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Keywords:

  • environmental management system;
  • laboratory safety;
  • regulatory compliance;
  • relational regulation;
  • sociological citizen

Abstract

Designed to close the ubiquitous gap between law on the books and law in action, management systems locate the standard setting and implementation of regulation within the regulated organization itself. Despite efforts to more closely couple aspirations and performance, the gap re-emerges because the exigencies of practical action exceed the capacity of system prescriptions to anticipate and contain them. Drawing on data from a six-year ethnographic study of the creation and implementation of an environment, health, and safety management system, this article identifies relational regulation as the approach used by front-line managers to govern the gap: keeping organizational activities within an acceptable range of variation close to regulatory specifications. We identify four practices – narrating the gap, inquiring without constraint, integrating pluralistic accounts, and crafting pragmatic accommodations – and three conditions under which actors may develop a sociological orientation to enact relational regulation. Overall, the article concludes that the mechanism for assuring compliance resides in the apprehension of relational interdependencies rather than the management system per se.