taking the making heuristics, which could structure and
social context into account is seen as a scaffold inquiry in the social dimension of SSIs
prerequisite for a comprehensive exploration of (Lee 2007; Levinson 2006), especially the
SSIs (Robottom 2012). The social framing of heterogeneity of the social field in dealing with
SSIs unravels their constructedness within SSIs (Acar et al. 2010). The objective of the
particular communities of interest and the current paper is to respond to these calls by
appropriation of scientific knowledge to serve presenting the template of ‘Strengths and
interests of social groups engaged in SSIs Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats’
(Simonneaux and Simonneaux 2009a). In this (SWOT) analysis as a tool to address the social
direction, Robottom (2012) argued that the component in the study of SSIs.
scientific dimension in addressing SSIs within
environmental education or education for The social dimension in the study of socio-
sustainability discourses will always remain scientific issues
insufficient as long as the social embededness of The prefix ‘socio-’ in SSIs might refer to a
SSIs is not properly approached. SSIs can variety of topics, for instance, nature of science
provide a vehicle for unraveling the (Lederman et al. 2014), the contingent character
heterogeneity of the multiple, diverging or of scientific knowledge and uncertainty in
converging, perspectives present in a society science (Schinkel 2009; Wals et al. 2008).
(Bell 2004; Dobson 2003; Klosterman et al. Another aspect of the social dimension in SSIs
2012; Wals et al. 2008) and for promoting addresses the development of argumentation and
tolerance for all possible outcomes of a radically decision-making skills in value-based reasoning
indeterminate democratic deliberation process, (Acar et al. 2010; Lee 2007; Wu and Tsai 2007).
which may result in either reaching consensus or In this direction, learners have the opportunity to
a respectful disagreement (Bell 2004; Jickling follow the pathways through which the scientific
and Wals 2008). Such an approach to the study knowledge is selectively used and re-
of SSIs is expected to foster public involvement contextualized in order to serve non-scientific
in environmental governance (Ferkany and ends (Robottom 2012). An additional facet of the
Whyte 2012; Simonneaux and Simonneaux social dimension in the study of SSIs refers to
2009b). inter-group relations in cases of conflict or
Previous research has shown that teachers deliberation concerning natural resources
face difficulties when they have to develop management (Levinson 2006; Simonneaux and
pedagogical plans for teaching SSIs, which Simonneaux 2009a, b). This latter topic focuses
mainly refer to the social dimension of SSIs on the way different stakeholder groups take
(Ekborg et al. 2013; Lee and Witz 2009). position in environmental controversies or
Educators highlighted the unavailability of change their position in accordance to the social
relevant materials as one of the prime obstacles dynamics displayedat play (Hovardas 2013).
hindering a comprehensive appreciation of the A pedagogical strategy which would focus on
social implications of SSIs (Kara 2012). There is social heterogeneity and social actor dynamics in
also a need to provide students with decision- SSIs seems able to account for the context-

AEJES (2015) 1, 1-12

specificity of sustainability. In this regard, we were not to select desired values, attitudes
sustainability is to be conceived of as a and behaviors as intended outcomes in
democratic deliberation process rather than a environmental education and education for
given end-state of society to be attained (Van sustainability, then we might end up in a
Weelie and Wals 2002; Wals and Jickling, 2002; situation where ‘anything goes’ or where we
Wals 2010). This conceptualization aims at would not know what could come after
fostering skills of ‘how to think’ instead of ‘what identifying different stakeholder positions. In the
to think’ in a top-down fashion (Day and Monroe next section of the paper we will present and
2000; Dobson 2003; Schinkel 2009). At this discuss an adjusted version of SWOT analysis
point, two contrasting perspectives are which may help us accounting for the
distinguished in environmental education and aforementioned implications and structuring the
education for sustainability. On the one side, the social component in the study of SSIs.
instrumental perspective (teaching ‘what to
think’), which embodies transformative SWOT analysis as a template for addressing
objectives and directs learners’ reasoning and the social dimension in SSIs
behavior towards pre-determined ways of SWOT analysis is frequently used in
preferred thought and action (Hailwood 2005; environmental management as a diagnostic
Keene and Blumstein 2010; Mitchell and method to identify key factors influencing the
Mueller 2011; Orr 1994); on the other side, the success or failure of an organization’s project
emancipatory perspective (teaching ‘how to (Masozera et al. 2006; Geneletti et al. 2007;
think’), which wishes to respect learners’ Lozano and Vallés 2007). The standard
autonomy and it abstains from fostering certain application of SWOT analysis is based on a
values or attitudes and propagating certain types template, which provides the necessary heuristics
of behavior (Wals et al. 2008; Zemplén 2007). to examine the future prospects of an
The study of the social dimension of SSIs organization. This investigation is structured in
within the frame of the emancipatory perspective terms of potential that may promote, or barriers
in environmental education and education for that may hinder, the achievement of the
sustainability, rests on not imposing certain organization’s goals.
values, attitudes or behaviors on learners. A distinction is made between the
However, formulating learning goals as well as characteristics of the organization itself and the
orchestrating and scaffolding learning activities elements which are attributed to the
has to develop on an affirmative background. organization’s environment (Table 1). In this
The question here is how could educators regard, the organization’s potential to
formulate learning goals and structure learning accomplish its objectives is judged against both
activities without privileging certain values, inner (i.e., that pertain to the organization itself)
attitudes or behaviors (see for instance Hovardas as well as outer (i.e., environmental) aspects that
and Korfiatis 2012a). Another important may be mobilized in order to accomplish the
question relates to a potential relativism which goals of the organization. Inner aspects are
could be latent in the emancipatory approach: if termed ‘strengths’, while outer aspects are called

Tasos Hovardas, SWOT analysis of the social dimension in socio-scientific issues

‘opportunities’. In an analogous manner, barriers fashion similar to the standard use of SWOT
can be found within the organization (termed, analysis, in-group factors include beliefs,
‘weaknesses’) or in the environment surrounding knowledge/skills, intentions, and behaviors
the organization (,‘threats’). The result of the which may either enable stakeholders converge
SWOT analysis offers insights concerning the and reach consensus in the SSI under study (i.e.,
trajectory of the organization categorized in ‘strengths’) or lead to divergence or conflict (i.e.,
‘strengths’ that should be supported (i.e., inner ‘weaknesses’). Further, aspects of inter-group
potential), ‘opportunities’ that have to be sought relations decisive for consensus involve possible
(i.e., environmental prospects), ‘weaknesses’ that fields of convergence or cooperation between
must be overcome (i.e., inner barriers), and stakeholder groups (i.e., ‘opportunities’), while
‘threats’ that ought to be alleviated (i.e., aspects of inter-group relations that might lead to
environmental hindrances). conflict include possible fields of divergence or
competition between stakeholder groups (i.e.,
Table 1: Template of Strengths, Weaknesses, ‘threats’).
Opportunities and Threats (SWOT) analysis.
Table 2. Template of Strengths, Weaknesses,
Aspects that Aspects that
Opportunities and Threats (SWOT) analysis
pertain to the refer to the
adapted for addressing the social dimension in
organization environment
the study of socio-scientific issues.
itself; inner of the organi-
characteristics zation
Aspects that Aspects of
Potential that
pertain to eachinter-group
might promote Strengths Opportunities
stakeholder relations
the organiza-
group; in-groupbetween
tion’s goals
factors stakeholder
Barriers that
might hinder
the achieve- Weaknesses Threats Potential of Strengths Opportunities
ment of the increasing (Beliefs, knowle- (Possible
organization’s convergence dge/skills, inten- fields of
goals between tions, and beha- agreement or
stakeholder viors that can cooperation
groups and allow stakeholder between
SWOT analysis can be easily adapted to serve reaching groups to achieve stakeholder
solutions consensus) groups)
as a template in addressing the social dimension
in the study of SSIs (Table 2). SSIs in Barriers that Weaknesses Threats
environmental education and education for might (Beliefs, (Possible
increase knowledge/skills, fields of dis-
sustainability most often engage a series of
divergence intentions, and agreement or
social groups that have a stake in the issue at between behaviors that competetion
hand. For each stakeholder group, one can stakeholder might prevent between
identify in-group factors that are decisive for the groups and stakeholder stakeholder
lead to groups from groups)
SSI under study as well as factors that determine conflict achieving
inter-group relations among stakeholders. In a consensus)

AEJES (2015) 1, 1-12

A stakeholder-based SWOT analysis can be and Korfiatis 2012b). Three NATURA 2000
used by environmental educators for providing sites in Central Greece include about 30-40
guidance and scaffolding while addressing the brown bears (Ursus arctos), which amount to
social dimension in the study of SSIs. Learners slightly over 15% of the total bear population in
will first need to identify social actors engaged in Greece. Brown bears are permanently present in
the SSI under study. Then, ‘strengths’, Aspropotamos (GR1440001) and Kerketio Oros-
‘weaknesses’, ‘opportunities’ and ‘threats’ for Koziakas (GR1440002), which both include
each social group will have to be determined. priority bear habitat. Brown bears seem to use
This might be operationalized by means of Antichasia Ori - Meteora (GR1440003) as a
webquests, interviews and focus group dispersal corridor to move to the east and re-
discussions with stakeholder group members or colonize a former bear range. Stabilizing
surveys targeting stakeholders. Students will population sizes and the comeback of the brown
gather information and process this information bear in areas where people have forgotten how to
to complete the SWOT template. In a simulation live with the species presents a challenge for
of inter-group relations and deliberation rural communities. At the same time, bear
processes, students can build on ‘strengths’, try conservation projects for dissemination of best
to eliminate ‘weaknesses’, exploit practice in terms of damage prevention methods
‘opportunities’, and mitigate the effect of have engaged environmental non-governmental
‘threats’ in order to reach potential sustainable organizations (eNGOs) in the area (see LIFE
solutions. This might take the form of role play EX-TRA (2013) for a comprehensive
or round table discussions. The overall objective presentation of NATURA 2000 sites and
will be to unravel and elaborate on the social environmental conservation initiatives).
heterogeneity in social actors’ perspectives on Students at the Department of Primary
SSIs. Education at the University of Thessaly, Greece,
undertook the pilot implementation of SWOT
Pilot implementation of SWOT analysis for analysis as part of an environmental education
studying the social dimension in the issue of course. Overall, 12 pre-service primary teachers
bear conservation in Central Greece, (at the 5th semester of their studies) participated
Prefecture of Thessaly in this pilot implementation, which took the form
A pilot implementation of SWOT analysis for of a project (winter semester 2011-2012).
studying the social dimension of SSIs Students first developed webquests to identify
concentrated on bear conservation in Central key stakeholders in bear conservation and
Greece, Prefecture of Thessaly. The bear delineate stakeholder positions. Stakeholders
population in Greece seems to follow the general included stock-breeders, hunters, foresters, and
trend observed throughout Europe, where eNGOs (Table 3). Students then used webquest
population sizes of large carnivores have reports to prepare interview schedules for semi-
stabilized, or even increased in some cases, and structured interviews with members of
large carnivores re-colonize areas where they stakeholder groups. A number of interviewees
have been absent for many decades (Hovardas were first indicated by local authorities in the

Tasos Hovardas, SWOT analysis of the social dimension in socio-scientific issues

three NATURA 2000 sites while the rest of to ‘Strengths’ row in Table 3). However, electric
interviewees were selected by means of a fences cannot be used for free-ranging animals.
snowball technique. All interviews took place in In this case, there is the option of guarding dogs
the towns of Kalampaka and Trikala, the main as an alternative damage prevention method. The
urban centers in the area. After a training fact that there is yet no valid way of certifying
session, pre-service primary teachers conducted guarding dogs was highlighted by stock-breeders
and transcribed interviews to determine as an important deficiency, which discouraged
‘strengths’, ‘weaknesses’, ‘opportunities’ and them from joining stock-breeder networks that
‘threats’ for all stakeholder groups engaged in aim at breeding and distributing guarding dogs
bear conservation. Only common aspects across (row depicting ‘Weaknesses’). A quite
all NATURA 2000 sites, i.e. aspects mentioned interesting finding was that stock-breeders could
by all respondents, were incorporated in the accept a minimum of damage to their livestock
template of SWOT analysis. Interviews stopped caused by the bear, which outlines a possible line
when all information needed to complete the of agreement between stock-breeders and
template was gathered, while students undertook eNGOs (row depicting ‘Opportunities’).
about three to four interviews with members of However, there exist a substantial number of
each stakeholder group, each interview lasting stock-breeders who do not record damages they
about 30 minutes. When a first draft of the suffer because they believe that they would not
template of the SWOT analysis had been get any compensation (row depicting ‘threats’).
prepared, a focus group discussion was This aspect has been noted as a point of tension
organized to validate the outcome of interviews. between stock-breeders, foresters, and eNGOs.
Two people from each stakeholder group were In an analogous manner, one can follow
invited and discussed the template under the ‘strengths’, ‘weaknesses’, ‘opportunities’ and
coordination of the author who acted as ‘threats’ for all other stakeholder groups along
facilitator. The template is shown, in its final the rest of the columns in Table 3. Scenarios that
form, in Table 3. The content of the template were developed by pre-service primary teachers
was used to develop a scenario for a role play for role play and round table discussions built on
and a round table discussion, which were ‘strengths’ and ‘opportunities’ and tried to
presented to all other students who followed the address ‘weaknesses’ and ‘threats’ in order to
environmental education course. promote bear conservation.
As we can read from the first column in Table
3, stock-breeders in the three NATURA 2000 Discussion and implications for
sites acknowledged that electric fences have environmental education and education for
been effective as a damage prevention method sustainability
for apiarists elsewhere. This knowledge might The template of SWOT analysis can prove a
prove significant in achieving consensus among valuable tool in addressing calls for decision-
stakeholders in bear conservation because making heuristics, which could structure and
electric fences can be endorsed as a damage scaffold inquiry in the social dimension of SSIs
prevention method by stock-breeders too (refer (Acar et al. 2010; Kara 2012; Lee 2007;

AEJES (2015) 1, 1-12

Levinson 2006). After being appropriately integrated in educational interventions, the tem-

Table 3. Strenghts and Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats (SWOT) Analysis for brown bear
conservation in three NATURA 2000 sites in Central Greece (Aspropotamos – GR1440001; Kerketio
Oros-Koziakas – GR1440002; Antichasia Ori - Meteora – GR1440003).

Stock-breeders Hunters Foresters eNGOs*

Strengths Stock-breeders Hunters wish to Foresters have A democratic
(Beliefs, acknowledge that be involved in valuable experience mandate for
knowledge/skills, electric fences nature in nature public
intentions, and have been conservation conservation gained involvement
behaviors that can effective as a initiatives through working in prevails among
allow stakeholder damage prevention the local area and members of
groups to achieve method for with the local eNGOs
consensus) apiarists elsewhere societies

Weaknesses Stock-breeders The cost of Financial and There are a series

(Beliefs, know that there is hunting dogs is organizational of objectives
knowledge/skills, yet no valid way extremely high barriers create a formulated by
intentions, and of certifying and, therefore, strong feeling of eNGOs that are
behaviors that might guarding dogs any damage to inability among not adequately
prevent stakeholder hunting dogs will foresters concer- adapted to the
groups from comprise a signi- ning the fulfillment local context
achieving ficant financial of their mission
consensus) loss for hunters

Opportunities Stock-breeders can Hunters are Foresters are eNGOs strongly

(Possible fields of accept a minimum willing to support institutionally support compen-
agreement or of damage to their financially net- responsible for the sation systems
cooperation between livestock caused works of breeding implementation of a because they
stakeholder groups) by the bear and distributing series of nature might decrease
guarding dogs conservation conflicts between
between stock- measures stock-breeders
breeders and bears

Threats Many stock- Conflict between Foresters have Negative attitudes

(Possible fields of breeders do not stock-breeders withdrawn from towards eNGOs
disagreement or record damages and hunters many nature con- are still present
competition between they suffer becau- usually escalates servation networks among other
stakeholder groups) se they believe by using poisoned social groups
they would not get baits
any compensation
* eNGOs = environmental non-governmental organizations.

Tasos Hovardas, SWOT analysis of the social dimension in socio-scientific issues

plate of SWOT analysis might be used in upper emancipatory approach, which could end up in a
primary education, lower and upper secondary situation where learners would just celebrate
education, and tertiary education. The template social heterogeneity and appreciate the validity
can be combined with webquests to introduce of any social actor’s beliefs, knowledge/skills,
students in the social landscape and define social intentions, and behaviors. In this regard, we
groups that have a stake at SSIs under study. should highlight the fact that the template of
Social research methods, such as interviews, SWOT analysis enables the investigation of
focus group discussions and surveys can be points where stakeholder groups could diverge or
employed to gather data, validate findings, and converge and, thereby, enables the potential of
complete the template. Finally, pedagogical seeking consensus and reaching solutions
methods such as role play and round table concerning the social component of SSIs. This
discussions can make use of the template’s potential provides a valuable and insightful
content to simulate social actor dynamics and reference base, which precludes relativism in the
explore the potential of reaching consensus sense that ‘anything goes’ (see for instance
among stakeholder groups. Hovardas 2012). Further, such a perspective
Apart from bear conservation that served as a suggests a procedural conceptualization of
pilot study in the present paper, the template of sustainability (Van Weelie and Wals 2002; Wals
SWOT analysis can assist in examining and Jickling 2002; Wals 2010), where the latter
stakeholder group positions and actor dynamics has to be experienced as a democratic
engaged in a wide array of SSIs. Since the deliberation process rather than as a pre-given
template is not case-sensitive, it can be easily end-state to be sought.
modified to account for new case studies by
identifying the appropriate stakeholder groups. Acknowledgments: I am grateful to all students
By tracking and simulating inter-group and interviewees who took part in the pilot
interactions between social groups involved in implementation of SWOT analysis at the
SSIs, the overall objective of using the SWOT University of Thessaly, Greece.
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