Laws, Regulations, and Standards: An Agenda for Researching the Mechanisms of Compliance
We begin from our different projects—one on health care for Deaf patients and one on environmental regulations and decision making in fossil fuel extraction. In each case, we see activists working to enforce and sustain accomplishments of their social movements—gains that have been textualized in laws, regulations, and standards. Such accomplishments represent significant progress but we suggest that the “technologies of compliance” associated with them may be designed in ways that do not work for constituencies in the ways that were intended. We see that “compliance” is sometimes operationalized in “ticking the box” procedures that may not change on-the-ground realities, or accomplished through reporting that transfers responsibility from the organization to constituents. Standards designed for businesses (such as those introduced by the ISO) produce compliance as a marketing tool. And in all cases, new laws, regulations, and standards seem to produce “industries of compliance,” that is, new consulting professions whose interests and practices deserve further attention. We have begun to explore the practices of compliance with an eye toward their use by social activists and we hope to open this productive field of inquiry to further institutional ethnographic investigation.