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Emotional Nuances: Critical Reflections on Emoji Methods

Author:

Kamilla Peuravaara

Department of Education, Umeå university, SE
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Abstract

The present article critically reflects on the use of visual method and specifically emojis when interviewing young students diagnosed with autism. Based on disability studies and visual method, the following questions are discussed: What are the opportunities and limitations of using emojis in the individual interview situation? Which questions are possible to ask – and which are not? The aim of the article is to critically discuss the use of emojis in the individual interview situation. Four challenging phases in which use of emojis is multi-dimensional are illustrated. The phases are: Changed positions in the interview situation. Which questions are possible to ask? Which answers are possible to give? Use of emojis to evaluate the experience of being interviewed. The article highlights how emojis enable the expression of emotional nuances, while also giving rise to some difficulties in asking follow-up questions on a “deeper level”.

How to Cite: Peuravaara, K., 2021. Emotional Nuances: Critical Reflections on Emoji Methods. Scandinavian Journal of Disability Research, 23(1), pp.305–316. DOI: http://doi.org/10.16993/sjdr.822
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  Published on 25 Oct 2021
 Accepted on 04 Oct 2021            Submitted on 13 Apr 2021

Introduction

Emojis can be described as having a central position in our daily life of electronic text communication, which is probably used on an everyday basis by many teenagers in Western contemporary society. Emotions and feelings experienced by human beings may be described as secret or invisible until we have the tools to visualize and communicate their nuances. Emotions can be understood as one of the most important forces controlling human behaviour, interaction and social organization (Stets & Turner 2014). We also talk about emotions as the glue that binds people together—and pushes them apart (Stets & Turner 2014: 1). Emotions are related to social norms because without emotions, and without the ability to know their surroundings, human beings would not follow norms, laws or rules (Wettergren 2012). Social structures and society shape our emotions and vice versa (Scheve 2017). Concerning disability studies and specific critical autism studies, it has been highlighted that there are norms regarding emotions and how they shall be expressed, which are related to conceptions and constructions of what is considered to be a human and a ‘normal’ person (see e.g. Bergenmar et al. 2015; Stenning 2020). The question of invisible emotions is also a methodological question (i.e., how we as researchers can enable communication and a mutual understanding by using images in the interview process and using specific emojis, which is the focus in this article, to make the invisible thought become a visible image). The communication tools we use in our daily life may vary in relation to aspects such as (dis)ability, gender, age, social class and so forth. Emotions may sometimes be described as invisible and may be interpreted as and related to what are defined as passages, which can be good or bad (Moser & Law 1999). Passages can be related to invisible communication, such as the passages from thought to expression. Moser and Law (1999) highlight the concept in relation to disability to illustrate that disability is socially constructed, for example, by bad passages in society, such as lack of technological communications support. If we have technical aids that enable us to express imaginary speech in the form of text or images, this means that the passages, which in some cases are disabled, can be bridged.

This article aims to critically discuss the use of emojis in the research process and, specifically, in the individual interview situation. It is a methodological article in the sense that it problematises both advantages and difficulties by using emojis as a communication tool in the interview process with young autistic students. The article also opens doors for further research about emojis as a possible communication tool between autistic people and non-autistic people in more general and cross-neurotype communication (Hillary 2020).

Visual Method

Images are considered to elicit deep and engaging answers that can be difficult to capture using only verbal methods in the research process (Aspers 2007). Combining verbal and visual communication has advantages over the traditional interview in that it breaks with conventional conversation patterns based on question-answer pairs (Lapenta 2011). The development of, for example, mass mobile telephony, portable music players, the Internet and audio and video recording has had real consequences for how people negotiate their everyday lives in the interaction order (Jenkins 2011). The traditional research roles, where the interviewer asks questions and the informant answers them, includes a power relationship in which the person asking questions, the interviewer, also sets the agenda for what can/may/should be discussed (Fors & Bäckström 2015). It is not necessarily the case that the power relationship disappears when the researcher uses images during the interview situation, but doing so may allow somewhat less static roles to emerge in the interview situation. In disability studies, photovoice, based on participatory action research, is one example of combining images and specific photography with a critical dialogue to establish social change for so-called marginalized groups (see e.g. Sutton-Brown 2014). It is described as a fruitful method to capture and convey the participants’ concerns (see e.g. Payne et al. 2016) and to include the participants in the research process (Clueley 2016). Inspired by collaborative research, images have been used to explore identity constructions among young women labeled with an intellectual impairment in relation to conceptions of normality in relation to the body, gender and (dis)ability (Peuravaara 2015). Emojis have previously been used as a visual method to elicit the voices of young children in childhood research (Fane et al. 2016). The use of emojis has been described as a ‘new’ way of communicating in the 21st century (Troiano & Nante 2018). In disability studies, emojis as a method has not been used to such an extent.

Emoji Methods

In the study, which was implemented in the autumn of 2018 and on which the present article is based, the overall aim was to investigate how experiences of mathematics are related to issues of identity, such as gender and (dis)ability, among some junior high school students attending an autism class. Seven junior high school students were interviewed about their experiences of mathematics in relation to the themes gender, (dis)ability and spatiality. The interviewed students identified as a man, girl, boy or gender neutral; they were in the age range 13–16 years, had been diagnosed with autism and were studying in an autism class, which refers to a programme with few students in each class and intended for students who have been diagnosed with autism. It may be that the students have other diagnoses in addition to autism. One way of handling the situation of increased need for special support is by arranging so-called segregated solutions (e.g., autism classes) for children and youngsters with ADHD or/and autism (see e.g., Hjörne & Evaldsson 2015; Malmqvist & Nilholm 2016).

All individual interviews took place at the students’ school. All informants have been given fictitious names that indicate their self-identified gender. The interviews lasted between 30 and 50 minutes. In some interviews, a short break was added when the informant required it. On two interview occasions, the informants were accompanied by their assistant. The assistant served as social support and on one occasion also provided some support regarding communication. Given the students’ young age, informed consent was obtained from both the students and their caregivers. All caregivers of students who studied in grades six to eight were asked to give their informed consent. The caregivers of 10 students did so. Of the 10 students, 7 agreed to be interviewed. The study was examined and approved by the Regional Ethical Review Board in Umeå, Sweden (file number 2018/133-31).

My investigation of the transcribed interviews was carried out using a thematic analysis, in which the transcripts were read several times, focusing on certain words and phrases, such as emoji, choice of emoji, why exactly this emoji was chosen, why the question was difficult to answering using emoji and so on (Bryman 2002). Then I coded recurring passages in the transcripts. Specifically, this coding was done by marking different paragraphs and sentences in the transcripts with terms such as problems and opportunities in relation to the emojis.

Autism is a diagnosis based on behaviour, and psychiatric perspectives dominate how it is to be defined (see e.g., O’Dell et al. 2016). It is often described as a diagnosis related to difficulties with new social contacts and communication (see e.g., Kopp et al. 2004). This means that the interview situation itself can entail certain difficulties, because it is often based on questions and answers and involves new social contacts (in this case, myself as the researcher and interviewer). Naturally, there is also variation here in relation to the degree of impairment and other factors, such as age, daily form and so forth. Critical autism studies are challenging dominant understandings of autism and highlight how conceptions of autism may vary in relation to different social contexts and problematize and explore what it means to be human (O´Dell et al. 2015). This methodological article may be related to this field because it also questions the assumption of a non-autistic worldview as our main point of reference, and it also problematizes conceptions of normality (see e.g., O´Dell et al. 2015) by opening up collaboration between autistic people and non-autistic people, making research based on the participants’ subjective experiences. This was my first contact with autistic students in a research process. It meant that I had to be open to changing my way of communicating during the data collection process. In some interviews, I had to focus more on the images because of some difficulties in verbal communication between me and the informant. In other interviews, I had to focus more on my physical position in the room. I had to be open to the informants’ subjective interests in relation to what they wanted to discuss, which differed substantially. In line with cross-neurotype communication (Hillary 2020), I made an attempt to make it easier for the informants to express their experiences, and for me as an interviewer to better understand the questions being asked, I used image support in the form of emojis during the interviews. The emojis are familiar to many young people in contemporary Western society. As emerged during the interviews, this was also true of the informants, who described the emojis as part of their everyday communication with friends and family via mobile phones and tablets. The emojis were also useful before the interview started for exploring the young informants’ expectations of the interview, as well as afterwards when evaluating how the informants actually experienced being interviewed.

The emojis used during the interviews each illustrate different emotions and are recognized as the ‘yellow faces’, which are also called smileys. In my view, the emojis gave a rich and figurative description of the informants’ experiences that would have been difficult to capture without that particular support. In most cases, the selected emojis could also be discussed by asking the follow-up question ‘Why did you choose this particular emoji?’ But I also felt some limitations in relation to the method and difficulties in asking follow-up questions on a deeper level. Sometimes the conversation on a specific topic stopped at the very question ‘Why did you choose that emoji?’ The emojis, on the other hand, served an unexpected purpose in that they contributed to joy and laughter, which may indirectly have reduced, to some extent, the nervousness during the interview situation that several of the informants expressed feeling at the beginning of the interview. The emojis did not only contribute to joy during the interview situation. In some interviews, they facilitated communication between me as an interviewer and the informant and, therefore, may be interpreted as a bridge for cross-neurotype communication (Hillary 2020).

How are you doing?—Changed positions in the interview situation

In the researcher position, and during qualitative interviews, we often ask informants questions, but we may not always get answers from them. But perhaps it is precisely in these situations, where informants may not always answer our research questions, that in retrospect it is particularly interesting and rewarding to stop, reflect and analyse how one could have done things differently. During one interview, Pim, a 13-year-old boy, instead of answering my interview questions, played music from his phone and asked me questions. This section illustrates how a visual method can contribute to new or less static interviewer and informant positions (see e.g., Lapenta 2011). However, it is important to highlight that new positions in the interview situation do not imply a lack of power relations. Foucault (2002 [1976]: 103f) describes power as something that exists everywhere and is constantly present, and where there is power, there is resistance. This section also illustrates how we as researchers are sometimes determined to ask the informant questions and how we may sometimes forget that it is actually okay to do something other than what was planned from the beginning—something that is founded on the informants’ own desires (see e.g., Peuravaara 2015).

Interviewer – Shall we start the interview? Do you feel ready?

Pim – [Silence].

Interviewer – What do you feel?

Pim – [Silence].

Pim does not answer my questions but instead takes out his mobile phone, puts it against the portable microphone, which is to pick up the sound during the interview, plays music and laughs at the same time. ‘What kind of music is that?’ I ask Pim, who keeps laughing and says something that is inaudible because the music is being played loudly close to the microphone. ‘Is that your favourite music?’ I ask him. The music continues to flow from the phone, but Pim does not answer my question and continues to laugh. It is clear that he thinks it is more enjoyable to play music than to answer my questions. This may be understood as Pim resisting answering the interview questions, and where there is resistance, there is a power relation (Foucault 2002 [1976]). It may also be interpreted as Pim renegotiating the content of the interview into something he finds more interesting. Pim was one of the students who especially wanted to participate in the study and to be interviewed, as indicated by his caregivers when they gave their informed consent. I actually think about exactly this during the interview situation, the fact that he wanted to participate, and question whether this is true. At the same time, I am trying to get his attention by proposing that he turn off the music and by asking questions related to the music being played. My questions are somewhat leading and constitute an attempt to get some contact.

Interviewer – What do you think about pausing that [music] and telling me a bit about the song instead? Is that your favourite music or?

Pim – No not really, yes hmm [music sounds from mobile phone]

Interviewer – Is it music you like?

Pim – Let’s see here [looking for other music on the mobile]. Is music okay?

Interviewer – During the interview?

Pim – Yeees.

Interviewer – No, it’s kind of difficult with the music playing. So, we can talk about music. But we can’t play music. It’s a little hard.

Pim – Yep.

Interviewer – Is it okay for you without music?

Pim – So too, hmmm for Nitrofan [name of the band being played], wait [does something with the headphones for the cell phone]. I’m just going to move [long silence] to [music playing in the microphone].

Interviewer – You can’t play the music in the microphone because then it will be difficult for me to hear what you say. But maybe you can turn off the music and tell me about it if you want. Do you want to do that?

The music continues to be played at high volume. The genre is what can be described as industrial techno. While the music is playing, Pim says out loud, ‘I think you’ll probably have a hard time trying to listen to this,’ and he laughs. He seems to enjoy playing different songs that may be perceived as rather ‘annoying’ for me to listen to. He says, ‘Yes, but once you listen to that, it will be quite annoying for you… //… Eh, two, three minutes of it and you don’t know when it will happen.’ Here, noise may be interpreted as a form of silence. Foucault writes that silence can be just as powerful as spoken language (Foucault 1972: 118). Moreover, it has been argued that silence produces new power relations rather than reproducing power structures that already exist (Bengtson & Fynbo 2017: 20). I decide to try to continue the interview based on the interview topics, and I place the emojis on the table. It is when I ask questions about the emojis that Pim stops playing the music, making room for conversation, or at least one could say that we find a place to meet in the conversation. It becomes clear that the use of visuals also is about giving thinking time and time for processing, and it changes the pace in the communication. When the emojis are used, it also becomes a bit clearer why he, presumably, had some difficulties focusing on the interview to begin with.

Interviewer – I will use these [pictures of Emojis]. Do you recognize them?

Pim – Mmm

Interviewer – Eh I thought before we start the interview. I thought you could choose one of them to describe how it feels before the interview?

Pim – Eh [Silence]

Interviewer – How does it feel to be interviewed?

Pim – Hmhmhm [points at an emoji, Figure 1 in this article, called the thinking emoji].

Interviewer – Ah, number 20 [‘thinking face’]. Would you like to say something about it?

Pim – Eh, I don´t know [laughter]. I’m so extremely tired. I get like this when I get tired. And since I’m like this almost all the time, it means as a consequence, given the fact, that I’m very tired all the time.

It is important to highlight that I asked Pim if he wanted to end the interview or if he wanted to do the interview another time because he told me he was tired. But he answered that he wanted to continue. The question of continuing the interview or not in this situation is an ethical dilemma. But it is also important to question what Pim may have felt if I as a researcher should have chosen to end the interview when he so definitely wanted to participate and to continue. This time, I chose to continue the interview, but it was not an easy and obvious choice. I continued to ask questions concerning his age and specific interests. It may be problematic that I here changed focus in the interview to try to get back to the research questions. Concerning autism, some people may have real difficulties with changing the subject and focusing on several different things simultaneously (Murray et al. 2005). The following conversation may illustrate some of these aspects but also the opposite: how this changed focus is related to changed positions, between me as an interviewer and he as an informant in the interview process.

Interviewer – Would you like to tell me something about yourself? How old are you?

Pim – Twenty.

Interviewer – Okay, twenty years old. And what interests do you have?

Pim – I actually meant nine thousand years, nine thousand.

Interviewer – Right, and how old are you for real?

Pim – For real then.

Interviewer – Mm

Pim – [laughter] How old are you for real?

Interviewer – How old are you?

Pim – Yes, how old I am, so I have no proper answer. The closest is probably thirteen years.

Interviewer – Mm and what are your interests?

Pim – Eh, should you really ask me that.

Interviewer – Is it music?

Pim – No, but I’m just asking. I’m just saying one thing. You should not ask me if I have any interests.

Interviewer – Maybe we can take that question a little later then. But how do you like it here at school?

Pim – [Silence].

Interviewer – Okay, how do you like it here at school?

Pim – Yees.

Interviewer – How do you like it here?

Pim – Eh, good.

Interviewer – Well, would you like to tell more about it?

Pim – How are you doing?

Interviewer – What?

Pim – How are you doing?

Interviewer – Well, I’m fine thanks.

Pim – I have some math questions. What is one plus one?

Pim enters an interview flow and asks me several questions in a row about various mathematical tasks that he wants me to solve. And I do so to the best of my ability. But regarding my question to him about how he feels at school, he does not really want to answer it. One possible interpretation of this is that he feels he has answered that question in other ways and in a different context.

Interviewer – But this question that you have not really answered yet. How do you like school?

Pim – Just go to Star1 [a learning portal for schools in Sweden] or whatever it’s called and there should be some report on how I feel at school.

Interviewer – Well, no, but I’m not allowed to go in and look at it. But it would have been exciting. But is there anything you want to say about it?

Pim – Otherwise, no there’s nothing, if you don’t have access to information…//… You have to, about how I feel about school, you have to get to go online and figure out how to find information.

Interviewer – I’m sorry, I don’t have those opportunities. But of course you don’t have to answer that question.

The conversation during the interview situation with Pim evokes interesting reflections. First, it shows how the researcher’s area of interest for the interview and for the interview situation does not always necessarily correspond to what the informant finds interesting, even one who wishes to participate. It also illustrates a certain inability on my part, as an interviewer, to occasionally capture his interest in music. This could have been done by saying he could play the music as long as he wanted. What this approach could have led to may be interesting to reflect on. It was perhaps the case that Pim found it most rewarding to communicate through the music—at least he was not very interested in answering my questions that may have been questions he had already answered through school surveys on well-being at school. Previous research has illustrated the importance and centrality in the meeting of different types of sociality (i.e., what is of particular importance about social inclusion when it comes to social interaction among autistic people in mainstream research on autism and social interaction) (Bertilsdotter Rosqvist 2019). This research highlights relevant aspects in the research process and, specifically, the importance of having interest-based changes with another in the research process and having common interests and communication based on a genuine interest in the topic being discussed (Bertilsdotter Rosqvist 2019). The quote above also illustrates an interesting turn in the interview conversation when I asked questions about the emojis. At this point, we—the interviewer and the informant—had a common focus where we could meet in a conversation and start to have mutual interest-based communication (Bertilsdotter Rosqvist 2019), even if the questions were not answered and the informant took the role of interviewer and asked me questions.

Which questions are possible to ask?

Which questions can be asked in relation to the visual method, specifically when using emojis, cannot be discussed in isolation. By this I mean that the issue of which questions are possible to ask during the interview situation is not only related to the emojis themselves; it is also related to the context, such as the interview situation: how many interviews can be done, how much time is available for the interview, what individual factors affect different conditions in relation to concentration and stamina in an interview situation. The study on which the present article is based entailed one interview opportunity per student who wanted to participate, given the time the school could spare. This issue of which questions can be asked should also be related to ethical aspects, such as which questions should be avoided in relation to research ethics concerns. There may be a risk associated with bringing up sensitive issues that then cannot be followed up, especially when there is only one interview per informant, leaving the informant to deal with new thoughts that may be disturbing. But also, each interview takes a lot of energy for the interviewee just to get to know me as a researcher and to get a sense of the situation. As a researcher, one has a responsibility to stick to the purpose of the study as well as to the themes and questions one has described for the informants. But there are of course always degrees of depth and consequential issues.

Because of the above-described circumstances and the study’s aim—how experiences of mathematics are related to issues of identity, such as gender and (dis)ability, among some junior high school students attending an autism class—I adhered strictly to interview questions that did not touch on the informant’s mood on a deeper level. For Elias, one of the informants, it just so happened that he thought certain questions were lacking during the interview, such as questions about how he feels on a deeper level. At the end of the interview, in connection with me asking him whether there was anything he wanted to add to the interview or whether he felt that I had forgotten to ask some important questions, he expressed that he would have liked to have been asked in-depth questions focused on how he really feels, which is a situation that can be interpreted as both an attempt (from the researcher’s point of view) and a desire (from the interviewer’s point of view) for interest-based sociality (Bertilsdotter Rosqvist 2019).

Interviewer – Is there something you would like to add to the interview?

Elias – Any question to add?

Interviewer – Yes.

Elias – More like, a question that is trying to ask about the person, about eh how they feel about themselves. Sometimes, about how they feel about themselves, how they feel more like emotionally. Questions, deep questions, to find out if the person is having a hard time, or something.

Interviewer – Yes, interesting. I can ask those questions to you now if you want to?

Elias – Mm

Interviewer – How do you feel?

Elias – It can be a little tough sometimes, from time to time. You can get sad and such, but sometimes it is fine. Because yes.

Interviewer – What can make you sad?

Elias – It’s like this sometimes. It’s a little hard to answer that. It’s a little difficult to answer that.

Interviewer – Mm

Elias – Mm, but yes, are you finished?

Elias had a desire to be asked about how he feels on a deeper level. At the end of the interview, he was given the opportunity to answer those questions, and he felt they were somewhat difficult to answer. The question of what it is that sometimes makes him sad is an example of a question where emojis as a visual method are not enough. Emojis can illustrate that one may be sad, how sad one feels, as well as to some extent how that sadness is experienced. But follow-up questions about what makes one sad require other visualization possibilities, something that would have been needed in the specific situation, because Elias clearly expressed that it was difficult to explain it in words but at the same time pointed out that these were questions he wanted to discuss.

As a researcher, one carefully prepares for the interviews by, for example, reflecting on issues that may be perceived as sensitive. Despite this, one can never really know for certain which issues an informant may experience as sensitive. It may be described as an issue of cross-neurotype communication (see Hillary 2020). An example from the present study is the question of possible dreams and goals, which one informant, Erik, found to be particularly sensitive; as he put it, he wanted to ‘keep it to himself’.

Interviewer – Do you have a dream or specific goal in life?

Erik – No, not so much. I have some goals, but I don’t want to say them in any case.

Interviewer – Mm, You want to keep them to yourself?

Erik – Yes, preferably to myself.

Interviewer – Yes.

Erik – It’s just because it feels a little like this, yes. It feels like it’s a bit ambitious, more ambitious goal, or big goals… //… Is there any other question?

It is clear that Erik wants us to move on to a topic other than his dreams and goals in life.

When it comes to interviews and the use of emojis, it is a matter of the limitations not only on which questions can be asked, but also on what answers are possible to give and not give.

Which answers are possible to give?

As a method, using emojis enables visualization of different emotions that can be difficult to describe in words and to fully understand without images and may also make the conversation more interesting. I have previously described how the emojis were used at the beginning of the interview to visualize how it feels before the interview and afterwards to visualize how it actually felt to be interviewed. The emojis were also used when the informants were asked to describe how they experience the subject of mathematics.

Interviewer – If I ask, what do you think about mathematics? Which one of these [emojis] would you chose?

Noah – Mm [long silence]. I would probably choose this one [Figure 2, called the grimacing emoji].

Interviewer – Yes, why would you choose it? Can you describe it?

Noah – Yes, it feels like I don’t want to do it [mathematics].

Interviewer – I understand. Then that one is a great description of it.

Noah – Yes.

Noah chose the grimacing face to describe how he experiences mathematics. Elias chose another one.

Interviewer – What do you think about the subject math? You can choose one like this again as well.

Elias – Okay [silence]. It can be number 40 [Figure 3 in this article, called the smiling emoji]. It [math] is okay.

Interviewer – Yes, do you want to say something about it?

Elias – It’s like a little like this well you just think and so on, you count and try and yes, it’s a little problem solving and such.

The emojis were very helpful in describing how one experiences the subject of mathematics, but also, as Elias describes it, what mathematics actually means and the experience of what you actually do when you are in maths class. How mathematics is experienced is also illustrated by Jens.

Interviewer – If you have to choose one of these emojis to describe how you feel about mathematics?

Jens – Number 43, [Figure 4, called the smiling emoji] he looks happy and curious and likes what is happening.

When it comes to limitations on the use of emojis, this was closely related to follow-up questions.

Interviewer – Then comes this question, whether you could choose one of these [emojis] to describe what you think about maths.

Erik – Hmm, that one maybe.

Interviewer – Mm number 10 [Figure 5, called the neutral emoji].

Erik – Mm.

Interviewer – Can you describe why you chose it?

Erik – No, because, no, that one [question] was difficult.

Erik felt that the follow-up question, asking why he chose that particular emoji, was difficult. Moreover, the visual method of using emojis has limitations in that they do not give any support when asking ‘why’ questions.

During the interview, it became clear that the emojis themselves also served the purpose of expressing something that may not be directly related to the question asked but rather served to shift the focus away from the interview to doing something else. To fail, or to enact the ‘wrong’ kind of sociality may result in disturbances to the flow state of the group as well as social exclusion for the individual (Bertilsdotter Rosqvist 2019). This is illustrated by Billie with the help of her assistant, who helps with communication during the interview. This occurs when questions are asked about gender and gender roles.

Interviewer – How is the typical guy then?

Billie – Male, yeah… thud, thud, thud… [she knocks repeatedly on one of the emojis, Figure 6, called the face without mouth emoji]

Assistant – No Billie, we’re not having snacks now.

Billie’s assistant has noticed that Billie is communicating her desire to have some snacks now and that the emoji means Billie wants us to stop talking. The emoji is used here to communicate about the experience of the actual interview situation, for example, that there is too much talk or too many questions, that she wants to be quiet or to eat some snacks and stop talking. Of course, we took a break at this specific moment, even if the assistant thought we should go on with the interviewing. I had informed the informants at the beginning of the interview that whenever they wanted we could take a break in the interview to eat some snacks.

In the interview situation, each emoji was assigned a number to make it easier for me not only during the transcription process but also in the translation process (see e.g., Nikander 2008) (i.e., for example to grasp all the important details in the interview such as long pauses, silences, and of course numbers). This translation process from the interview to the transcript was of great importance in the analysis process. The numbers took on a different meaning in the interview situation, such as in the example below, when I ask Billie whether she can describe a typical girl. Billie then points to a number, rather than the emoji itself, thus indicating that the typical girl is related to age, in this case exactly her age. This emerged earlier in the interview and can be interpreted as Billie showing that she identifies with the typical girl.

Interviewer – Can you find any emoji that describes the typical girl?

Billie – thud, thud, thud [she knocks on an emoji]

Interviewer – Number 15?

Billie – Yes.

Interviewer – Yes, we recently talked about the number 15, when we talked about you and your age.

Billie – Yes.

Using emojis to evaluate the experience of being interviewed

During the interviews, the emojis were used in relation to questions concerning gender, school and mathematics. However, they were also used to illustrate how the informants felt both before and after the interview. Erik is one of the informants who was not particularly pleased about the forthcoming interview.

Interviewer – I thought we would start by talking about how it feels before this interview. You told me earlier that it has been four years since you last did an interview and that you were a little worried about this interview.

Erik – It feels quite okay. It feels in between good and bad anyway.

Interviewer – Yes.

Erik – It feels sort of like fun, and it feels a little hard too, so it’s a bit of both I would say.

Interviewer – I understand. If you look at these [the emojis] is there any of them that can describe that feeling?

Erik – Maybe that one [Figure 7, called the anxious emoji].

Erik’s choice of emoji clearly illustrates his feeling of melancholy ahead of the upcoming interview. In the interview with Elias, his use of emojis clearly illustrates how his experience of the interview changes from the start to the end, an experience which highlights the importance of meeting up more than once in the interview process (which unfortunately was not possible in this study due to the time the school could offer me to do interviews with the students).

Interviewer – So my first question is: How do you feel before this interview, if you get to choose one of these here that describes your feeling about being interviewed?

Elias – Mm [silence] Yes, it will be difficult but I think I would say like a little bit sometimes like number 3 [Figure 9 in this article, called the crying emoji].

Interviewer – Mm

Elias – Because sometimes I don´t feel so social. I’m not so confident. So it feels a little difficult yes, but it will go well in any case.

Interviewer – Mm mm

I continue the interview with Elias, who also gets the opportunity to choose an emoji at the end of the interview.

Interviewer – In the beginning of the interview, you got to choose an emoji that describes how you feel before the interview and you chose number 3 – the sad emoji. But if you choose an emoji now, after the interview and after answering the questions, which number would you choose now?

Elias – Number 8 [Figure 10 in this article, called the innocent emoji].

Interviewer – Well, can you say something about it?

Elias – A bit like this one tried to tell the truth and say how it feels and like this.

Interviewer – Yes, and how did you think the interview went?

Elias – It went well.

Most of the informants were familiar with the emojis and used them in their everyday communication, and there were those who felt emojis were ‘overrated’. Noah did not choose an emoji for the question that focuses on how he experiences the subject of mathematics, instead his answer concerned how he experiences the emojis.

Interviewer – What do think about mathematics, if you choose an emoji that describes your feeling?

Noah – [silence] I don’t really know. I have no emoji.

Interviewer – No, do you want to describe with words instead?

Noah – Emojis are overrated.

The emojis themselves not only contributed to an increased understanding of experiences and feelings, but also they evoked emotions in the form of joy and laughter during the interview situation in connection with the informant finding the most suitable emoji. The look, which is often followed by a smile, when the informant finds the emoji that best corresponds to a feeling contributed to an atmosphere of humour and joy during the interview situation.

Prior to the interview situation, several of the informants expressed a certain nervousness about being interviewed. This was a matter of having some concerns in the face of new social contacts and in the face of what was described as real communication.

Interviewer – Well, of course you had suggestions on such a question. So something that feels so difficult or…

Elias – One thing that can be, one thing that can be difficult is sometimes having sometimes having friends or something, sometimes. Or socializing is sometimes a problem, because I can get anxious and such when it’s face to face, well when it’s real communication because then I feel a little insecure you know. Not that insecure, but I feel a little nervous.

Emojis may be described as relatively new communication tools. It is possible to communicate with them in the absence of what could be called face-to-face communication, which may be understood here as communication that takes place face-to-face or at least in the same room. It is possible to use communication tools, among them emojis, based on technology, such as computers, as well as to employ communication tools in developing complementary methods for use in classic interview situations. This should be done in collaboration with the informants/participants who wish to take part in the research and interviews but who prefer to not use face-to-face communication.

Concluding Discussion: Social Technological Methods in Contemporary Society—A Look Ahead

In the present article, the potential opportunities and limitations of the emoji method have been analysed. The aim has been to critically discuss the use of emojis in the individual interview situation. Here, the term invisible means, for example, a feeling that may not always be possible to describe verbally. This is an invisible form of communication, from thought to image, that can be bridged and made visible using various aids/tools (Moser & Law 1999). In the article, use of emojis is analysed as a visual method for visualizing and communicating the nuances of emotions. The method has been discussed in relation to young autistic students.

Four different phases of the emoji method have been illustrated. One of them is changed positions in the interview situation, which illustrates how the emojis can open up the static position between the interviewer and the informant. It also shows how emojis can enable cross-neurotype communication (Hillary 2020) in the way there is a mutual interest in communication, allowing the researcher and the informant to find a meeting place because using the emojis makes it possible to communicate about the same topic. In the present study, focus is on supporting cross-neurotype communication, which means learning about differences and how to communicate and understand people unlike ourselves—in both directions (Hillary 2020).

The other phase is which questions are possible to ask in relation to the emoji method, which highlights that use of emojis is particularly fruitful in relation to questions that can be answered by visualizing one emotion (e.g., sadness) and how that emotion feels (e.g., if the sadness is great or mild), as well as to some extent how that emotion is experienced by the informant. The limitations of using emojis are related to ‘why’ questions, where the answers cannot be clarified using images, for example, why one is feeling sadness. The third phase analysed which answers are possible to give; it shows that emojis are very helpful in relating how one experiences a subject (e.g., mathematics) as well as how one experiences what that means, that is, what you do when you do it (e.g., mathematics). The emojis are also helpful in giving answers in the interview situation itself, for example if the informant wishes to change the focus of the interview, end it or do something else, like stopping the conversation to eat some snacks. The fourth and last phase analysed the use of emojis to evaluate the experience of being interviewed. This phase fruitfully and clearly illustrates the experience of being interviewed, which may be of specific interest in relation to informants who have clearly described their uncertainty and anxiety concerning being interviewed and meeting a new person—in the present case, me as an interviewer.

In the four analysed phases, it is clear the relationship between me, the interviewer, and the interviewee, in combination with the emojis at the center, is in many cases decisive for whether mutual understanding and a place for communication are achievable. The present article is an important contribution to research about communication between autistic people and non-autistic people in general and opens up further research in this area.

The article highlighted the fact that power relations in the research process are always present and circulating, even in nonverbal communication, for example, silence. And it is of importance to reflect further on what silence actually does in relation to power. Bengtson and Fynbo (2018) describe silence as a process that constructs new meanings, sometimes dependent on and sometimes independent of pre-described power positions. In my understanding, one example of this are the positions of interviewer and interviewee. According to Bengtson and Fynbo (2018), silence is linked to power by producing an important and dynamic component in qualitative interviewing. They emphasize the importance of embracing silence in the interview situation instead of trying to avoid it (Bengtson & Fynbo 2018).

In the present article, important epistemological and research ethics issues have been raised that may be reflected on further. Relevant question for further discussion are how can visual methods be used to open the door to questions and answers on a deeper level, even facilitating answers to why follow-up questions that involve describing one’s experiences.

In the interviews, it became clear that the informants truly did want to participate in the study by being interviewed. However, they also expressed nervousness and insecurity in relation to that task. Some informants said that this insecurity was related to in-person ‘real communication’ (i.e., sitting in the same room with, talking to and answering questions posed by me). It may be fruitful to combine emoji methods with other non-traditional interview methods, for example, by using distance solutions, such as video calls on cell phones, computers or tablets—technical devices that many young people in contemporary society use to communicate in their daily life (see e.g., Chen & Neo 2019). Such methods should be designed in collaboration with the intended research participants and must, of course, be problematized in relation to aspects of research ethics (see e.g., Lobe et al. 2020). For example, it has been argued that social networking on Facebook may be useful in making friendships among autistic people (Brownlow et al. 2015).

The present article demonstrates how emojis can be used to make visible invisible emotional nuances. But as one of the informants clearly expressed, ‘Emojis are overrated.’ With regard to answering the why questions, we have seen here that this is definitely the case.

Notes

1Fictive name. 

Competing Interests

The author has no competing interests to declare.

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