Inside USD

Getting to Know Your Professors: Ami Carpenter

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Ami Carpenter, PhD, assistant professor at the Joan B. Kroc School of Peace Studies, answers questions from Inside USD about what inspires her, as well as what drives her to resolve conflict — both in her personal life and in the world.

Q: You had an interesting upbringing. Can you share what line of work your family business was in?

My mother was an artist. She had been immersed in the industry since childhood, her own mother being a wonderful painter and model. My mother also modeled along with her identical twin from early childhood on. She was musician, a writer, a singer, and a yogi. I have wonderful memories of doing headstands at age three, and sitting in big circles with my brothers and sisters in our front yard learning harmonies to folk songs while Mom played the guitar. (We fancied ourselves to be the 1970s version of the Von-Trapp family singers).

My father was an aerospace engineer until he retired in the early 70s. He opened a publishing company, and copy edited, printed, and distributed the manuscripts of aspiring local authors. He enjoyed working with writers as he himself was one. He was also an award winning photographer and so fortunately most of our childhood photos are quite flattering!

Q: Conflict resolution is arguably needed in every aspect of life. Do you find yourself mediating conflicts in your personal life as well?

All the time, most often between my nine other siblings. One thing that happens in family arguments is that one or both people invariably link the current dispute to old childhood grievances! At that level of escalation, I am sometimes asked to help the siblings have a conversation with each other, which I’m happy to do. (Often, they usually get around to having the talk on their own before we can schedule a sit-down!) But I’ve also noticed something neat in the past few years, which is that my brothers and sisters are “intervening” with each other on their own. They understand, I guess from having a sister who does and teaches this for a living, the necessity of third parties in difficult conversations. So the skill transfer has been really cool to watch.

But I think its important to note that I also let myself “be mediated” when I need it. One of the most important lessons I’ve learned in this field is being able to understand when I need help in an interaction.

Q: What inspires you most in the classroom?

The classroom inspires me in general. I have always loved being in one, whether I was the one taking notes or the one giving them. In both instances, I feel I contribute to an overall learning environment that is based on what I know and can share, and what the other students know and can share. You see, I still consider myself a student and always will, and learn new things every semester from the talented people who join our program. I am incredibly inspired by those talented people – their experiences, what many have gone through to reach my classroom at all. And one of the most wonderful things for me is seeing students’ excitement when mastering a new skill (like conflict mapping) or really grasping a new, complex concept.

Q: What current conflict in the world do you feel has the best chance of being successfully resolved?

I study large social conflicts, and they are often very difficult to resolve. Let me start by saying that “resolution” means addressing not only the structural sources of conflict (ineffective governance, poor security, failing economies) but people’s attitudes as well (deep prejudices, enemy images, lack of trust, traumatic injuries). After all, a policy of discriminating against a particular ethnic or racial group (which is a structural source of conflict) is grounded in widespread attitudes about the superiority of one group over another. So certain things need to be in place for real resolution, which is not just about ending violence, but also about the enforceable laws and institutions required for durable peace. Changing attitudes and social structures take a long time.

There are aspects of conflicts that make them easier or more difficult to resolve, and there are aspects of the surrounding environment that make resolution more or less likely. In general, the conflicts that have the best chance of being resolved are those in which each party is a willing participant in a process of resolution, and feel responsible for their part in the situation. In large violent conflicts, there often must exist a perceived stalemate between sides. But most importantly, there must exist a robust infrastructure involving third parties with sufficient carrots and sticks to bring parties to the table, encourage dialogue, build trust, and enforce compliance with agreements. The good thing is that a greater percentage of conflicts have been ended through negotiated settlements today than at any time since the end of World War II, thanks to precisely the institutionalization of this infrastructure in the United Nations and important regional bodies. But it’s a faulty system for all kinds of reasons, and perpetually under construction. Therefore I won’t risk prediction, but will risk hope.

Q: What drew you to conflict resolution?

I think that the human project IS conflict resolution. I am drawn to it because I believe in its basic premise that conflict is inevitable (but not inevitably violent) and necessary because human society is in a constant state of transformation and must be steered towards better satisfaction of basic human needs – identity, community, security, and vitality. I believe that methods of “waging constructive conflict” are one of the most important inventions of humankind, ranging from early indigenous dispute resolution practices, to modern-day fields of law, democratic political systems designed to balance diverse needs and interests, trade regulation in our extremely complex economy, and the infrastructure of international peacework. Conflict resolution is also a powerful, fundamental skill-set and mind-set. It’s a field that gives me tremendous insight into myself, the dynamics of my home and work environment, and the way our world works.

– Melissa Wagoner

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