POWER IMBALANCES AND PERCEPTIONS
OF FAIRNESS IN SOCIAL EXCHANGE: A
STUDY OF A RESIDENCE HALL SYSTEM
Ronald Roy Laue
B.A., Juniata College, 1993
A thesis submitted to the
University of Colorado at Denver
in partial fulfillment
of the requirements for the degree of
Master of Arts
This thesis for the Master of Arts
Ronald Roy Laue
has been approved
A. Leigh Ingram
Richard H. Anderson
Laue, Ronald Roy (M.A., Sociology)
Power Imbalances and Perceptions of Fairness in Social Exchange: A
Study of a Residence Hall System
Thesis directed by Assistant Professor Candan Duran-Aydintug
Exchange theory has investigated the relationship between
balance of power and its effects on perceptions of fairness. Based on
previous research, two hypotheses deserve special attention. One view
justifies the imbalance of power, stating it is needed to maintain the
norms of justice. An alternative view suggests that the mere nature of
power imbalances counter perceptions of fairness among actors. Using a
residence hall setting on a university campus, these two hypotheses are
tested. No substantial evidence is found to conclude that power
imbalances oppose the norms of justice. In fact, in a community setting
such as a residence hall, it is concluded that power imbalances are
needed to uphold perceptions of fairness. Most significant, however, is
the fact that power imbalances are justified to uphold the norms of the
community, but not when they infringe on the individual freedom of
This abstract accurately represents the content of the candidates thesis.
I recommend its publication.
This research is dedicated
to the memory of Dr. James H. Laue.
A renowned sociologist, a devoted peacemaker,
and a loving father.
Your passion for knowledge and quest
for human understanding are lessons
I am just now beginning to realize.
I would like to thank my family and friends for their patience and
encouragement. Without my mothers words of support and my sisters
hours of proofreading, this project never would have been accomplished.
A special thanks to my advisor Dr. Candan Duran-Aydintug, for her
generous support, invaluable guidance, and encouraging words over the
past two years. You always knew just what to say to keep me on the
To Laura, my thanks are endless. Your belief in me and devotion
to my life work has given so much to who I am and strive to be. I
honestly could not have made it without you. I look forward to many
more projects for both of us, in our life together.
Perception of Fairness.......................7
2. REVIEW OF THE LITERATURE......................10
Residence Hall Background...................22
Purpose of the Study........................26
Measurement of Variables....................36
Reliability and Validity....................38
4.1. Demographic Makeup of the Sample Population for Fall
and Spring Questionnaires.......................... 46
4.2. Perception of a Power Imbalance for Fall and Spring
4.3. Student Relationship and Involvement with Residence Life
Staff for Fall and Spring Questionnaires.............48
4.4. Fairness Ratings of Sample Population Given the Power
Imbalance for Fall and Spring Questionnaires.........53
4.5. Fall Semester Mean Perceptions of Fairness Based on
Power Question 1.....................................56
4.6. Fall Semester Mean Perceptions of Fairness Based on
Power Question 2.....................................57
4.7. Spring Semester Mean Perceptions of Fairness Based on
Power Question 1.....................................58
4.8. Spring Semester Mean Perceptions of Fairness Based on
Power Question 2.....................................59
Theories on exchange relations, equity, and distributive justice
and their relationship to perceptions of fairness are by no means new
(Cohen and Greenberg, 1982; Cook and Emerson, 1978). However, very
little, if any, research has been conducted on these concepts in the context
of a university residence life setting. In fact, much empirical research
relating to power inequality has been undertaken in business and in
industrial spheres or in simulated employment situations (Adams 1965).
Although much of this research has some relevance to any given social
situation, this study focuses on applications of power imbalances and
perceptions of fairness in a residence hall (dormitory) environment.
Undergraduate college students living in a residence hall are the unit of
analysis for this study.
The targets of power strategies (those with less power in social
exchange) have had a variety of explanations for assessing the fairness of
the strategies of the powerful. Power strategies can come in the form of
withholding reward or punishment. When looking at a residence hall
setting, an example would be a Hall Director (professional staff in charge
of administrative aspects of a residence hall) withholding the extension of
quiet hours or punishing a student for misconduct by putting him or her
on probation. Whether the parties with less power (students) perceive
these power strategies as just or unjust is the focus of this study.
Using a simple survey design of a homogenous group (in that it is
one university) at the University of Colorado at Boulder, this study
specifically examines: 1) Whether students perceive that power
imbalance does exist between administration and students; 2) If a power
imbalance is perceived, to what extent do students believe it is legitimate
and fair?; and 3) How much social exchange do students have with the
residence hall staff? (how much contact students have with Residence
Advisors, the Hall Director, etc.)? This last question is important because
one cannot study power strategies and perceptions of fairness in social
exchange unless the amount of social exchange occurring is known.
There has been several opportunities for sociologists to study
power imbalance in social exchange. However, a noted study on power
imbalances and perceptions of fairness was done recently by the
sociologists of the Department of Sociology at the University of Arizona
(Molm, Quist, and Wiseley, 1994). The authors used computer-simulated
actors to manipulate power strategies so as to investigate how actors
evaluate the fairness of their partners power strategies under all
different conditions of structural power. In doing so, Molm, Quist, and
Wiseley developed theories of the relationship of power imbalances and
perceptions of fairness in social exchange (1994). Their work was
considered pioneer because no other study looked at this relationship.
Social exchange and power have common roots in classical theories, but
rarely has anyone examined the linkage between social exchange and
power. With this work coming from the University of Arizona in 1994,
the first step has been made to develop theories on this relationship.
This current study also links the classical theories of power
imbalances and perceptions of fairness in social exchange. These theories
come out of the hypotheses derived from classical theorists, as well as the
current work from contemporary theorists (Cook, 1988; Molm, 1994).
However, these theories are linked in a setting not often used in
sociology. Never before has a study of this nature been done in a
residence hall. This setting is ripe for analyzing the elements and
dynamics needed for it to function harmoniously.
Residence Halls exist (in some capacity) in about 90% of the
institutions of higher education in the United States (ACUHO, 1996).
Yet again, sociologists rarely study such a setting. Power imbalances and
perceptions of fairness in social exchange are important elements of any
social setting, especially residence halls. The reason for this is because
there are few other settings where so many people and resources are in
such close proximity and so dependent on one another to function as one
system. It is fortunate that access has been gained in a residence hall
system in order to conduct this study. This work was conducted under
the premise that the findings obtained about social exchange in this
residence hall setting can lend valuable insight to the discipline of
Now that the focus of this work is clear, an overview of some basic
concepts and assumptions is necessary, as well as a look at the theories of
power imbalances and perceptions of fairness in social exchange laid out
by several researchers. The first hypothesis on power imbalances states
that because the powerful control the norms and resources, their use of
power will be seen as legitimate (Austin and Hatfield, 1980; Della Fave,
1980; Homans, 1976; Molm, 1994). Applied to the setting here, students
want a safe and secure atmosphere, and they agree to live under the
guidelines of the administration to participate in the arena. Whatever
power that administrators exert over students is perceived as legitimate,
because it is done to maintain the rights of the students.
The second hypothesis suggests that norms of justice oppose the
effect of power, and the less powerful would be best to resist them (Cook
and Emerson, 1978; Cook, 1988). When administration uses power that
is perceived by students to put staff at an unfair advantage and residents
at an unfair disadvantage, then it is unjust. In response to such policies,
many students have decided to live off campus. This is an example of
resisting the system.
Power and social exchange have been studied in settings ranging
from government to social movements to families. Yet it is at times
difficult to apply the conclusions from previous work to college students.
This is due to the unique experience of college students, which include
the pressures they face, and the living arrangements they have. It is the
unique nature of this research which leads one to believe that the
findings of this study will be of great use to department of housing
administrators and to sociology itself. This is not to imply that one can
generalize society from the perceptions of college students. College
students are certainly not a representation of the larger society. However
the setting does take us more into real life as opposed to computer
The following offers a definition of the key terms before explaining
the methodology of this study:
For the purpose of this study, power is viewed as the mutual
dependence on others for valued resources and outcomes. If A and B are
equally dependent on each other, power in the relationship is balanced.
If their dependencies are unequal, power is imbalanced. The less
dependent and more powerful actor has a power advantage, and the more
dependent and less powerful actor has a power disadvantage. This
definition builds on Emersons (1962) theories on social exchange, stating
that most exchanges involve both the use of both rewards and
Numerous studies show that the greater the power imbalance in
the exchange relation, the more unequal the exchange (Cook and
Emerson 1978; Markovsky, Wilier, and Patton, 1988; Molm, 1985). Does
this imply that, although administrators are hired to serve the students,
their power advantage automatically gives students a perception of
unfairness? Again, this is a question that has not been raised before. In
most college settings, students are required to live in the residence halls
for at least during their freshmen year. The universities claim they do
this for the students own good, so they can have an easy transition to
college. Yet, others argue that universities impose this rule to make
money in the extra housing fees. Regardless, many students believe that
this infringes on the choices they make for their educational experience.
Therefore, it is possible that students enter their residence hall
experience with a perception of unfairness of the freshman live-in policy
and the rules imposed on them.
Perception of Fairness
In reaching answers to these questions, theories of distributive
justice are used (Adams, 1965; Homans, 1974) because of the logical link
between students view of justice in allocation of resources and their
perception of fairness. Therefore, the definition of perception of fairness
is the just allocation of outcomes. In other words, a specific question
emerging would be: after the two parties have an exchange relation, does
the student feel that the outcome was mutually fair in that he or she got
an equal amount of influence and resources?
This term has already been used in the theories presented and is
closely linked with the concept of fairness. If students perceive that the
use of power by someone more powerful is fair, then they feel this use of
power is legitimate. The work of Weber (1922) is helpful in
understanding this. Weber explains that legitimation makes it easier for
the powerful to obtain compliance. If those who are weak do not believe
that the authorities have legitimized power, than they are less likely to
perceive the situation as fair. In some cases, the less powerful will prefer
that the more powerful use their power to maintain a fair and just social
setting (Weber, 1922). Simply defined, it is a point of view (perception)
by the less powerful party (students) that the power used by the more
powerful is justified, when the power is legitimized. Students will believe
that administrators have the right to use that power and therefore will
not feel that any wrongdoing occurred. Again, this perception suggests
that power determines what is just through a set of cognitive and social
processes that support and legitimate actions of the powerful.
Although fairness and legitimacy are used simultaneously in
several areas in this research, it does not necessarily mean they are
interchangeable. For example, a student my believe that the Hall
Director has legitimate authority to impose a sanction (writing her up for
making noise in the hall), yet she may not perceive that doing so is fair
(she only said one loud word while walking to the bathroom). Yet for the
purpose of this study, legitimacy is being measured as a prerequisite for
students perceptions of fairness. If the students do not think that the
power imbalance is legitimate, they will not believe it is fair. This study
measures legitimacy as it relates to and results in perceptions of fairness.
REVIEW OF THE LITERAURE
This study looks to gain a better understanding of how power
imbalances affect perceptions of fairness in social exchange relationships.
In order to do this, one must first go back to the common roots of power
imbalances and perceptions of justice in the classical theories of social
exchange. Typically, exchange theorizing began with inspiration from
both the behaviorist tradition in psychology and the utilitarian heritage
in economic theory (Blau, 1964; Homans, 1950). As these two traditions
merged into modern exchange theorizing, they dealt mainly with issues
of inequality, power, and conflict (Turner, 1991). This evolution provides
the groundwork for this study.
Understanding the social exchange that occurs in a social system
has its roots in classical theory. Durkheims theories division of labor
include the concepts of attachment and regulation. These concepts are
viewed as important indicators of what must happen in order for people
to be a productive, happy members of their social structure (Durkheim,
1852). If the division of labor is not properly understood and roles are not
defined by the community, the social structure will have a difficult time
meeting the needs of all who live there. Although Durkheim has not
been labeled as a social exchange theorist, his work tried to answer the
question of what holds society together. What holds a residence hall
together is an important element to look at when viewing how students
perceive fairness. Which type of behavior by those who are powerful
promote perceptions of fairness and which ones do not is an important
element in understanding social exchange.
In his work The Human Group (1950), George C. Homans stressed
the importance of observing peoples actual behaviors and activities in
various types of groups. He believed in observation, saying that
exchange theory must initially emphasize face-to-face interaction, focus
primarily on limited and direct exchanges among individuals, and
recognize that social structures are created and sustained by the
behaviors of individuals (Homans and Schneider, 1950) This concept has
its roots in behaviorism and gives Homans the foundation to look at
power and justice.
In a social exchange, Homans argued, human activity becomes
action directed toward the attainment of rewards and the avoidance of
punishments (1950). Therefore, the interaction by actors becomes mutual
actions of rewards and punishments for all parties involved. If
individuals interact to maximize rewards and avoid punishments, it
becomes clear that the amount of power that individual actors have play
a key role in determining what actions are rewards and punishments.
Homans (1950) work on distributive justice is important to
mention. Understanding that actors enter a social exchange with the
intention of maximizing rewards and avoiding punishment is not enough
to see how actors perceive the exchange. Distributive justice is the
concept by which actors perceive the equity of the treatment by the
powerful to the weak around them. If power has been imposed on one
actor in the same method as another equally weak actor, than the more
likely the power imbalance will be perceived as fair.
In Peter M. Blaus Exchange and Power in Social Life (Blau, 1964),
basic concepts of exchange are analyzed, including reward, cost and
profit. Yet Blau goes a step further than Homans by explaining what
Blau calls norms of fair exchange. An example of these norms may be
actors misguiding other actors or withholding information that would
change the social exchange. When actors display tactics that are
considered a violation in an exchange relation, then aggression is
forthcoming. Given this, it is easy to see why later theorists looked at
perceptions of fairness in exchange, analyzing the tactics used by actors.
Blaus principles on exchange conflict analyze the use of power
(Blau, 1964). He contends that the more exchange relations between
super- and subordinates become imbalanced, the greater the probability
of opposition to those with power. Although Blau did not study the
relationship between power and perceptions of fairness, he did theorize
that the more norms of fair exchange are violated by superordinates, the
greater the imbalance. Given this, it seems that Blau understood the
importance that power played in a perceived fair exchange.
In George Herbert Meads book Mind, Self, and Society (1934), he
explains how society is dependent on the individual self to evaluate which
interaction is fair and just. In other words, the mind and self filter the
actions and existence of the society and break it into manageable parts.
Individual interpret and get information about the society by the roles
they play. Because role-playing is in the control of the individuals, then
they can exercise their own response to the stimuli they receive (Mead,
1934). Because individuals will evaluate the ways they are treated by
the society (in this research, by the hall staff in power), it is clear to see
that the individual will evaluate which social exchanges are considered
fair or unfair.
Another question to consider when looking at the results of this
study is to see if students have the ability to do role taking (Mead, 1934).
Are students able to put themselves in the role of those in power to
understand the reasons for their use of power? Students role taking of
the actors in power will have ramifications on whether they view the
actions of the powerful as fair or not. If students can put themselves in
the position of the residence hall staff, than perhaps they will see the
position they are in and view the situation as fair. The students
comments given in the questionnaire will indicate in places if role taking
To summarize the classical theories in the area of social exchange:
If one wants to understand social structures, the face-to-face interaction
of individuals must be observed first. Individuals interact for a number
of reasons, but most notably for the attainment of rewards and the
avoidance of punishment. Because this is the motivation for individuals
to interact with one another, it is clear to see how an imbalance of power
can be an important factor in attaining goals and avoiding punishment.
The more power is imbalanced between superordinates and subordinates,
the greater the opposition will be toward the tactics of the powerful. And
when actors display tactics that are considered a violation of the norms of
social exchange, aggression is forthcoming (aggression meaning the
desire to go against the system because it is viewed as unfair; aggression
does not necessarily mean violent behavior). It is assumed that this
aggression coincides with a perception of fairness (or in this case,
unfairness) in the social exchange that is occurring.
Relating these ideas to the example of the residence hall, students
do interact to attain rewarding goals and avoid punishment. Because the
people in power are the upper administration of the residence hall,
students interactions with them will be considered imbalanced, and in
turn, perhaps unfair. Is a perception of unfairness felt between the
students and the administration due to this imbalance of power? This is
a question answered in this study.
After reviewing the classic exchange theorists, it is clear to see
where structural power and perceptions of fairness get their common
roots (i.e., Blau, 1964; Homans 1961, 1974). Yet several writers have
noted (Cook and Hegtvedt, 1986; Cohen and Greenberg, 1982) that
sociologists have rarely looked at the link between power and perceptions
of fairness. Only a few theorists have investigated this relationship (e.g.,
Austin and Hatfield, 1980; Cook and Hegtvedt 1986; Cohen 1986; Molm
1994), and there is still much research to be done.
Given a structure where one actor has clear power over another
actor, how does this imbalance affect the weaker actors perception of
fairness in the exchange? As mentioned earlier, an examination of the
literature suggests two quite different hypotheses to answer this
question. One hypothesis states that power underlies and determines
norms of justice. Therefore, power imbalances are necessary for fairness
and justice to occur (Austin and Hatfield, 1980; Della Fave, 1980;
Homans, 1976; Molm, 1994).
A second hypothesis suggests the opposite: that norms of justice
counter and oppose the effects of power by constraining powerful actors
use of power or by encouraging the disadvantaged to resist it. The fact
that a power imbalance exists is an indication that exchange will be
unfair. Instead, norms of justice should be independent of power (Cook
and Emerson, 1978; Cook, 1988). A closer examination of these
hypotheses is necessary to understand the explanatory power and
limitations of each.
In his publication The Meek Shall Not Inherit the Earth, Richard
Della Fave argues how stratified orders are maintained through a wide
variety of mechanisms, one being the notion of unequal distribution of
primary resources (Della Fave, 1980). The author refers to the concept of
legitimation, which means that a large majority of the population
believes that institutionalized inequality in the distribution of primary
resources (power) is essentially right and reasonable. Power imbalances
should exist in order to maintain norms of justice.
Della Fave (1980) further asserts that people believe power
imbalances should exist for the self to feel it is being treated fairly. Yet,
a process of legitimation still must occur. Institutions must become part
of the social consciousness in order for individuals to see themselves in
relation to other individuals around them. So just the sheer fact that
institutions have more power does not make individuals feel that fairness
is occurring. Instead, individuals must feel that these institutions are
working for their best interest.
The main point of the work by Richard Della Fave is that power
imbalances, when they are legitimate and part of the collective
consciousness, are important and necessary in maintaining perceptions of
fairness. Those in power allow for a system where resources are
distributed fairly to individuals (Della Fave, 1980).
Homans (1976) would agree with Della Fave. Perception is one of
the basic concepts that Homans talks about when explaining his theory of
human behavior. If actors perceive that the social exchange they
participate in is legitimate because it is part of the collective
consciousness, then they will feel it is fair and just.
Adding to the hypothesis that power imbalances in social exchange
are necessary to maintain norms of justice is Molms work. In her
publication Imbalanced Structures, Unfair Strategies: Power and Justice
in Social Exchange, Molm (1994) uses an experimental design that allows
her to manipulate power between actors. Believing that social exchange
occurs within the context of the power relations among actors, Molm was
able to evaluate perceptions of fairness by weaker actors in the exchange
Molm found no evidence for an opposing effect of justice and
substantial support for a legitimating effect (Molm, 1994). Actors who
had less power believed the punishment strategies of those with greater
power was fair and just. Moreover, abusive or inappropriate behavior by
a wealthy person or a popular teenager is tolerated where the same
behavior by someone of a weaker disposition is not. Molm (1994)
concludes by saying that she found no effect of power balances on
perceptions of fairness. It appears in her study that power imbalances
are necessary to maintain perceptions of fairness by weaker, less
Other theorists (Austin and Hatfield 1980) that would agree with
the above observation concerning this hypothesis. But for now, it should
be noted that this is one of the hypotheses that will be assessed in this
research. The logic of this hypothesis is clear: a legitimate power
imbalance must exist so actors can have a collective consciousness and
perceive that the actions of the more powerful are fair.
The second hypothesis argues that power imbalances counter a
perception of fairness among actors. The biggest argument against the
use of power to maintain perceptions of fairness comes from the work of
Cook and Emerson in their article Power, Equity and Commitment in
Exchange Networks (1978). In this work, Cook and Emerson are saying
that exchange theory has the virtue of bringing both power and equity
together in a single analytical framework. It follows that social exchange
is the best possible paradigm to study perceptions of fairness within the
interaction of two people with differing power.
Cook and Emerson (1978) found evidence that demonstrated,
among other things, that equity or justice concerns constrain the use of
power. When actors saw the more powerful use their power in the social
exchange, the weaker actors had the perception of being treated unfairly.
In this article, the authors conclude by saying that future research needs
to be done to see the links between power and justice. Even though the
connections between power and justice are not completely specified in
this research, Cook and Emerson make it clear that power imbalances do
negatively affect perceptions of fairness (1978).
In further research by Cook, she argues that it is surprising when
research shows that disadvantaged actors support a system that is
unequally balanced (1988). In further examination, she concludes that
less powerful actors may see their disadvantage as fate. When the
attribution was made to the structure, the power-disadvantaged subjects
probably defined the situation as out of their control, and felt that
further aggression would prove to be worthless. Cook still asserts that
power imbalances give people a sense of a system that is unfair (1988).
She offers reasons why other research may have felt that power
imbalances were necessary to maintain fairness. Yet, Cook (1988) stands
firm on her hypothesis that contradicts the theories of other researchers.
Given the above review of the literature, one can see several
questions that need to be looked at as they relate to this current study.
First, is there one correct, overriding hypothesis that all power and
exchange research should focus on? If so, which of these two hypotheses,
if any, do students in residence halls tend to lean toward? Is it possible to
have one theory of power and social exchange that is so abstract, that it
covers every setting and every time span?
Second, how much does the context and make-up of the social
system have to do with perceptions of fairness? The initial thought would
be a great deal. Yet, are there certain social facts that are true for all
systems? And lastly, when tested in this research, which of the
competing hypotheses will find support, if any?
It is important to note that this certainly is not an exhaustive look
at the social exchange theorists across the field of sociology, nor is it an
exhaustive look at the theories and work of the sociologists presented
here. However, it is an attempt to present the origins of the hypotheses
tested and how they have been derived. The work of other sociologists
and researchers presented here gives a clear starting point and
foundation for this study.
The foundation is this: When actors enter a social setting that has
a clear power imbalance where they are the ones with less power, there
are two ways they can perceive the situation. First, they can view the
power imbalance as fair and just to uphold the norms of justice, or
second, they can view the situation as unfair for no other reason than
simply because power imbalance exists. The reasoning behind these
explanations has been presented. But are they relevant in a residence
hall setting? Are there clear indications that students favor either one?
What is so unique about the residence hall setting?
Residence Hall Background
This literature review would not be complete without a general
overview of the residence life setting on a college campus, which is the
population for the current research. It is a history that has evolved over
time, just like any other social structure. This may give the reader an
idea of what students are expecting when they enter the system, and
what may influence the students reactions to the power imbalances.
Since the beginning of institutions of higher education in the
United States, residential staff members were allowed to closely monitor
student behavior. Early college charters and codes provided for strict
routines among students. The faculty members were responsible for
maintaining discipline and were required to be detectives, sheriffs, and
prosecuting attorneys. It was assumed that colleges were given most of
the power, and students were required to abide by it. This pattern
prevailed through the mid-20th century (Thomas, 1991).
A dramatic change occurred at colleges and universities in the late
1960s. Students no longer tolerated the strict guidelines aimed at
maintaining control over the student body. A resistance to power began
to evolve, with intense protests on campuses and legal battles in court
Fass, 1990). Examples include: 1) Dixon v. Alabama State Board of
Education (1961). The college was required to afford students due
process, notice of their alleged wrongdoing, and a hearings before
students could be expelled. 2) Goldberg v. Regents of the University of
California (1967). Students could not be suspended for shouting
obscenities at rallies, and 3) Healy v. James (1972). A universitys
refusal to recognize the local chapter of Students for a Democratic Society
was considered a violation of First Amendment rights.
The climate of the sixties and the social change that occurred
provide an understanding of why so much change took place in residence
halls. During the sixties, many young adults questioned the status quo
and the limitations placed on individual freedom (Thomas, 1991). This is
evident in many college students questioning the United States
involvement in the Vietnam War, and the active participation of students
in the Civil Rights Movement. College students began to take advantage
of their new found ability to be heard and resist power (Thomas, 1991).
Clearly, the sixties were an example of students resisting power in
their living environments as well. College students began wanting an
end to rigid control by colleges and a greater acknowledgment of student
rights. As a result, institutional constituencies faculty, administration,
parents, alumni, and the public accepted the notion that the proper role
of the higher education institutions was to assist intellectual and moral
development rather than direct it, and to advise rather than control
(Fass, 1990, p: 52).
In the late 1980s, higher education witnessed a shift from liberal to
more conservative living environments. It has been argued that this
trend was partly a reaction to a Republican President of the United
States and an unsteady economy (Fass, 1990). It could also be argued
that the change mainly came about as the result of legal reasons. College
students and their families appeared to be more willing to pursue
lawsuits against institutions for failing to protect them from the conduct
of others and even their own conduct (Fass, 1990).
Several examples of lawsuits against institutions could be cited,
but the one that had the most impact on the shift of power in residence
life was the murder of a student by the name of Jeanne Cleary in her
dormitory room at Lehigh University in 1988. In this situation, a person
not affiliated with the university was able to gain access into the
Residence Hall due to insufficient security standards. The man made his
way to Jeanne Clearys room and then raped, and killed her. In the
subsequent lawsuit, which was settled out of court, the claim was made
that the institution was negligent in not policing the dormitory (Collison,
1989). For example, the University did not make and enforce rules
mandating that doors be locked and guests screened and registered, nor
did it make and enforce rules prohibiting students from propping open
hall doors (Collison, 1989).
To avoid lawsuits involving liability and to ensure that students
are provided with an environment that is conducive to learning, colleges
and universities are beginning to pull back on the reins (Collison, 1989,
p.l, A39). As a result, administration is in a position of having more
power and control, with students having less power and individual
freedom with respect to their living environment.
The point is that residence halls have still not found the best
possible balance to maintain the individual freedoms and desires of
students, while at the same time, providing an environment that is safe
and conducive to learning for everyone. The above narrative was to give
the reader an idea of how the residence halls came to operate as they do
today. Yet, there will be many changes in the future because no one right
way has been found.
This study, limited as it is due to the enormity of the subject and
the large amount of literature written on it, is intended to create a
clearer picture of how a particular social theory applies to the setting of a
residence hall. It is just a beginning, but hopefully will sparkle some
interest in further investigating this setting and how it relates to social
Purpose of the Study
A residence hall system offers a unique setting to study how power
relates to perceptions of fairness on an individual level. It is an
environment that is rich for sociological study, given the fact that there is
a large number of people living in close, physical proximity to one
another, and competing for scarce resources. Power imbalances are
explicitly communicated to residents before they enter the community,
and used as a way to uphold polices and procedures that (in theory) make
the hall a more conducive place to live. How actors perceive this given
power imbalance as fair or unfair is the focus of this research.
As a result, this research was conducted to test hypotheses which
indirectly benefit the field of sociology and housing departments on
university campuses. Power imbalances will always exist, in almost any
social setting. Social exchange principles may be used by many to
advance ones own self interests. Viewing these two concepts and
discovering what actors perceive as fair and unfair will give sociology
more information on the important influence that power has on many
aspects of social exchange.
The University of Colorado at Boulder has the largest on campus
residence population in the state of Colorado. In Boulder, the
Department of Housing consists of 21 buildings and approximately 6,500
students living on campus. A majority of the students are freshmen and
sophomores, with a minority of upperclassmen. Freshmen are required
to live on campus their first year, unless special circumstances are made.
The Department of Housing staff, supervising the day-to-day
operations of the Residence Halls, is hierarchical in nature (similar to all
other residential life colleges and universities in the nation). With this
hierarchy, there is an assumption of imbalance of power. In this setting,
students are viewed as having less power than resident advisors (upper-
class students employed by the University to enforce the policies set forth
by the administration). Resident Advisors (RAs) are viewed as having
less power than the Hall Director (professional position in charge of
administrative aspects of the hall). Hall Directors are viewed as
having less power than area Managers, etc. Because of the definition of
power that was given, one can assume that those higher up the ladder
have more resources and influence, thus giving them more power. The
students who are not as high on the ladder are dependent on the
housing staff for resources and policy changes.
There are two specific ways in which a student can impact what
procedures and activities are employed in the Residence Halls. Different
students have different amounts of involvement in the residence halls.
The Halls are set up in this way so, in theory, students can have an
impact on the procedures that happen in the halls. This study will look
at this relationship and examine whether student involvement impacts
their perceptions of fairness. This gives the chance to correlate the
results of the survey on perceptions of power with the student level of
involvement and contact with residence life staff in the residence halls.
In order to effect the living environment around them, students can:
1) Serve on the halls student government, which discusses
concerns of the hall and presents these concerns to the
administration. Student government is also given a budget to
be used for hall activities.
2) Use their Resident Advisor (RA) as resource persons or people
for voicing concerns and possibly working in conjunction with
RAs to coordinate hall activities. In working with their RAs,
students can also have an impact by attending hall meetings,
voicing concerns to the administration, and voting on issues
that affect life in the resident halls.
There are several specific ways resident hall staff can influence a
students behavior. Some important examples include:
1) Fill out a resident hall incident report, which goes into the
students file and is usually followed by some sort of
2) Put a student on resident hall probation, in which the student
is restricted from doing hall activities for an allotted period of
time. An example would be when a student is not allowed to
attend hall programs.
3) Students may be relocated to another resident hall at the
professional staffs discretion.
4) A student may be terminated from the residence hall
altogether, and placed on university probation.
5) Professional staff have the legal right to notify parents of their
childs behavior if the student is under 18 years old.
6) Professional staff can take away certain privileges from
students if they feel it is necessary. An example would be
refusing to allow students to take food from the dining hall
because it is being thrown on the floors.
There are other subtle examples of power, yet those listed above
are the important ones for the purpose of this study.
The sample was done of an entire population of a 400 person
Residence Hall at the University of Colorado, Boulder. Farrand Hall was
chosen because of its demographically even distribution of students, and
because it was feasible to do the research there. Farrand Hall, on
average from year to year, has historically had 81% freshman and 19%
upperclassman. This percentage is similar to other residence halls across
the nation that have freshman live-in policies similar to the University of
Colorado, Boulder (ACUHO, 1996).
By focusing on one residence hall which access has been gained
(the author of this study is also the Hall Director of Farrand Hall) allows
for more of a controlled setting and explanation for trends which the
study may produce. It also allows sampling the entire population of the a
Farrand Hall has a large representation of almost every major
element of residence halls nationwide. This setting has:
1) single rooms
2) double rooms
3) students involved in a discipline infraction
4) students involved in student government
5) a hierarchy of Residence Life Staff that includes RAs, a Hall
Director Assistant, a Hall Director, and a larger housing
6) students with a variety of majors
7) policies and procedures which are set up to facilitate
community living and standards of fairness in the Hall
There are some exceptions on how this setting varies from other
universities. For example, a majority of Farrand residents are from a
middle to upper middle class background. One reason for this is because
Farrand Hall has an academic program which requires a fee. In some
cases, scholarships are given to exceptional students to help defray the
cost. Yet overall students from larger income brackets are more likely to
Another way it differs from other residence hall systems is that a
different type of student may attend Colorado. There has not been
enough research done to know if a certain kind of student prefers the
mountain setting of Colorado over the ocean setting of say, California.
Yet, to say that the location or the reputation of a given university does
not play a role in the type of student it attracts would be a fallacy. The
unique nature of a Colorado student may make it hard to compare this
study to other residence hall systems. Regardless, the similarities are
certainly there. It should be noted that budget and time constraints did
not allow a nation-wide study to be carried out.
A questionnaire was chosen as the measurement tool. A copy of
the questionnaire can be found in Appendix A. This questionnaire was
placed in each students mailbox, with instructions to turn it in to the
main office or to his or her RA. A sealed envelope for returning the
questionnaire was provided to ensure confidentiality. Each questionnaire
was coded so background information can be correlated with the results.
Because the RAs live in the actual halls, they made a point of
encouraging residents to turn in their questionnaire. To add an extra
incentive for students, a free Pizza Party for the floor that turns in the
most questionnaires was used as a way to encourage completion of the
The survey was conducted twice in an academic year once in late
October and in middle March, with the same residents in the same
residence hall. This gave students the opportunity to be well into the
semester in both cases. Also there were (to my knowledge) no midterms
or final exams during these times of the semester, giving students time to
fill them out. Conducting the survey at two different times of the year
gave the opportunity to see if the results are reliable, or if the different
times of year have any bearing on the results.
It is important to remember that the research question being
addressed is a measurement issue. In other words, the questionnaire is
trying to acquire results that will allow the measurement of students
perceptions of fairness. The questions asked in the questionnaire are
structured in a way to measure this perception.
A questionnaire was chosen as the research method for two
reasons. First, it is inexpensive and easy to administer in this setting.
This was important because funding is not available from the
Department of Housing or the Department of Sociology at the University
of Colorado at Denver to conduct such a study. Second, a questionnaire
can reach more of the population in a survey design, yielding a larger
representative sample. The entire project can be done by one person,
with the exception of the assistance from the residence life staff.
One final note: because the unit of analysis of this study was
human subjects, permission was needed by the Human Subjects
Committee at the University of Colorado at Denver. In September, 1996,
permission was granted by the committee. Also permission was granted
from the Associate Director of the Department of Housing at the
University of Colorado, Boulder in July, 1996. The Human Subjects
Committee in Denver, as well as the Department of Housing in Boulder,
determined that there would be no harmful ramifications of this research
on students physical and emotional well being.
Measurement of Variables
In order to measure the perception of fairness by college residents,
this construct is divided into three subdimensions:
1) A measurement scale indicating the degree to which students
feel that a power imbalance does exist between students and
the residence hall staff.
2) A measurement scale indicating the percentage of students who
feel this power imbalance is legitimate and fair.
3) A measurement scale indicating the percentage of students who
feel this power imbalance is illegitimate and unfair.
Questions two and three get at the same question but ask it in
different ways. This was done for reliability reasons that will be
Questions were also included that indicate the students level of
involvement in resident hall activities. This information, along with the
background information of the student, was compared to their
perceptions of fairness. This was done with a measurement scale. The
scale is from one to five, with strongly agree to strongly disagree being
the five degrees. These degrees indicate how strongly a student believes
a given situation is fair or unfair. The measurement scale was used a
way of measuring perceptions (Nueman, 1994)
Because the goal is to measure specific perceptions of fairness of
the students, it is critical for the reader to understand which specific
questions are measuring which variables. Questions 4,6,8,10, and 12 in
the questionnaire are measuring students perceptions that power
imbalances in the resident halls are fair and legitimate. These questions
are carefully designed to measure this variable and nothing else.
Questions 5,7,9,11 and 13 are measuring students perceptions that power
imbalances are unfair and illegitimate. In other words, for each question,
there is an indication (by the five degrees explained earlier) of how fair or
unfair the student feels that the power imbalance affected them.
Questions 1-3 measure perception of whether power imbalances exist,
and 14 & 15 measure students perceptions of their level of involvement
in hall activities. Turning to the questionnaire may be helpful when the
results are discussed, as well as remembering which questions ask about
fairness and unfairness.
Reliability and Validity
A method used to improve reliability is to use multiple indicator
for these variables. This was necessary to do because this questionnaire
has never been used in the literature on this subject before. Special
measures were taken to ensure reliability because this is the first study
of this nature. One will notice that there are three specific measures of
variable 1 (questions 1,2, and 3), five of variable 2 (questions 4,6,8,10,
and 12), and five of variable 3 (questions 5,7,9,11, and 13). By having
several questions trying to measure the same variable, the reliability
should be increased. Also, by analyzing the results of the questionnaire
done in the fall semester and those of the survey done in the spring
semester, gives the chance to see if the results are comparable and,
therefore, reliable. Because of time constraints, as pretest was not done.
Validity was harder to achieve in this study. In general, there is
always a danger that a questionnaire that the interviewer makes up will
suffer in validation (Fowler, 1988). This is due to the fact that little can
be done to prove that the interviewer did not make up questionnaires or
wrongly enter data. In general, this goes for all questionnaires and
survey research, because of there very nature they tend to be superficial.
Also, it is difficult to know how much the climate of the campus at the
time of the survey will affect answers on the survey. If the residence
halls just had a major policy change the day before the questionnaire was
distributed (which it didnt), this may affect the results, for example.
Also, is Boulder an average college town? Do the students who
come to The University of Colorado at Boulder have average incomes and
education opportunities compared to the typical college student? As
explained earlier, the answer is probably not. Yet, it is important to
understand that just because the students in Boulder are not completely
representative of the entire population does not mean that significant
information can not be acquired. Instead, conclusions were drawn about
University of Colorado students and their perceptions of fairness in this
There is evidence that content validity of the measurement design
is strong because the full realm of the definition perceptions of fairness is
represented in the measure. The questions are designed to measure the
full range of how the residential life staffs use of power relates to
students perceptions of fairness. The questionnaire accomplishes this by
asking specific questions about students interactions with staff, citing
how they felt after the interaction. The questions do no measure how
students like their classes, the university, or the city of Boulder. They
only measure the perceptions of fairness as they relate to power.
Again, the data were checked for content validity. For example, if
one of the five questions measuring the legitimacy of power imbalances is
consistently being answered differently than the other four questions
trying to measure the same variable, then that questions lacks content
validity. An advantage of having multiple indicators of variables is that
content validity of the project can be measured. There was no indication
of a problem with content validity after analyzing the questionnaire and
With questionnaires, there is always a danger of making sure that
the variable intended to be measured is indeed measured. Defining
whether the questionnaire was administered in the best way possible
with the most accurate questions is hard to know For example, students
still may have been biases in there answers thinking the questionnaire
could have consequences for them, even though it was clearly
communicated otherwise. Perceptions of fairness is an extremely
abstract concept with many different definitions. Even though every
efforts were taken to ensure that the results are as accurate as possible,
there is no way to say that without a doubt, the exact variable was
For the most part, the survey was a representative sample, with
the exception of men to women. For the women, 55.0% of the
questionnaires were returned, where 43.3% were returned by men. The
overall population is 52% women and 48% men in this setting. The
results from the questionnaire are also representative in regards to
minority students. About 12% of the students in this setting classify
themselves as minority (this is defined by all the students who indicated
their ethnicity was other than white) while about 88% of the students
classify themselves as white. From the respondents who returned the
questionnaires, 86.1% were returned by white students, while 11.7%
were returned by minority students.
There was a 36% return rate for the questionnaires administered
in October and a 28% return rate for the questionnaires administered in
March. A reason for this may be that students had done many surveys
during the course of the year and decided not to do another. Another
reason may be that because the survey was the same, some students may
have decided not to do it again. There was a fear that return rates for
this questionnaire may be lower than desired, because according the
Associate Director of Housing, historically the residence halls at the
University of Colorado Boulder have had difficulties getting back
questionnaires. This was another reason for having two questionnaires
done, one in the Fall and the other in the Spring. Yet according to
Nueman (1994), a 30% return rate for a population this size is acceptable
for reliable results.
Before hypothesis testing is done, it is important to analyze the
demographic and descriptive results first. To assist the understanding of
the results, four tables have been represented These tables represent the
combined results of the questionnaire from the Fall and the Spring.
Table 4.1 depicts the demographic makeup of the sample
population. This setting allowed for analysis of four different categories:
gender, ethnicity, residency in the state of Colorado, and academic year
standing. Table 4.2 and 4.3 depict the perception of a power imbalance
and the students involvement with the residence hall staff, respectively.
These tables represent answers to questions 1, 2, 13, 14, and 15, as
indicated. Although these questions where not used to test hypotheses,
they are important in understanding if students perceive that a power
imbalance exists, and what level of involvement affects perceptions of
Table 4.4 shows the answers given to the fairness questions in the
questionnaire. As one can see, these are questions 3 through 12. The
scale shows to what degree each student perceived the given question
was fair or unfair. The means are given to give reference as these
descriptive statistics are explained. As a note of reference, on this table
the code was switched for the unfair questions. This gives clear meaning
that lower numbers indicate a higher perception of fairness, as the table
For looking at gender, academic year, residence, and ethnicity
only, the questionnaires from the Fall and Spring were combined (when
hypothesis testing is done, the questionnaires were looked at separately).
To ensure that this would not skew the entire sample, an independent t-
test was done. Each two questions that represented the five aspects of
fairness in the halls (discipline, rules, roommate, programming, and
overall system) were analyzed. All sets of questions except for discipline
showed no significant difference between Fall and Spring (p> .05). For
the discipline questions, there was a significant difference (p = .024).
An explanation for this may be that more students had been
exposed to discipline between the Fall and Spring and there perceptions
had changed. Regardless, the decision was made to continue to combine
the questionnaires, with the sense that this one significant difference was
not enough to invalidate the combining of the two questionnaires.
Results were analyzed by using the statistics computer analysis
program, SPSS. This program allows for the results to be easily analyzed
and hypothesis testing to be done. Results from each question will be
Table 4.1 Demographic Makeup of the Sample Population
for Fall and Spring Questionnaires
Gender Freq. Percent #of Cases(missing)
Male 78 55.0 180(3)
Female 99 43.3
White 155 86.1 180(4)
Minority 21 11.7
Instate 103 57.2 180(8)
Out of State 69 38.3
Freshman 147 81.7 180(5)
Sophomore 28 15.6
Going down the questionnaire number by number is the easiest
way to accomplish a descriptive analysis of the statistics. It may be
helpful to refer to table 4.1 through table 4.4 as this is done.
Questions one and two assessed students perceptions on whether a
power imbalance existed in the residence hall. Do students feel that the
Resident Advisor and Hall Director have more power than they do to. In
question one, 73.3% of the students agreed or strongly agreed that there
is a power imbalance as indicated. In question two, 53.9% of the
population agreed or strongly agreed, saying the hall staff had more
power to make changes in the hall. Of the remainder, 29.4% were
neutral, with 15% disagreeing.
Questions thirteen, fourteen, and fifteen ask specific information
about the level of involvement of students in the residence hall
community. Question thirteen asks about the relationship that the
student has with the Resident Advisor. In this question, 46.7% of
residents strongly agreed that they had a good relationship with their
RA, with 28.3 agreeing that they had a good relationship with their RA.
Only 10.5% of students indicated that they did not have a good
relationship with their RA, with the remaining student being neutral.
Table 4.2 Perception of a Power Imbalance
for Fall and Spring Questionnaires
12 3 4 5 Mean
1 44 88 39 5 1 2.05
2 34 63 53 24 3 2.43
1 = very high, 2 = high, 3 = neutral, 4 = low, 5 = very low
Table 4.3 Student Relationship and Involvement with Resident Life Staff for Fall and Spring Questionnaires
Question Number 1 2 3 4 5 Mean
13 84 51 23 8 11 1.93
14 0 0 3 12 162 4.90
15 11 5 8 13 139 3.45
1 = very high contact, 2 = some contact, 3 = neutral, 4 = little contact, 5 =
very little contact
Question fourteen simply asked how many times a month the
student needed assistance of the RA. One would expect that freshman
would need their RA several times a month. However, surprisingly, 90%
indicated that they needed their RA between 0 and 5 times a month, with
6% indicating they needed them between 6 and 10. Either this indicates
that students want to demonstrate that they are self-sufficient, or they
have all their needs met without the help of the RA.
Question fifteen asks how often students attend the hall student
government. This was asked to find out whether those who attend
student government feel differently about the fairness of the power
imbalance in the hall. There was a discrepancy with these numbers
because a very few number attended student government meetings every
week while the majority never attended. Of the distribution, 77.2%
indicated that they never attend student government. Yet 6.1% said they
attend every week, which was the second highest percentage given. This
shows that most students dont attend, but those who do attend do so
The remaining questions (three through twelve) address the main
issue of this study. These are the questions that measure perceptions of
fairness. Again, the reader should note that the questions are asking the
same things in different ways, with some saying what is fair, and others
asking what is unfair. However the intent is the same: what actions of
power by the residence hall staff are considered fair and which are
perceived as unfair.
In order to get an overall picture of students perceptions, questions
were asked about common situations in the halls on a regular basis
including 1) discipline situations 2) rules and regulations (for example,
implementation of quiet hours) 3) roommate changes and how they are
administered 4) a general feeling or perception of students about how
they feel about the fairness of the system. These four issues were focused
on because of there common occurrence in halls across any university
system (ACUHO 1996).
Question three and eight asked how students felt about the hall
staffs use of discipline on students. Discipline can range from a visit to
the Hall Director to privileges taken away. Over half, 54% believed the
discipline system was fair and just, with 27.25% having no opinion. This
percent of students indicated that the discipline system implemented by
the staff was necessary to maintain fairness.
Questions four and nine asked students how they felt about the
policies and procedures and rules (such as quiet hours) that were imposed
on them. In these questions, 65.25% of the students indicated that they
agreed or strongly agreed that regulations must be in place to maintain
fairness. This was indicated even if these procedures infringe on their
rights from time to time. The remaining disagreed with the regulation of
quiet hours, with 23.05% neutral.
Questions five and ten ask the question concerning roommate
changes. Is it fair for the hall staff to refuse to grant a request to change
a roommate because they know what is better for the hall. With these
questions, 73.75% indicated that it is unfair for the housing staff to
refuse to grant a roommate change. Even if using this power is better for
the overall community of the residence hall, roommate changes should
still be granted no matter what.
The next set of questions, number six and eleven, have to do with
programming in the hall. The students were asked if it was fair and just
for the housing staff to do most of the programming in the building. Is it
fair that they have the power to do that. Of those questionnaires
returned, 39.75% indicated that they were neutral on the issue. The
majority of the rest indicated that they either agreed or disagreed, with
very few strongly agreeing or disagreeing. Students were really split
right down the middle on these two questions. The reasons for this will
be covered in the discussion section.
The last two questions, number seven and twelve, ask students
about there overall perception of the system of running the hall. Is the
methods and power imbalances fair or not. Of those students answering
this question, 65.9% agreed or strongly agreed that the system of running
the hall, with all its power imbalances, is fair and just. A power
imbalance is necessary to maintain perceptions of fairness.
By viewing the results, it should be noted that a clear bell curve
exists. Of the fair and unfair questions (see Table 4.4), the closer the
results shift to the left toward the agree and strongly agree, the higher
the perception of fairness in the given power imbalance structure of the
As mentioned earlier, there are ten questions that address the
issue of perceptions of fairness given the power imbalance. Because the
two of the questions address the same issue in a different way, those
questions were pooled together, and the numbers reversed. Again, this
was only done to view the demographic differences, and to simplify the
Table 4.4 Fairness Ratings of Sample Population
Given the Power Imbalance for Fall and Spring Questionnaires
1 2 3 4 5 Mean
3 31 65 49 25 7 2.50
4 54 67 41 5 10 2.15
5 2 10 38 74 52 3.93
6 4 24 86 51 10 3.22
7 10 100 42 17 6 2.48
8 26 67 50 26 7 2.55
9 18 96 45 14 2 2.35
10 0 5 34 83 51 4.04
11 7 53 57 54 5 2.98
12 21 104 34 12 5 2.30
These ratings represent perceptions of fairness. 1 very fair, 2 = fair, 3 = neutral, 4 = unfair, 5 = very unfair
To test the hypotheses given, a t-test was done. The independent
variable is power imbalances and the dependent variable is perception of
fairness. These variables were chosen in order to see how a perceived
power imbalance effects an actors perception of fairness. Each of the ten
questions that ask the degree of fair and unfair was correlated with how
much of a power imbalance the students indicated existed (questions 1
and 2). A graph was done of question 1 and 2. The results were looked at
separately in the Fall and in the Spring, making for a total of four
In viewing the graphs, the numbers across the top represent the
degree in which a power imbalance exists. Number 1 represents a high
perception of a power imbalance, and number 5 represents a low
perception of a power imbalance. For each of the ten questions 3 through
13, the mean is given for each perception of fairness as it relates to the
degree of the power imbalance. For example, Table 4.5 represents the
Fall questionnaire for power question number 1. The first number under
column 1 is 2.697. This number indicates that for every student who
answer 1 indicating a high power imbalance, the mean for the perception
of fairness was 2.697. The p value is also given.
One will recall that they way the questionnaire was designed,
along with the way the data was entered, determines if support is found
for the two given hypotheses. For each question, a mean of 2 or lower
shows a perception of fairness for that question, supporting the first
hypothesis. A mean of 4 or higher shows a perception of unfairness,
supporting the second hypothesis.
For table 4.5, question 3, there is a significant difference in the
perception of fairness (p<0.04, t=.050). For table 4.6, there is significance
for question 3,7, and 10 (p<0.05, t=.044, t=.026, t=.003 respectively). For
the Spring questionnaires, table 4.7, there is significance for question 10
(p<0.05, t=.007). For table 4.8, there is no significance.
Given the infrequency of the significance for the various questions,
there is no conclusive evidence to support any of the two given
hypothesis. The results indicate that there is a significance difference in
the answers from question to question given. There was support for the
hypothesis in given situations (the questions ask specific situations).
However, specific situations is not grounds for overall support of one
Table 4.5 Fall Semester Mean Perceptions of Fairness
Based on Power Question 1
Question # 1 2 3 4 5 p
3 2.697 2.200 2.536 1.600 0.0 0.050*
4 2.273 2.150 2.321 1.600 0.0 0.543
5 4.030 3.881 4.036 4.200 0.0 0.757
6 3.242 3.237 3.074 3.800 0.0 0.284
7 2.455 2.450 2.571 2.200 0.0 0.810
8 2.563 2.400 2.464 1.800 0.0 0.451
9 2.394 2.283 2.536 1.600 0.0 0.099
10 4.250 4.035 3.964 4.200 0.0 0.462
11 2.788 3.000 2.893 3.200 0.0 0.654
12 2.303 2.220 2.429 2.000 0.0 0.638
13 1.909 1.733 2.393 2.200 0.0 0.104
* p<0.05 indicates significance
Table 4.6 Fall Semester Mean Perceptions of Fairness
Base on Power Question 2
Question # 1 2
3 3.050 2.227
4 2.300 2.046
5 4.400 3.837
6 3.400 3.136
7 2.900 2.273
8 2.350 2.318
9 2.350 2.182
10 4.600 3.925
11 3.050 2.744
12 2.700 2.186
13 1.950 2.159
3 4 5
2.333 2.177 2.000
2.333 2.118 2.333
3.9524 3.824 4.000
3.317 3.125 2.667
2.595 2.177 2.333
2.595 2.438 2.333
2.452 2.471 2.333
3.976 4.235 3.333
3.095 3.000 2.000
2.286 2.059 2.000
1.738 2.000 1.333
* p<0.05 indicates significance
Table 4.7 Spring Semester Mean Perceptions of Fairness
Based on Power Question 1
Question # 3 1 2 3 4 5 P
2.546 2.714 2.546 0.0 3.000 0.928
4 2.000 1.857 2.546 0.0 2.000 0.329
5 3.727 4.000 3.636 0.0 3.000 0.553
6 3.182 3.250 3.364 0.0 1.000 0.147
7 2.636 2.321 2.727 0.0 3.000 0.576
8 3.363 2.714 2.818 0.0 1.000 0.128
9 2.455 2.231 2.546 0.0 3.000 0.608
10 4.273 4.107 3.273 0.0 3.000 0.007*
11 3.182 3.000 3.273 0.0 4.000 0.709
12 2.636 2.143 2.546 0.0 2.000 0.395
13 1.455 1.893 2.455 0.0 1.000 0.152
* p<0.05 indicates significance
Table 4.8 Spring Semester Mean Perceptions of Fairness
Based on Power Question 2
Question # 1 2 3 4 5 p
3 2.500 2.790 2.546 2.714 0.0 0.849
4 2.071 1.895 2.091 2.286 0.0 0.857
5 3.357 4.053 3.910 4.143 0.0 0.160
6 3.071 3.210 3.091 3.714 0.0 0.532
7 2.143 2.737 2.455 2.571 0.0 0.384
8 2.857 2.790 3.091 2.571 0.0 0.804
9 2.286 2.333 2.364 2.667 0.0 0.826
10 3.929 4.053 3.727 4.000 0.0 0.788
11 2.857 3.421 2.818 3.286 0.0 0.291
12 2.429 2.211 2.273 2.571 0.0 0.815
13 2.071 1.579 1.818 2.571 0.0 0.203
* p<0.05 indicates significance
The results indicated that students perceptions of fairness varied
greatly given the situation. Students believed that power imbalances
were necessary until it infringed on their individual freedoms. Looking
at some of the reasons students felt this way may give a clearer picture of
why the results varied. Because the answers given by the residents
varied given what each question was asking, it will be interesting to look
at the reasons and perceptions of fairness behind each answer.
As the questionnaire shows, students were given the opportunity
to comment on the answers that they gave. These comments give some
insight to the reasons behind the perceptions. By focusing on the
different issues that the questionnaire asked, as well as the overall
perceptions about the halls, much can be learned about why the students
responded as they did. Each set of questions will be looked at separately,
as was done in the results section (discipline, rules, roommate,
programming, and overall).
Overall, students felt there was a power imbalance in the residence
hall environment in which they lived. However it wasnt a significant
perception of a large power imbalance. As one resident indicated, They
[The RAs] have more information on some things, but Farrand hears my
voice as well as theirs if I speak my mind. According to another student,
I think programs should be appealing to the students. Resident
Advisors and the Hall Director have better ideas when it comes to
learning. To generalize, students felt that the hall staff had more
resources then they did. Therefore they do have more power, but they do
not have an overwhelming amount. No one indicated that there life was
being regimented by the power of the hall staff.
One way in which the hall staff uses their power is through
discipline. When a resident is found in violation of a policy or procedure
of the hall, the hall staff has the ability to impose an infraction on them.
When the residents were asked if the method of writing people up is fair
and just, generally the students believed it was a fair system, even
though it was a use of power by the administrators. There was a lot of
discrepancy, though. One resident noted, I agree when a student gets
written up for breaking the rules, as long as it isnt far-fetched. Said
another student, Usually they [the resident being contacted for a
discipline problem] are being written up for good reasons.
Although this survey did not specifically measure this, it appears
that those who had been written up before were those who did not agree
with the discipline process. One student who strongly disagreed with the
policy commented, No one has the right to tell people what to
do...whether it is drinking or whatever. You cannot control the issues of
college kids. Another student who was neutral said Ive never been
written up, so Im really not sure about these things. Another said that
she agreed as long as the process is done fairly.
With this set of questions, the perception of fairness depends
heavily on the individual contact they have had with the staff in power,
as the comments indicate. How discipline will be perceived depends a
great deal on the individual. Therefore, it would not be wise to give an
abstract assumptions that encompasses all students, except to say that
much of there perception of it will depend on if their freedoms have been
limited as a result of discipline.
It is safe to say the noise problems have been a concern in
residence halls in general (ACUHO, 1996). The University of Colorado -
Boulder in no exception. The setting of this study has set quiet hours
imposed by the hall staff. Given this power imbalance, the questionnaire
measured if students found the enforcement of quiet hours as fair or
Generally, residents believed that the hall staff should use their
power to enforce quiet hours. One resident noted, If we didnt have quiet
hours, things would really suck...you wouldnt be able to get any sleep
around here. Another resident commented that she believed in the idea
of enforcement for quiet hours, as long as it was fair. She said, there
ought to be respect for other people, but not being able to sit in the hall
during quiet hours is unfair.
These comments concerning quiet hours give the sense that it is
important for the hall staff to use their power to enforce them. However
if the enforcement is not perceived as consistent and fair, the residents
will feel that the power imbalance is unfair as well.
Students were asked about there perceptions of fairness concerning
the programming that happens in the hall and the fact that the hall staff
are the ones who implement it. In theory, programming is done for the
residents benefit. Different types of programs are done that help to
educate the students and build community in the hall. Funding for the
programs are provided by the fees that residents pay to live in the halls.
As the results show, the residents, on a general scale, were neutral on
Students didnt feel one way or the other with this because they
felt that it would be nice for the residents to have some say in the
programming, but that if they did it themselves, they wouldnt have the
resources to get it done. Said one student, I think the residents could
offer suggestions to RAs, but if it were left up to residents completely, I
dont think it would get done. Another resident indicated, FCC [the
student government] is good to use for that [programming]. This line of
reasoning shows that power imbalances seem to be necessary to have
programming in the hall, because it allows the resources to be in those of
power who can make it happen, as one student reported.
The one area where students felt it was unfair for the hall staff to
use its power was in refusing to issue a roommate change, even if it was
best for the overall community of the hall. Noted one resident, They [the
hall staff] is not in our situation. What if they were the ones with the
roommate from hell. Another resident commented, If someone is really
having problems with their roommate, they know whats going on better
than the RA or Hall Director. It is event that students see roommate
problems as being very personal. This shows little concern for how the
hall staff want to use there power to help the situation. This is evident in
the comment from one student who said, Requested roommate changes
should be a top priority, since they so greatly effect the involved quality
Why such a strong change in students perceptions of fairness when
it comes to roommate changes? The answer lies in what sociologist have
known for years: when a situation effects someone personally, there is
little regard for how the situation effects the group. So even if residents
are told that by them having to live with a bad roommate situation helps
the community, has no effect on the students. They feel the power of the
hall staff is used unfairly when it imposes directly on the individual
comforts and situation of residents. So for this question, the second
hypothesis was supported: power imbalances counter the norms of
When looking at the overall perceptions of fairness, there is
evidence to support the first hypothesis and the second hypothesis in
given situations. However there is not support for either hypothesis
overall. Given the results of the survey and the observations of the
researcher, there is evidence that power imbalances are acceptable by the
students if they are conducted in a legitimate way that maintains the
norms of justice for the community. There is also evidence that no matter
how legitimate the imbalance is, when it imposes on students individual
freedoms, it is perceived as unfair.
Given the above statement, it should be noted that there are some
demographic and student involvement issues that effect students
perceptions of fairness. For example, as the results show, students who
attend student government on a regular basis or have more contact with
their RA are more likely to have higher perceptions of fairness when it
comes to power imbalances. One explanation for this has to do with
empowerment. If students feel that they are being listened to and have
contact with the people in power, than they are more likely to feel that
the policies imposed on them are fair ones. Another explanation is that
students may see why decisions are made as they are by the staff in
power, which in turn makes them believe it is fair.
There was, however, a difference in perceptions of fairness and
power imbalances with minority student as opposed to white students.
Of the small amount of questionnaires returned by minority students,
there was a slight larger finding that they would indicate that power
imbalances were necessary for perceptions of fairness to occur. In other
words, minority students felt that the power imbalance benefited them
more than white students felt it did. As with the questionnaires for
sophomore students, there was not enough minority students living in
this setting that returned questionnaires to make it statistically
For gender, it was more likely that female residents had a higher
perception of fairness than the male residents. This may be partially due
to several factors. First of all, females indicated that they had a better
relationship with the hall staff than males did. More females were also
involved in student government. As noted earlier, those involved in
student government and had more contact with their hall staff were more
likely to have a higher perception of fairness. Also, on average, male
students are more likely to be involved in an infraction in the residence
hall than females. This to may play a role in the difference in
It is also interesting to see that students who said they could
understand the position of residence hall staff had a higher perception of
fairness. This indicates that students who are able to put themselves in
the role of the RA (role taking), had a better understanding of the reasons
for the rules, and thus, perceiving them as fair. This was evident in the
comments given by students on the questionnaire. On the other hand,
students who commented that they outright disagreed with the RAs were
more likely to show aggression (as defined earlier). This was evident
with those students who indicated they were angry with the rules and
wanted them changed.
In a residence hall setting, it is not possible to say that one of the
theories tested has more significance than the other. There was evidence
that power imbalances are necessary in social exchange for the norms of
justice to occur in certain situations. However, with the example of a
roommate conflict, there is overwhelming evidence that power
imbalances work against the norms of justice, supporting the second
These leads to the conclusion that power imbalances and
perceptions of fairness depend on the amount of freedom given to or
taken away from the individual actor in the exchange. In a community
environment such as a residence hall, most will agree that power
imbalances are necessary to maintain fairness for everyone. Yet the
moment that power takes away freedom from the individual, than that
individual will perceive it as unfair.
As a suggestion for future research, sociology may want to focus on
situations that involve community living, whether in a residence hall or
housing project. Much needs to be learned from how power imbalances
and perceptions of fairness are affected when the parties have little
choice in their living situation. A good study would be to see if the
results obtained here about residence halls apply to assistance living or
housing projects as well.
Farrand Hall Questionnaire Soring 1997
In order to compare attitudes of Farrand residents between the fall and spring semester, we are conducting a
similar survey to that of 5 months ago. Please answer the following questions. Completing this
questionnaire is voluntary and anonymous. At no point will the information given be used against you. This
questionnaire is for the purpose of better understanding the needs of Farrand Students and making
necessary improvements. The information in the upper right corner is to record which floor gets credit and
to ensure no duplicates are made.
THE FLOOR WITH THE HIGHEST RETURNS WILL RECEIVE A FREE PIZZA PARTY!!!
For each question, circle the letter(s) that corresponds to the degree of your agreement or
disagreement with the statement
SA-Strongly Agree A-Agree N-Neutral D-Disagree SD-Strongly Disagree
1) When (if) you seek help or need something from your RA or HD, you do it because they have more
resources and influence in Farrand to solve your living problem than you do. Besides, thats their job.
SA A N D SD
2) When it comes to trying to change something in Farrand (rule change, programs, activities), the RAs and
HD have more power than I do in making these changes.
SA A N D SD
3) When (if) residence life staff writes someone up for a discipline problem, they have every right to do
that- it is fair because they are doing their job.
SA A N D SD
4) I find the fact that the RAs and HD implement quiet hours is unfair. Farrand would be a better place to
live if there were no set quiet hours
SA A N D SD
5) If I come to my RA or HD and need a roommate change, it is legitimate for them to refuse my wishes.
Besides, they have more experience and know things about Farrand that I dont.
SA A N D SD
6) It is unfair for the RAs and HD to do most of the programming in Farrand. The residents should be able
to take the responsibility to do more programming.
SA A N D SD
7) The system of running Farrand Hall is (for the most part) fair and just. By giving the main decision-
making power to the RAs and HD, it allows them to maintain an environment where everyone has the same
amount of freedom as everyone else.
SA A N D SD
8) It is unfair when a RA residence life staff writes someone up for discipline. At times they are even using
their position to control me.
SA A N D SD
9) The purpose of the Farrand RA staff is to set up a system of norms and policies that run Farrand in a fair
manner. RAs should enforce the rules even if I have to sacrifice things I would like to do once in a while.
SA A N D SD
10) If I come to my RA or HD needing a roommate change, (s)he should make every effort to accommodate
my needs. It is not fair for him/her to refuse my request just because (s)he has the power to do so.
SA A N D SD
11) It is legitimate for the RA staff to have the final authority on what activities take place in Farrand. After
all, they know what is good for Farrand and thats their job.
SA A N D SD
12) The system of running Farrand is unfair and lacks justice. Giving the decision-making power to the RAs
and HD, allows them to maintain an environment that infringes on my personal rights and freedoms.
SA A N D SD
13) I maintain a good relationship with my RA, talking with him/her several times a month.
SA A N D SD
14) How many situations have occurred during a given month where you needed even minor assistance of a
RA or Hall Director (HD) to solve a living condition problem (roommate, maintenance) that you were unable
to solve on your own?
( ) 0-5 times ( ) 6-10 ( ) 11-15 ( ) 16-20 ( ) Over 20
15) Each month I attend Farrand Community Council on Wednesday evenings on average
( ) never ( ) once ( ) twice ( ) three times ( ) Four or more
Please return to your RA or the Main Office by Friday, March 21st in order to qualify for the free pizza
THANK YOU FOR YOUR HELP IN IMPROVING FARRAND!!!
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