Inside the Academic Mind: Hector Qirko

Inside the Academic Mind: Hector Qirko

Hector Qirko, College of CharlestonSince 2010, anthropology professor and associate department chair Hector Qirko has been captivating his students on a wide range of topics, from pop culture to social and cultural change. We sat down with Professor Qirko to discuss his interest in better understanding human behavior, his research into suicide terrorism and his passion for music, both listening to it as well as creating it.

How did you become interested in anthropology? I’m the son of an Albanian father and Cuban mother, raised in New York City and half a dozen Latin American countries (Brazil, Colombia, Peru and Venezuela – but also time in Mexico and Cuba), so I guess an interest in culture was pretty much inevitable.

But as for the field of anthropology, when I went back to school after a long time playing music, I tried an introductory course and was hooked. I thought, and still think, that the discipline provides the best lens through which to understand the big human questions and problems.

What is your favorite class to teach? I guess the introduction to anthropology course, for the opportunity it gives me to introduce students to an anthropological perspective – frankly, given how relevant it is to the world today, I wish kids could get more of that in high school. Also Applied Anthropology, in part because it can help students (as well as their parents) figure out how to use anthropology in non-academic settings and jobs.

What advice would you give an aspiring anthropology major? Don’t decide too quickly which of the major subfields (cultural, biological, archaeological, linguistic) on which to focus. A large part of the value of anthropology is that we look at interrelationships to get an integrated view of humanity. So, while you’ll inevitably specialize as you go along, don’t rush it.

Your research into suicide terror organizations seems particularly timely, in light of last fall’s events in France, Lebanon and Egypt. How did you become interested in that particular topic? One of my major interests is organizational culture, and, specifically, how organizational practices help maintain and reinforce altruistic or sacrificial commitment on the part of members.

As a consequence, I’ve looked for the costliest examples of altruistic behavior in organizational settings, which led me to suicide terrorism.

It’s obviously hard to know much about the inner structure of terrorist organizations, but there seem to be pretty consistent patterns in recruitment and training practices across them, particularly as associated with the manipulation of kin ties. This led me to suggest in a couple of papers that, in many cases, organizational analyses will be a useful complement to ideological and psychological profiling in attempts to predict suicide terrorist threats.

Some of your students may not know you’re a gifted guitarist. What kind of music do you enjoy? All kinds! Old, new and pretty much any genre. But it’s got to really knock me out, so that keeps the pile manageable. Right now, I’m on a kick to investigate old records I don’t know but have heard great things about. So, at the moment in my car are Duke Ellington at Newport, Orchestre National De Barbes (Poulina) and The Flaming Lips (Yoshimi). All three are terrific in quite different ways.

How did the Chicago blues scene inform your musical inclinations? Very personally. Growing up, I knew blues music through rock and was drawn to it without knowing exactly what I was hearing. I really learned it on the fly when I worked in Chicago for Lonnie Brooks, from him directly and from the many other blues folks around the scene at the time. At first I was so clueless I didn’t know who anybody was. But I sure learned quickly that good blues delivers highly concentrated emotional messages through minimal, elegant forms – less is truly more. I love many kinds of music, but I usually approach what I play and write from that perspective.

What was the inspiration behind your latest album – Field Notes? Oh, you know, the usual: love and loss, life and death. I had some songs that I hadn’t yet recorded, some ancient and some I’ve written since I moved to Charleston, and wanted to get them down. I also wanted to use making the record as a way to meet and play with some of the very talented folks around here. For each song, I tried to create the right band feel, and for many I was lucky that locally based players such as Kevin Crothers, Roger Bellow, Johnny Spell, Jack Burg and Ron Wiltrout were willing to help me out. But I also worked with musicians based out of Knoxville, Nashville and Asheville.

Where do you find your inspiration for writing songs? I write songs, but I’m not a songwriter – I mean, I don’t usually work to write them, but tap into them when something hits me. So there’s no particular process, other than keeping the guitar handy so that I can try to catch whatever fleeting idea or feeling comes along.

But I should add, on this record, a couple of songs are based on ideas and lyrics written by songwriting friends – in collaborations like that, I do sit down and consciously work to try to come up with music that fits well.

If you could learn another instrument, what would it be? Playing the bass really well would give me a lot of pleasure, because it’s so fundamental to everything else. The rhythm section is the engine, after all, and we’re not going anywhere without it.

Where is your favorite spot on campus? Strange as it may sound, my favorite spot is my own office on Wentworth Street. It feels very good to work there, and when I want a break, I can take a walk in some of the most beautiful old neighborhoods in the country. You can’t beat it!