Anthropology Ph.D. student studies typhoon, aftermath it left behind

Shelley Guyton

Photo by Jimmy Lai/Student Photographer, CHASS Marketing & Communications.
Guyton researches how typhoons affect countries like the Philippines


By Patrick Anthony 
Student Writer, CHASS Marketing & Communications

Shelley Guyton is a sixth-year Ph.D. student in UC Riverside’s Anthropology department, with a focus on cultural anthropology and Philippines culture. She expects to complete her dissertation and receive her doctorate by 2020.

In 2017, Guyton traveled to the Philippines to research how typhoons affect Pacific Island countries, how the recovery can take years, and how people prepare themselves for the annual typhoons. (In 2013, the Philippines was struck by Typhoon Haiyan, one of the strongest typhoons ever recorded.)

“As anthropologists, we dream of immersing ourselves into other cultures and lifestyles,” Guyton said. “My goal was to view the world through the locals’ eyes and once I was there, I was grateful for the chance to experience that.”

What intrigues you about the Philippines?
It began with an interest in my own heritage as I am biracial and part-Filipino, but it then expanded during my undergraduate days.

How would you compare the American perspective of natural disasters versus the perspective you experienced in the Philippines?
In California, we view typhoons and hurricanes as something that is separate from our society. We see it on TV but then we can turn off the TV. In the Philippines, I found that it is very much a part of your reality and you can’t just “turn it off”. The typhoon in 2013 produced countless stories and experiences and ingrained itself into the context of these people’s lives.

I actually experienced a typhoon myself when I was over there. It was a Category 2! There was a really strong wind, and heavy rains for days. We were lucky there were no storm surges. Storm surges are huge waves that come on shore from the storm, like a type of tidal wave. Storm surges can cause the most damage and injuries.

I came to understand how exhausting preparing and enduring a typhoon can be. Getting food, info updates, batteries -- all of it is very scary, very real, and extremely tiring. It’s definitely something I will never forget.

Can you tell us about your work in the Philippines? 
As an aspiring anthropologist, I focus on ethnographic methodologies and live in and learn from the people in a community. I researched in the Philippines for a year and a half in an area called the Eastern Visayas, which is located on the eastern side of the central Philippines.

This area receives a lot of typhoons because it is on the coast and one of the main areas I worked in is called Tacloban City. It is often called “ground-zero” of Typhoon Haiyan because it is one of the first locations the super-typhoon hit in 2013, and one of the most destroyed locations, too. It’s been 5 years and recovery is still ongoing, so as part of my research I looked into how the local community monitors and deals with typhoons.

What did you do specifically there?
I worked with an impoverished community on the coast who are unfortunately very vulnerable to typhoons. I began my work by getting to know everyone in the area. Most people there are extended families or have known the neighbors for decades, so it was a close-knit community which made it easier to visit people because of the connections.

Part of it was letting them get to know me so they know I am not a spy. Other than that, I’d pop into food stands and store fronts and just ask about the typhoons and the circumstances they cause. I also did formal interviews where I’d record the conversations and take pictures documenting their technologies like televisions and radios.

What was the most rewarding part of the trip and your work there? 
Growth personally and professionally in training to become an anthropologist. In a way my experience was a school of hard knocks. By that I mean it was rough at times because I didn’t know a single person at first and that can be scary. But over time, I built up my connections and even met lifelong friends.

Overall, it was a life-changing experience. Being in school so long I felt like I was in an academic bubble, but venturing out to the Philippines definitely re-centered the work that I do, by forcing me to really think what my work can do to better serve people around the world.

What are your plans for the future?
I’m mainly focused on completing my dissertation and getting my Ph.D.

After that, I’d like to find a post-doctoral to work with professors to develop new projects.

Long-term, I am keeping an open mind, but plan A would be to remain in academia and become a professor. Plan B would be to use all of the knowledge I’ve acquired over the years and do work with an NGO or nonprofit organization like a disaster relief service.

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