Assistant Professor Jeffrey Stokes Joins UMass Boston Gerontology Faculty

By Martin Hansen-Verma

Jeffrey Stokes, a quantitative sociologist who specializes in aging, families and health, has joined the UMass Boston Gerontology faculty as an assistant professor.

Stokes, who earned his PhD in sociology from Boston College, most recently served as an assistant professor of sociology at Illinois State University.

Stokes’s research program focuses on the ramifications of intergenerational, marital and social relationships for adults’ well-being in mid- and later-life. His work has been published in journals such as The Gerontologist, Social Psychology Quarterly, Aging & Mental Health, Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, Research on Aging, and Journal of Applied Gerontology.

When talking about the fundamental interests and principles that animate his work, Stokes refers to his favorite book, David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest.

“It gets to the core of much of what my research is about, examining the impacts of social ties and loneliness in a crowd,” he says. “Loneliness and isolation are different things. Especially in a technology-driven world, loneliness can be pervasive, even in a group. It’s one of the best examples of literature serving the function of social science.

“Social ties and interactions, even those that may not seem central to day-to-day life, can have impacts on physical, emotional, and mental health, and it’s important to be mindful of that,” says Stokes. “The way we treat each other can get under the skin, even unintentionally and unconsciously.”

Stokes came to gerontology through his interest in health disparities, and the social factors that contribute to them. Through his studies, he saw how the cumulative effect of these factors can be amplified or resolved in later life.

“Disparities don’t come from nowhere, they come from people’s personal histories,” Stokes says.

He hopes his work will illuminate ways to reduce those gaps. While his research is not intervention-based, he hopes to contribute to our understanding of the beneficial and harmful aspects of personal relationships and social contexts, and find ways for people to invest more in positive aspects at both personal and community levels.

Stokes sees UMass Boston as a good setting for his work. He is excited to join such an established department, because of the well-recognized faculty and programs, and the university’s research infrastructure.

He says UMass Boston stands out in a city with so many excellent universities, because of a unique ambition to do research with direct ties to the community, and to make a contribution to the community.

“We’re looking at how people can focus attention on positive aspects of life, but also how to design communities and neighborhoods that have that effect,” he says. “You can’t set policy to directly improve marriages, or multi-generational relationships, but research on neighborhoods has potential to impact policy debates. I think of them all as interrelated and connected.”

Stokes says he has been impressed with the broad range of interests and backgrounds he sees among UMass Boston Gerontology students. He feels a professor’s role is not simply to impart information, but to help students examine their own interests and ideas.

“Students can absorb information without a professor. Really good teaching comes down to helping people see the world and approach questions with a critical, analytical eye,” Stokes says. “I think the best mentors become almost like an internal voice, a ‘Superego’, reminding you to dig deeper, look at things in a new way.”

Stokes lives in Jamaica Plain, and after work he usually takes his dog, Blue, for a walk in the nearby Arnold Arboretum. In his free time also enjoys cooking and reading, and he makes a point of exercising. “I like interesting exercise, because I get bored at the gym,” he says. He plays hockey a couple times a week; he’s hoping to play pickup games at the campus rink, and eventually join a league.

Stokes’s wife, Christa, is a pediatric hospitalist, which he says is a good compliment for someone who studies aging. “Between the two of us, we cover the entire life course.”

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