Exploring Power Dynamics in University Housing: A Sociolinguistic Study at the University of Stirling

Reference & EducationCollege & University

  • Author Sneha Mukherjee
  • Published July 1, 2024
  • Word count 3,527

Exploring Power Dynamics in University Housing: A Sociolinguistic Study at the University of Stirling


This study dives into how language is used within the University of Stirling’s housing Occupancy Agreement and emails to subtly control and influence students. By using Critical Discourse Analysis (CDA), the research examines specific linguistic features like modal verbs (which express necessity and obligation), the passive voice, and phrases designed to enforce compliance. These elements aren't just grammatical choices; they are tools that help the university maintain its authority over students. The agreement and emails are not just simple communications; they are loaded with linguistic markers that reinforce social hierarchies, placing the university in a position of power. This study shines a light on how these communications do more than just inform; they shape how students behave and interact within their living spaces. These findings suggest that the words used by the university don't merely guide student actions but also craft the entire living experience, keeping the institution's control intact and molding student life according to its standards. Essentially, this research underscores the powerful role that language plays within institutional frameworks, particularly in education settings, influencing not only how individuals interact but also how power dynamics are structured and maintained.


In my study, I'm immersing myself in the intricate realm of language within university housing, utilizing Critical Discourse Analysis as my steadfast compass. My focus is laser-sharp on dissecting the Occupant Agreement, with special attention paid to sections dealing with Termination, Discipline, and email correspondences covering a spectrum of topics ranging from pets to fire alarms, security, and cleaning protocols. At the core of my endeavor lies a singular objective: to unearth those subtle yet potent markers of power, social hierarchies, and institutional influences that silently shape discourse within university housing.

What propels my inquiry are a series of burning questions that fuel my curiosity:

  • How do these markers of power manifest in the daily interactions that unfold within university accommodation?

  • What pivotal role does language assume in delineating the hierarchy of residents within the housing ecosystem?

  • And to what extent do the established rules and norms dictated by the university exert their influence on the language dynamics and interpersonal exchanges within university housing?

My mission is unequivocal: through the lens of Critical Discourse Analysis, I endeavor to illuminate the intricate ways in which language not only mirrors but also perpetuates power differentials within the fabric of university housing. I embark on a deep dive into the nuances of language usage, from the subtle nuances of politeness strategies to the deliberate selection of vocabulary. My aim is to craft a vivid portrayal of how residents engage with one another and how institutional frameworks shape and mold these interactions within the confines of university housing.

Now, why does this undertaking hold such profound significance for me? Well, this study transcends mere academic inquiry. By unraveling the layers of linguistic power dynamics, I aspire to enrich our comprehension of how residents navigate communication and interpersonal relationships within the complex tapestry of university housing. Moreover, I seek to unearth insights into the ways in which institutional guidelines and policies imprint themselves upon language practices, thereby shedding light on the communication experiences and relational dynamics of those who call university accommodation their home. In essence, my quest is to cultivate a deeper understanding of how language serves as both a mirror and a shaper of power dynamics within the distinct milieu of university housing.

Review of Literature

  1. Norman Fairclough (1995) provides a methodological framework for examining texts in socio-political contexts, highlighting how power relations are embedded in language. Fairclough proposes that discourse practices can reproduce or challenge power, and his analysis focuses on modal verbs, passive voice, and other linguistic features that shape reader perception and actions. Fairclough identifies three-dimensional frameworks for conducting CDA: text analysis (description), processing analysis (interpretation), and social analysis (explanation). This approach reveals the multi-layered ways language functions in societal institutions, particularly how it reinforces authority and compliance in regulated environments like university housing. By applying Fairclough's theories, the project analyzes the University of Stirling’s housing documents to understand how language is strategically used to maintain control over students, directing their behavior subtly through linguistic cues that dictate and reinforce institutional norms and expectations.

The research conducted by Newton, D. C., Tomyn, A. J., & LaMontagne, A. D. (2021) on the challenges and opportunities for improving the health and wellbeing of international students offers a critical complement to my own work examining power dynamics in university housing through a sociolinguistic lens. My research delves into how language embedded in university housing documents, such as the Occupant Agreement and various communications, serves to enforce and maintain institutional power structures. This linguistic framing not only shapes the living arrangements but subtly manipulates the behavior and interactions of students, particularly affecting international students who may also face language and cultural barriers. Newton et al.’s study sheds light on the direct impact that these institutional practices can have on the health and wellbeing of international students. They explore how inadequate cultural sensitivity and support structures contribute to issues like stress, isolation, and mental health challenges among this demographic. The overlap between our studies is significant because it highlights the profound effect that language and institutional policies have on student wellbeing. Their findings suggest that the language choices and communication strategies I am investigating could have broader implications, potentially exacerbating the difficulties international students face.

Rodney H. Jones' "Surveillant Landscapes" and my focused research on the sociolinguistic power dynamics within university housing documents at the University of Stirling. Jones' article provides a nuanced framework for understanding how public spaces are not passive backdrops but active participants in surveillance and social control, employing a combination of architectural, digital, and linguistic tools to monitor and influence public behavior. This concept complements my analysis, which scrutinizes how language within university housing documents—such as the Occupancy Agreement and official emails—serves similar surveillant purposes.

Jones' three pivotal concepts—"discourses in place," "interaction orders," and "historical bodies"—offer a robust analytical lens to explore how specific linguistic choices in university documents do not merely communicate information but actively shape student behaviors and perceptions. For instance, the use of modal verbs like "must" and "shall" in housing documents not only communicates obligations but also reinforces the university's authority, subtly encoding surveillance into the textual fabric of student life. This parallels Jones’ observation of how linguistic landscapes can create surveillant environments that regulate individual actions and maintain social norms.


The study employs a research design utilizing qualitative approaches, specifically Critical Discourse Analysis (CDA) as outlined by Fairclough (1995). This approach was chosen to deeply analyze the power dynamics and social hierarchies manifesting through language within university housing communications. The study focuses on specific sections of the Occupant Agreement and various formal communications such as emails concerning disciplinary actions and everyday housing management like pets, fire alarms, security, and cleaning.

Data Collection Methods

The primary instruments for data collection include the analysis of written documents such as the Occupant Agreement and email communications between the university housing administration and the students. These documents were chosen because they routinely contain explicit demonstrations of linguistic authority and politeness strategies, serving as a rich source for examining the institutional language practices.


The documents analyzed were selected based on their relevance to the housing policy, specifically one section of the Occupant Agreement (1.5 pages) and five different emails on the specified topics. These documents were sourced directly from the administrative communications of the University of Stirling's housing department.


How do linguistic markers of power, such as politeness strategies or linguistic authority, manifest in interactions within university accommodation?

Directive Language and Authority

The language used in university accommodation documents, particularly the Occupancy Agreement, is imbued with modal verbs that command or prohibit certain actions. Phrases like "Residents must..." or "It is required that..." do not merely advise; they impose obligations. These modal verbs (must, shall, is required to) are pivotal in establishing a clear power dynamic where the institution holds authority over the students. This kind of language leaves little room for ambiguity or personal interpretation, reinforcing the power hierarchy in which the university operates as the regulator and enforcer.


"Residents must not engage in any noise-making activities after 10 PM."

"It is required that all guests be registered with the front office 24 hours prior to their stay."

These directives are not framed as suggestions but as firm rules, reflecting the institution's authority to set and enforce regulations within its accommodations.

Politeness Strategies

While directives establish authority, politeness strategies in communication serve to mitigate potential resistance by softening commands, thus maintaining a veneer of mutual respect and consideration. These strategies often involve the use of courteous language that precedes or accompanies directives, helping to frame the institution's requests in a more palatable manner. Phrases like "please be reminded" or "we kindly ask" suggest that compliance is not only mandatory but also part of a civil and respectful community ethos.


"Please be reminded to keep the kitchen areas clean after use."

"We kindly ask that all residents respect the quiet hours from 10 PM to 7 AM."

These polite formulations help balance the imposition of rules with a respectful tone, which can make the directives more acceptable to the recipients and less likely to evoke hostility or rebellion.

Impersonal Constructions

Impersonal constructions are frequently used in administrative communications within university accommodations. These constructions depersonalize the message, making it seem less like a personal admonition and more like a general rule that applies universally. This can enhance the perceived objectivity and fairness of the rules. Phrases such as "It has been noted" or "It is required" abstract the source of authority and emphasize the systemic nature of the rules rather than attributing them to any individual bias or power play.


"It has been noted that some residents have failed to comply with the recycling guidelines."

"It is required by university policy that all electrical appliances be turned off before leaving the room."

This use of language reinforces the idea that the rules are part of a larger, impersonal system of governance, which must be adhered to by everyone, thereby minimizing individual discretion and enhancing compliance.

What role does language play in shaping social hierarchies and status within the accommodation setting?

Establishing Authority and Compliance

Language serves as a fundamental tool for establishing and reinforcing the authority of the university over its residents. The formal and legalistic language used in official documents such as the Occupancy Agreement and related communications significantly shapes the power structure within the accommodation. For instance, the use of imperative and modal verbs such as "must," "shall," and "is required to" explicitly sets out what is expected of the students, leaving little room for personal discretion or negotiation.


"Residents must register their overnight guests with the administration by 6 PM."

"All complaints shall be directed to the accommodation office during working hours."

These directives not only clarify the rules but also position the administration as the controlling authority, capable of setting and enforcing rules unilaterally.

Defining Roles and Expectations

The language used in housing documents and communications also plays a crucial role in defining the roles of students within the social hierarchy of the accommodation setting. Terms like "residents," "tenants," and "occupants" categorize students in a way that emphasizes their status as subordinates within the university's residential system. This categorization underpins a hierarchy where students are the receivers and adherents of rules, not participants in their creation.


"Tenants are reminded to pay their accommodation fees by the due date to avoid penalties."

"Occupants are responsible for maintaining the cleanliness of shared spaces."

These phrases reinforce the idea that students are in a dependent position, subject to university regulations and policies.

Enforcing Norms and Behaviors

Language is also instrumental in enforcing social norms and expected behaviors within the accommodation. By consistently communicating what is acceptable and what is not, the language in these communications serves to socialize students into the expected communal living standards. This is often achieved through detailed descriptions of penalties for non-compliance, which serve to deter undesirable behaviors and reinforce the power of the administration to impose sanctions.


"Failure to adhere to noise regulations will result in a disciplinary review and possible fines."

"Prohibited items include candles, incense, and any appliance with an open coil."

These examples show how language not only dictates specific behaviors but also embeds a moral and ethical framework within which students are expected to operate, further solidifying the university’s control.

Email 1 - No Animals allowed in Accommodation

Directive Language: The email begins with a polite greeting ("Dear Residents") before immediately transitioning into a directive statement ("animals are not permitted in your accommodation"). The use of the phrase "are not permitted" employs a firm and authoritative tone, leaving little room for interpretation or negotiation.

Quoting Policy: The email directly quotes the Occupancy Agreement, reinforcing the legitimacy and authority of the policy. By citing the agreement, the administration positions itself as the enforcer of rules rather than the creator, shifting responsibility onto the agreed-upon regulations.

Exception Clause: While the email outlines the general rule prohibiting animals in accommodation, it also includes an exception clause for assistance animals. This demonstrates a level of flexibility within the policy while still maintaining overall control and oversight.

Gratitude: The email concludes with a polite expression of gratitude ("Thank you for your assistance") followed by a closing salutation ("Kind Regards"). This combination of politeness strategies helps to soften the directive tone of the email, mitigating potential resistance or hostility from recipients.

Email 2 - Examination

Directives and Restrictions: The email begins with a direct reminder of the upcoming exam period and the restrictions that will be enforced during this time. Phrases like "During the exam period... All breaches of your Occupancy Agreement will be dealt with under the University’s Code of Student Discipline" establish clear expectations and consequences for non-compliance.

Clarity and Specificity: The email provides specific dates and times for the exam period, as well as clear instructions regarding expected behavior. This level of detail enhances understanding and leaves little room for misinterpretation or confusion.

Authority and Enforcement: By invoking the University’s Code of Student Discipline and providing contact information for reporting breaches, the email emphasizes the institution's authority and its commitment to enforcing regulations. This reinforces the power dynamic between the university administration and the students.

Consideration and Respect: Despite the firm tone and enforcement of regulations, the email maintains a respectful and considerate tone throughout. Phrases like "Thank you in advance for your cooperation" acknowledge the recipients' cooperation and contributions while also signaling the expectation of compliance.

Email 3 - Fire

Description of Incident: The email begins by providing context for the communication, informing recipients of a recent incident involving a disposable BBQ being used inside a residence. By highlighting this incident, the email immediately captures the attention of recipients and emphasizes the seriousness of the issue.

Explanation of Risks: Following the description of the incident, the email elaborates on the dangers associated with such practices. It mentions the risks of open flames and carbon monoxide poisoning, emphasizing the potential fatality of carbon monoxide exposure. By clearly articulating the risks, the email seeks to raise awareness and encourage compliance with safety guidelines.

Directive Language: The email includes direct instructions to prevent similar incidents in the future. Phrases like "To prevent this, can you please ensure BBQs are only ever used outdoors in well ventilated areas" and "please remember no naked flames or items that can be lit" serve as directives, clearly outlining expected behaviors and reinforcing safety protocols.

Reiteration of Regulations: Additionally, the email reiterates existing regulations regarding fire safety, reminding recipients that "no naked flames or items that can be lit" are permitted in residences. This reinforces the importance of adhering to established rules and policies to maintain a safe living environment for all residents.


The role of language within university accommodations extends far beyond mere communication; it actively shapes social hierarchies and status dynamics within these communal living environments. By examining linguistic markers of power, including directive language, politeness strategies, and impersonal constructions, we gain insight into how language functions as a tool for authority, role definition, and norm enforcement.

Directive language serves as a primary mechanism through which authority is established and maintained within university accommodations. Modal verbs and imperative statements, such as "must," "shall," and "is required to," are employed to convey commands and obligations to residents. These linguistic constructs leave little room for ambiguity or negotiation, signaling the institution's control over the living environment. For example, phrases like "Residents must register their overnight guests" clearly delineate expectations and reinforce the university's regulatory power.

Politeness strategies complement directive language by tempering its authoritarian tone with expressions of courtesy and respect. By prefacing commands with phrases like "please be reminded" or "we kindly ask," accommodation administrators soften the imposition of rules, making them more palatable to recipients. This strategic use of politeness helps to foster a sense of cooperation and mutual respect among residents, even in the context of regulatory enforcement.

Impersonal constructions further contribute to the maintenance of social hierarchies by depersonalizing messages and emphasizing the universality of rules and regulations. Phrases like "It has been noted" or "It is required" abstract the source of authority, positioning rules as objective standards rather than subjective judgments. This depersonalization minimizes individual discretion and reinforces compliance by framing regulations as inherent to the institutional structure.

In examining specific examples of accommodation communications, such as emails regarding animal policies, examination periods, and fire safety, we observe how these linguistic strategies are deployed to assert authority and communicate expectations effectively. For instance, in an email outlining the animal policy, the use of directive language ("animals are not permitted") is tempered by polite expressions of gratitude ("Thank you for your assistance"), striking a balance between enforcement and cooperation.

Moreover, language plays a crucial role in defining roles and expectations within university accommodations. Terms like "residents," "tenants," and "occupants" categorize students within a hierarchical framework, emphasizing their subordinate status within the institutional structure. Through such categorization, students are positioned as recipients of rules rather than active participants in their creation, reinforcing the power dynamic between administration and residents.

Overall, language serves as a fundamental mechanism for shaping social dynamics within university accommodations. Through the strategic use of directive language, politeness strategies, and impersonal constructions, accommodation administrators are able to assert authority, define roles, and enforce norms in a manner that fosters cooperation and mutual respect among residents while upholding regulatory responsibilities.


This study delves into the nuanced language dynamics within the University of Stirling's housing policies and communications, unveiling how language functions as a potent tool for asserting control and influence over students. Through Critical Discourse Analysis (CDA), it becomes apparent that linguistic features such as modal verbs, passive voice constructions, and compliance-enforcing phrases are strategically employed to establish the institution's authority and perpetuate social hierarchies within the accommodation setting. Examples drawn from directives in the Occupancy Agreement and polite yet firm reminders in emails vividly illustrate how language shapes student behavior and interactions, molding the residential experience in accordance with institutional standards. Importantly, the significance of this research extends beyond the confines of the University of Stirling, shedding light on the broader influence of language within educational institutions, particularly in residential settings. By uncovering the subtle yet powerful ways in which language operates, this study underscores the importance of critically examining institutional discourse to comprehend its impact on student experiences and power dynamics. Furthermore, it emphasizes the imperative for practitioners and policymakers to recognize the role of language in shaping institutional culture and student behavior. As such, based on the findings, it is recommended that practitioners and policymakers prioritize awareness and training, ensuring that university staff involved in drafting policies and communications are cognizant of the linguistic implications of their language choices. Encouraging the use of inclusive and respectful language that fosters a sense of community and belonging among students is paramount. Additionally, transparent communication is crucial, necessitating that housing policies and communications are clear, transparent, and easily understandable for students, thus fostering a more open and collaborative environment. Involving students in the development of housing policies and communications is also essential, as it ensures that their perspectives and concerns are taken into account, fostering a sense of ownership and responsibility among residents, which can lead to greater compliance and cooperation. Regular review and updates of housing policies and communications are recommended to reflect evolving student needs and preferences, with feedback from residents solicited to identify areas for improvement and address any issues or concerns that may arise.


Jones, R. H. (2017). Surveillant landscapes. Linguistic Landscapes, 3(2), 149-186. https://doi.org/10.1075/ll.3.2.03jon

Newton, D. C., Tomyn, A. J., & LaMontagne, A. D. (2021). Exploring the challenges and opportunities for improving the health and wellbeing of international students: Perspectives of international students. JANZSSA: Journal of the Australian and New Zealand Student Services Association, 29(1), 18–34. Available at: https://search.informit.org/doi/10.3316/informit.352915754847750

Fairclough, N. (1995). Critical discourse analysis: The critical study of language. Longman.https://www.felsemiotica.com/descargas/Fairclough-Norman-Critical-Discourse-Analysis.-The-Critical-Study-of-Language.pdf

Sneha Mukherjee is pursuing her MSc in English Language and Linguistics at the University of Stirling. Additionally, she works remotely part-time as a technical writer at Wavel AI. Moreover, she serves as a volunteer officer for Health and Mental Well-being within her university's Student Union.

LinkedIn Profile: https://www.linkedin.com/in/sneha-mukherjeecontentwriter/

Article source: https://articlebiz.com
This article has been viewed 209 times.

Rate article

This article has a 4 rating with 1 vote.

Article comments

There are no posted comments.

Related articles