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Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?

It seemed easy enough. Who among my students wouldn’t have heard the harrowing story of The Three Pigs, at some point in their lives? I decided to use the story to exemplify the importance of operational definitions.

An operational definition is defining a concept in terms of how you plan to measure that concept. Imagine a sky full of clouds. Those clouds represent abstract understandings of a concept you're interested in exploring. Creating an operational definition is reaching into the clouds, grabbing a tangible, measurable concept, pulling it down, and nailing it to the ground. It’s this concept — and not what is still hovering in the clouds —that you’re going to define, to explore, and to measure.

Creating an operational definition is crucial for scientific inquiry. How can you measure something if you don’t know what you’re measuring and why? It also matters in journalism, because it’s the springboard from which a narrative is built. If your audience is thinking something means one thing, and you mean another, your key points, and their credence, can be garbled.

For example, take The Three Pigs. Do you know the story? Or, do you know a version of the story? Maybe a book that was read to you as a child? Or a film? My earliest memory of the story comes from a 1971 Peter Pan Records Three Little Pigs 45 rpm and read-along-book. I was also part of a One Act Play interpretation my senior year of high school.

Besides that book and script, I don’t recall tangible artifacts that informed my understanding of The Three Pigs concept. That doesn’t mean there weren’t any. It just means, I don't remember them.

That tells me that my understanding of the concept is under-informed and uncritically examined. This would need to change if I were to do any sort of serious analysis. I would need to take a deeper dive into different versions of this story, its critiques, and its interpretations to better understand this concept.

To exemplify this, my class and I watched Walt Disney’s 1933 Silly Symphony Three Little Pigs. Up until a few weeks ago, I had no memory of ever watching this film. However, several students said this was the version they saw in childhood, and the foundation on which their understanding of the concept was built. I told the class to write down anything they spotted in this 7-minute film that differed from their understanding of the story, no matter how abstract that understanding was.

When the film was done, students pointed out numerous components. To summarize some of the key points, in this version, the pigs have no names, and are all building their houses at the same time. The first two pigs, who are building their houses out of straw and sticks, respectively, make fun of the third pig, who is building his house out of bricks. They laugh at the thought of a wolf coming, while the third pig, clad in overalls, waves his finger and assures them they’ll be sorry. The first and second pigs laugh and play their instruments.

Of course, the wolf comes. A student quickly pointed out the anti-Semitic way the wolf is depicted, and another noted his shabby clothing (compared to the first and second pigs’ sailor suits), and his attempts to get into the second pig’s house (e.g., pretending to be a sheep, merchant) when blowing the house down was more than sufficient, and was what he ultimately did anyway. The use of instruments as a representation of the pigs’ denial and carefree nature and the third pig’s can-do ideology were also absent from other versions students and I remembered, as well as the pigs’ presumed age, denial of danger, and lack of ever actually being caught. (They both escape to the third pig’s house.) Another student said she’d seen this version as a child, but it was in German. That translation was apparently darker. There was also no mother, or man selling the building materials the pigs bought, which was present in other versions.

There was more. I could go on and on. What mattered was that, by the end of the exercise, it was clear that what initially seemed to be a common story woven through Americana childhood, was by no means universally understood or interpreted. Before any kind of measurement or exploration of the story, a person would need to first explore what informed their understanding of it, what they need to explore to strengthen that understanding, and create an operational definition.

To summarize this instance, what began as an abstract, in-the-cloud The Three Pigs ended as a nailed-down, operationalized Walt Disney’s Silly Symphony Three Little Pigs (1933, English). With that definition comes symbols, ideologies, and stakeholders that are absent in other versions, but reflect the time, place, and people who created it.

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