Ambiguity and relational signals in regulator–regulatee relationships


Correspondence: Julien Etienne, London School of Economics and Political Science, Centre for Analysis of Risk and Regulation, Houghton Street, London WC2A 2AE, UK. Email:


Responsive Regulation translated an ongoing academic debate about behavior orientation and regulatory enforcement into a synthetic framework. Yet ethnographic studies reveal that ambiguity pervades regulator–regulatee interactions and suggest that the reality of regulatory encounters may be too ambivalent to fit the picture of the regulatory “game” at the heart of Ayres and Braithwaite's theory. This article proposes to address this ambivalence by drawing the outline of a relational signaling approach to regulatory encounters. The regulatory game is deconstructed into several ideal types of regulator–regulatee relationships. Within each ideal type ambiguity is managed with relational signals, namely behaviors that take a specific signification depending on the nature of the relationship. A relational signaling approach can account for the varying meanings of cooperation, defection, and mutual social control across different regulator–regulatee dyads.