Deep-Hanging Out: An Ethnographic Approach to Understand the Role of Digital Financial Services (DFS) On Women’s Economic Empowerment and Maternal Mental Health

Women’s economic empowerment (WEE) has been shown to improve the health and well-being of households[1]. Unfortunately, many women lack financial empowerment and the agency to share the challenges they experience. Pregnant women and those with young children are particularly vulnerable to financial and emotional challenges because most cannot actively participate in economic activities as their pregnancy advances or immediately after childbirth.

By using the deep hanging out method[2], our study examines women’s access to and use of digital financial services (DFS) and how this access affects their economic empowerment and maternal mental health. To explore this relationship further, we observed 20 female participants ages 15 – 49 who were either pregnant or had a child less than one year in age within Khwisero, a rural area in Kakamega County in Kenya.

Theory of deep hanging out

Deep hanging out is a form of participant observation in which researchers immerse themselves in the experiences of their subjects. Rooted in anthropology, the method leads to richer, more insightful data than that generated by short or one-time interviews. The approach enables the researcher to see the different aspects of the participant’s life, including those that cannot be captured by in-depth interviews. The method also enhances the researcher’s theoretical sensitivity and helps to diminish the power dynamics between researcher and subject by enabling more free conversations and in-depth sharing.[3]

In our study, the deep hanging out approach enabled us to not only understand what women go through in their daily lives, but to be part and parcel of their lives for a brief moment. Our interviewers were able to feel and recognize the complexities of the participants’ perspectives on DFS, the economic activities they engaged in, and the mental stress they experienced.

Deep hanging out in practice

The deep hanging out method for this study involved field researchers accompanying participants on their daily routines and engaging in informal conversations.

We engaged field interviewers who spoke the local language and trained them on the process of deep hanging out. Each field interviewer followed ten women and visited them twice a month. The field team kept field journals where they recorded appointments with participants, field notes, and personal reflections about their observations. On the first day, the field interviewers were accompanied by a community health volunteer who introduced the field researcher to the participant and helped obtain consent from participants and their spouses.

Each subsequent visit lasted around six hours and involved observing participants’ daily activities, such as caring for children, fetching water, cooking, going to the market, and running errands outside the home, including visiting shops that accept M-PESA.[4] To create and sustain rapport, interviewers accompanied their pregnant participants to the antenatal care clinics and visited those that gave birth. Occasionally, field interviewers also engaged in discussions with the husbands of participants.

In addition to observations, deep hanging out involves long conversations with participants. Engaging in longer dialogues encouraged the participants to be more open and free with the field interviewers, especially with topics related to DFS, such as how these services have helped them to access soft loans and to participate in economic activities and savings groups. The interviewers were able to capture the actual events in the participants’ lives, the challenges they faced, and the solutions they devised.

The excerpt below illustrates the depth of mental stress experienced by a participant and how she was comfortable sharing her information with the interviewer[5]:

Currently, the husband does not support her economically she says. This really stresses her. She says he drinks a lot and at times beats her […]. As we pass a certain pub where there is an alcohol scent, she says how she hates alcohol because her husband drinks daily and becomes violent to her. We join the other two women opposite her kiosk…each time they leave us… she feels free to talk about her personal life.

It is only through a strong rapport between the interviewer and the participant that sharing like this is able to take place, thus illustrating the value of this immersive methodology.

Looking ahead

Deep hanging out is instrumental in capturing the real-time experiences of program participants. As illustrated above, this method fosters candid conversation that reveals a depth of information immune to other methods of data collection. Over time, this method can unpack the social processes and factors that influence the behavior of participants.

Ultimately, the deep hanging out method enabled the research team to capture how participants in the study used DFS and the changes these services elicited in their empowerment levels and mental health. Specifically, researchers observed that access to and use of digital financial platforms helped women cope with financial shocks. Additionally, observing women’s engagement with DFS provided the researchers with in-depth information about how to tailor interventions for financial inclusion to women. These exciting findings are forthcoming and will be unveiled in a subsequent post.

[1] Annan, J., Donald, A., Goldstein, M., Gonzalez Martinez, P. & Koolwal, G. Taking Power: Women’s Empowerment and Household Well-Being in Sub-Saharan Africa. Policy Res. Work. Pap. (2019) doi:10.1596/1813-9450-9034.

[2] Walmsley, B. Deep hanging out in the arts: an anthropological approach to capturing cultural value. Int. J. Cult. Policy 24, 272–291 (2018)

[3] Fitzgerald, J. & Mills, J. The Importance of Ethnographic Observation in Grounded Theory Research. Forum Qual. Sozialforsch. 23, (2022).

[4] M-PESA is the leading mobile money platform in Africa

[5] Participants were informed that their information may be shared with governmental authorities if they or someone else they speak about is in danger or in cases where reporting was required by law.

Authors: Caroline Wainaina1,2, Emmy Igonya1, Wendy Janssens3,4 , Estelle M. Sidze1

1 African Population and Health Research Center, Nairobi, Kenya
2 University Medical Centre, Utrecht, Netherlands
3 Vrije Universiteit, Amsterdam, Netherlands
4 Amsterdam Institute of Global Health and Development, Amsterdam, Netherlands