This book has been inspired by and is devoted to an in-depth examination of a single concept, namely that of compliance. Taken at face value this concept may appear to be straightforward. The Concise Oxford Dictionary ( 1990) defines compliance as 'the act or an instance of complying; obedience to a request, command etc'. The definition offered of the word 'comply' appears similarly uncomplicated--'act in accordance (with a wish, command, etc)'. Compliance thus conjures up notions of conformity.
This research is concerned with compliance with the law, a matter which may also appear unproblematic. In a formal sense the concept of compliance is strictly tied to the law. But regulatory laws, more so than much other legislation, need interpretation by field-level officials. It is not always clear what the law means, and hence what compliance might look like and entail. Regulatory law is often vague, involving broad legal standards and the exercise of discretion by officials. A sociolegal perspective of compliance reveals it to be a complicated process of adaptation, flexibility, reflection, and, above all, interpretation. This is in stark contrast to the image given in some official publications.
If we take examples from the substantive areas most appropriate to this study, namely those of health and safety at work and environmental regulation, there is a tendency to refer to 'compliance rates' as if they are unproblematically constructed. A British Factory Inspectorate publication on Managing Safety, for instance, discusses legal compliance: '[L]egal compliance . . . reflects the extent to which a range of specified hazards have been eliminated' ( HSE, 1981, p. 27) and it suggests that '[L]egal compliance can be quickly achieved by a determined and systematic approach' (ibid.). The earlier Robens Report into Safety and Health at Work had highlighted some of the drawbacks of such an interpretation: '[i]t is not enough to think in terms of "ensuring compliance" with minimum legal standards . . . the concept is too narrow and restrictive. . . . Inspectors should seek to raise standards above the minimum levels required by law' (1972, para. 211). The growing literature on regulation adds weight to the view that compliance is a much wider and more complicated concept than may at first be apparent.
Although compliance has emerged as a central feature of regulatory