Diane Gifford-Gonzalez Honored for Outstanding Research

October 10, 2014



Diane Gifford-Gonzalez in doing fieldwork in Africa in 1973. When describing this photograph, Professor Gifford-Gonzalez jokes: “New candidate for fossilization?” And without missing a beat, adds “which one?!”

Professor Gifford-Gonzalez is this year’s recipient of the Martin M. Chemers Award for Outstanding Research in the Division of Social Sciences at the University of California, Santa Cruz.

Diane Gifford-Gonzalez is one of the world’s leading zooarchaeologists. Zooarchaeology is a type of archaeological science that analyzes faunal remains (animal bones, fragments and artifacts) to better understand human behaviour. But to Professor Gifford-Gonzalez, zooarchaeology is more than that.

For Professor Gifford-Gonzalez, zooarchaeology is “not just stuff you dig up,” she says. “It is how we imagine these past worlds to push the scientific envelope.”

A leader in research methodology

As a pioneer in her field, Professor Gifford-Gonzalez has developed methodological practices that have influenced ways archaeologists conduct research.

Professor Gifford-Gonzalez points out (1989, 1991) that most historical science is analogical, where the past is understood through a present perspective. By making anachronistic comparisons, research becomes unreliable. It is inferred, probable and out of context.

These arguments are the basis for actualistic research.  Actualistic research is a form of study that uses present-day analogues to better understand the past. She writes (1989): “the goal of actualistic research should be to distinguish causal/functional relations, even in circumstances of substantial ecological and/or cultural continuities between the observable present and the investigated past.”

Applying Professor Gifford-Gonzalez's method across the social sciences

For scholars in the social sciences, Professor Gifford-Gonzalez addresses the epistemological dilemma any researcher faces when studying historical evidence: how do we come to know what we know?  She argues that comparative research needs to examine the agency, actors, affect, and behavior inside the ecological framework within which it is situated.

“My research recognizes the agency of animals and plants. They make demands on humans too,” she says.  She goes on to remark, “archaeology is as much a craft as it is a science and discipline. It is about imagination. It’s about really understanding that organism.” She adds, “it’s not the things. It’s the patterns in mass data that emerge. That’s what is exciting.”

Professor Gifford-Gonzalez is President Elect of the Society for American Archaeology. Her upcoming book on zooarchaeology is expected to be published in 2016.

Professor Gifford-Gonzalez will receive the award at the Division of Social Science Fall Breakfast, an annual event that welcomes the new school year while also honoring work done in the past. Sheldon Kamieniecki, Dean of the Division of Social Sciences, established the Martin M. Chemers Award for Outstanding Research in honor of former Social Sciences Dean Marty Chemers who strived for excellence in research. Dean Kamieniecki shares the award "is intended to recognize a highly prominent senior faculty member whose scholarship has had a substantial cumulative impact on her or his discipline over a number of years."


Gifford-Gonzalez, D. (1989). "Modern analogues: developing an interpretive framework." In Bone Modification.  

Gifford-Gonzalez, D. (1991). "Bones are not enough: analogues, knowledge, and interpretive strategies." In Journal of Anthropological Archaeology

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