Associate Professor of Sociology David A. Cort says that the topics he most enjoys studying—public health and residential stratification—are in his bones. His passion for equity paired with his expertise in demographics have led to highly relevant research that sheds new light on race and inequality and their connections to health.
Growing up, Cort lived in developing countries and immigrant communities in the United States. These early years are the foundation of his continually growing global perspective and his ingrained understanding of poverty. He was born in Jamaica to Guyanese parents, moved to Guyana, and then to the small island of Dominica in the Caribbean, where his father, who worked for a program allied with USAID, helped rebuild Dominica’s public infrastructure after it was devastated by Hurricane David in 1979.
Cort’s family later immigrated to New York City and then, when he was 11 years old, they moved to Detroit, Michigan, a city suffering acutely from loss of industry. “Living there, I came to better understand issues of poverty and social stratification,” Cort says.
As a graduate of Oakwood College in Alabama, Cort believes he is one of the few UMass Amherst faculty members to have attended an HBCU (Historically Black College or University). From Oakwood he went on George Washington University for his master’s degree in sociology and then earned his PhD at the University of California, Los Angeles.
Cort began teaching at UMass Amherst in 2007. His early research centered on residential stratification, specifically relating to Black residents and undocumented immigrants in Los Angeles. In his research he asked, “What happens when people move into poor areas? What does that mean for their well-being?”
Eventually, he decided to refocus his research on his roots in public health. “I became a student again,” he recalls. He immersed himself in public health literature and as part of his re-set went to South Africa in 2018 to teach at Walter Sisulu University as a Fulbright Fellow.
Living and teaching for over a year in South Africa, where HIV is prevalent, heightened Cort’s sociological curiosity about health disparities. He became interested in the relationship between what people think about people infected with HIV and how that affects their own sexual practices. He wondered: If people stigmatize those who are HIV positive, are these “stigmatizers” then more or less likely to engage in risky sexual behavior?
Examining data from South Africa and Latin America, Cort uncovered an anomaly: Those who stigmatize others with HIV are actually more likely to engage in risky practices (sex with multiple partners or lack of condom use, for example) than those who hold less negative attitudes toward HIV-positive people. Cort postulates that this may be because they perceive of HIV-positive people as “other.”
Cort concluded that policies aimed at changing people’s attitudes about those with HIV can work better if they are tailored to fit the norms, customs, and levels of stigmatization that occur within regions and countries. Thus, region and country-specific campaigns may provide the key to combatting the spread of HIV.
“People often behave in irrational ways,” says Cort. “That’s the aspect of sociology that I find most interesting. As human beings we stigmatize many behaviors to which we could become susceptible. This research has implications for other things that people may stigmatize, such as having COVID or being mentally ill or being divorced—anything.”
Cort has also investigated how family structure and birth order affects risky sexual behavior. He found that in certain countries having an older sibling protects young women from early sex. Building on that research, his most recent work explores whether exposure to media blunts this protective effect or makes it stronger. He found that media saturation can in fact reverse the positive influence of an older sibling.
For his next project, Cort will come full circle to look at residential stratification in South Africa, much as he investigated this issue in Los Angeles. Even decades after the end of apartheid in 1994, and even though it is rich in resources, South Africa remains one of the most unequal societies in the world, Cort says. “Given the lack of an overtly rigid apartheid system, South Africans of any racial or ethnic background should have access to live in whatever neighborhoods they want. However, few have explored whether or not that has actually happened.” Cort suspects that South Africa’s high rate of corruption may be one of the significant reasons for the persistence of residential stratification.
UMass Amherst Professor of Sociology Tom Juravich calls Cort’s research “incredibly relevant.” The ways race and ethnicity impact how communities are constituted are some of the most important questions of our day, Juravich says.
“Any research that can help scholars and people in South Africa alleviate their social problems is time well spent,” Cort says. “There are many social problems that are directly related to issues of stratification. You cannot disentangle those issues from health.”
Cort serves as associate dean for diversity, equity, and inclusion for the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences. He has maintained his ties to Walter Sisulu University and hopes to foster and grow institutional connections between UMass Amherst and underserved South African institutions.
“I’m honored to have the support of UMass to do this kind of research,” he says. “It’s a calling, and I’m glad to be called in this way.”