If studying the enforcement of regulation, why choose water pollution? There is much to be said when producing something of an exploratory analysis in relatively uncharted territory for selecting an arena of control that is bounded and manageable. Noise and air pollution may represent social problems equally worthy of enquiry, but as phenomena they are even more ephemeral than water pollution which at least possesses a kind of tangibility and largely predictable pathways of deviance.
A notion of the practical also informed the choice of the two regional water authorities studied, which were selected largely for their accessibility. Research was conducted in a pair of agencies on the assumption (subsequently shown to be unwarranted) that differences in both the character of the territory to be policed and organizational structures and procedures might lead to some substantial variation in enforcement behaviour. I have no reason to believe that the policies adopted by these authorities and the practices of their staffs are in any sense atypical of pollution control work in general; indeed, the parallels in the behaviour of staff in both agencies at all levels in the organizational hierarchy (and in the behaviour of other enforcement staff, as suggested in the literature) are striking.
The research field work reported in this study was carried out in agencies which had only been in existence in their present form little more than two years. Some legislation was awaiting implementation, and they were still actively engaged in developing and refining their administrative practices while I was working with them. Where it is relevant to do so I have discussed the nature and implications of such changes; otherwise I have, at the risk of some slight imprecision, used the present tense, frozen the action, and presented a picture of relatively stable organizational arrangements as they obtained in the mid to late 1970s. Doubtless there have been further changes since the field work was conducted, but this is not relevant, however, to the questions addressed in the book.
(p.226) In carrying out the research, I was in contact with over seventy agency staff in the two regional water authorities for a period, with interruptions, of about thirty months. I worked with people at all levels in the organizational hierarchy, from director level to the newest and least experienced recruits. Though my research concerns demanded that I spent most of the time in the field with the pollution control officers, I also talked at considerable length with technical, administrative, and supervisory staff, and people employed in the agencies’ legal departments.
Many social researchers who discuss the question of access to a research setting seem hardly able to conceal their surprise at the degree of co-operation they received and the apparent openness of their subjects. My experience was the same. I presented myself to senior staff when negotiating for access (and subsequently to field staff when the work was under way) as a researcher from Oxford University conducting a study concerned with the way pollution control worked and the part played in it by the law. I emphasized that I was interested in learning how field staff did their job, for which I would need to accompany them during their daily work. Senior staff were perfectly willing to co-operate. For my part I offered the usual assurances of anonymity and confidentiality, together with a promise that agency staff would be allowed to read a draft of the monograph, and have the opportunity of correcting errors and reflecting on the accuracy of the analysis. (In the event, there were few comments or corrections.)
Data were primarily collected by extensive participant observation of field staff in their routine work. The data from naturalistic observation were later supplemented by lengthy conversations in the field officers’ area offices which were tape recorded. I also tape recorded long conversations with senior staff, including those in the legal departments, at headquarters. These conversations were rarely less than an hour in length, and usually much longer. I also made use of published agency materials and those internal agency documents to which I was given access: notes, memoranda, minutes of meetings, reports, and statements of policy.
The cases described in the book are those which simply happened to be dealt with at the time by field staff. In no sense did I either select a sample of cases, or deliberately follow through cases from beginning to end (though I did collect some data of this kind). Besides, with persistent failures to comply it is difficult to speak of the ‘beginning’ (p.227) or ‘end’ of a case, when compliance is so negotiable. Some cases were observed in which a field man was embarking upon what he considered to be a potentially lengthy compliance process. In others, a particular ‘problem’ was already months or years old.
The field work was conducted in two stages, beginning in June 1976. The first was purely exploratory and partly intended to prepare the ground for more intensive work. I visited all the administrative areas in the northern authority in turn to talk to the various area supervisors and spent two further working days in the field with one of the pollution control officers. I also paid visits to two of the five administrative areas in the southern authority, spending time with almost all the field staff in both areas in the first phase of the research. (Owing to differences in internal organization the two areas selected for study in the southern authority were rather larger than the corresponding areas in the northern agency.) At this stage I also talked to the area supervisors in two other areas in the southern authority. The intention of this first phase of the research was to learn what enforcement work looked like, how field men defined problems, and what they regarded as their central concerns in the practical business of pollution control.
The second stage of the research began after an intermission of about three months devoted to preliminary analysis and reflection. Owing to other commitments it sprawled over a period of several months. I again sampled administrative units, not individual officers. I chose two of the seven administrative areas in the northern authority for a detailed study, working with all their field officers. These two areas were selected because they were recognized in the agency as containing more ‘problems’ than any of the other regions, thus promising a greater degree of enforcement activity. Since both areas had districts which ranged from the extremely rural to the entirely urban, there seemed to be little risk of producing a biased picture of the nature of enforcement. I also returned for further research to the two areas in the southern authority in which I had already worked. Both of these also contained a wide selection of problems characteristically associated with urban-industrial and rural life. It was important to observe field men handle this range and variety, since the tasks and tolerances involved in preserving the purity of a rural stream to permit potable supply or trout farming differ substantially from those to be confronted in attempting to prevent a highly polluted fishless urban stream from becoming a health hazard. (p.228) Though I hoped to be able to work with all the officers in the two selected southern authority areas, as I had in the northern, there were two officers with whom I did not make the rounds. In both cases their supervisor felt that they were not especially good at their job and was concerned (mistakenly, I thought) that I ‘wouldn’t learn anything from them’. In the interests of maintaining good relationships with the supervisor and his office in general, I did not demur.
I did the rounds with thirty-six field officers in this second phase, observing them at work throughout the day, usually for periods of two to four days. In total, I collected data from seventy-four different members of the pollution control divisions of the authorities. It was in this second stage that I concentrated particularly on the central research questions outlined in Chapter 1.
As other field workers have discovered, a lot is to be learned from travelling around with research subjects and hanging about in their offices. In my case I spent a good part of each day in the field men’s cars, talking to them at length on the road between visits or at sampling stops. The pub at lunchtime, and sometimes in the evening as well, was also a place in which the field men would relax and reflect at length on their activities. I spent the whole of the time during fieldwork watching, listening, and talking. Where and whenever I could I scribbled brief notes which I later amplified and wrote up.
In doing the research none of the field staff raised difficulties or acted in any way which I could interpret as signifying concern about my presence. When out with them I sought to disguise my identity from no-one but left it to each field officer to decide whether he wanted to introduce me to dischargers. Some did; most did not. Sometimes I was introduced and identified as a researcher studying pollution control work; sometimes I was introduced neutrally by name alone but with no suggestion of my affiliation or why I was present. The evidence of subsequent conversations suggests that such introductions usually led the other party to assume that I was another member of the water authority. Only twice was I asked to identify myself, and I was never refused access to premises or land or excluded from negotiations.
I chose participant observation as the primary means of collecting data in observance of the interactionist injunction to respect and reflect the nature of the empirical world (Blumer, 1969). Observation provides the raw material which permits the activities of enforcement agents and their discretionary behaviour to be understood in the context of their routine work. It allows the researcher ‘to attain a grasp (p.229) of the meaning of…rules as common-sense constructs from the perspective of those…who promulgate and live with them’ (Bittner, 1965:251). My chief concern, then, was to learn in detail at first hand about the business of pollution control at field level, to experience personally the field man’s world, the mundane activities as well as the occasional dramatic events. I was careful not to interrupt the officers’ daily routine and I tried to impress upon them that I wanted them to carry out their sampling, inspections, and negotiations exactly as they would in my absence. So far as I could tell, field staff generally observed this request, but there were a few occasions when I was given something of a guided tour by those officers who were keen to show me pollutions or special problems. Now and then—inevitably—I was taken to visit the sites of some of their more conspicuous successes.
Naturalistic observation was devoted, then, to learning what officers define as relevant in their everyday environment of sampling, monitoring, and routine encounters with dischargers and polluters. I did not study any of the pollution legislation before embarking on field work because I wanted to learn the law as the field officers knew it, and I wanted also to avoid the distortion arising from a particular sense of relevance which thorough prior knowledge of the formal structure of rules may have conferred on what I was actually observing. The perspective—the ‘set of actions used by a group in solving collective problems’ (Becker and Geer, 1960:280)—firmly adopted in this study is that of the pollution control officer. It is particularly important to bear this in mind in reading Part III of the book which analyses negotiating and bargaining tactics from one side only of a dual relationship (for a view of enforcement from the discharger’s perspective, see Brittan’s forthcoming study). The picture of the polluter which emerges is that as conceived by the field man. But it is this, of course, (as W. I. Thomas would doubtless have observed) upon which the officer premisses his enforcement strategy. Thorough immersion in the life of the pollution control officer makes it possible to draw inferences about the processes by which he defines and interprets the world. In an effort to determine the validity of the research interpretation these inferences were later tested by informal discussion with field staff to reach some conclusion about the extent to which they were recognizable to them (cf. Bittner, 1967a:701; Muir, 1977:287; see also Manning, 1972).
At the end of the fieldwork period, by which time very good relationships had been established with field staff, I tape-recorded conversations with almost all the officers I had observed at work (p.230) during the second stage of the research and with almost all of their seniors. The purpose of the conversations was to discuss in a relatively systematic fashion some of the key issues which had emerged from participant observation. Extracts from them are presented in the text verbatim to preserve the sense of conversation, save that I have edited asides and the conversational bits and pieces, the ‘urns’, ‘ahs’, and ‘ers’, which litter naturally occurring talk. I use the conventions of points (…) to signify elided material, and a long dash (——) to indicate pauses. The discussions were very loosely structured to preserve as natural and informal a setting as possible and to avoid even the hint of a contrived formal interview (Schatzman and Strauss, 1973:71 ff.). In conducting the conversations at the end of the fieldwork period, when good rapport existed, my hope was that respondents would be less likely to create data, deliberately or unwittingly, either through a desire to mislead or faulty recall. I wished to avoid as much as possible the trap of making assumptions about behaviour from verbal descriptions (Phillips, 1973), hence the emphasis given to extensive prior participant observation.
Agency staff co-operated fully in the conversations without exception. All officials, field and headquarters alike, were (so far as I could tell) very open; some of them, certainly, were very frank. There were no objections to my using a tape recorder (indeed I was on two occasions actually offered the use of an office machine when I had technical problems with my own!). No meetings or encounters which I knew about were closed to me, and there were no signs that things were hidden from me or that staff acted in any sense evasively.
Data collection, of course, is a social process in itself and the presence of a researcher may well be a source of influence on the behaviour and responses of the research subjects. My impression is that my presence—if it had any impact at all—tended to affect only the trivial things in the daily round. For example, an officer who wanted to relieve the tedium of a routine (but time-consuming) river sample once observed ‘Because you’re here, I’d better take the sample properly.’
In presenting what I hope is an accurate picture of pollution control work I have made three closely-related assumptions. First, the longer the exposure of the researcher to his research subjects, the more familiar they will be with his presence; and the greater the exposure, the less their desire or ability to mislead. People do not keep up an act for long—and the job of being a field officer is more pressing than the (p.231) task of managing a front towards an observer (Becker, 1970:46). The researcher’s presence soon comes to be taken for granted (cf. Sudnow, 1967:7). This was a major reason for the relatively lengthy period of fieldwork. Participant observation, as Skolnick (1966:36) has observed:
offers the subject less opportunity to dissimulate than he would have in answering a questionnaire, even if he were consciously telling the truth in response to standardized questions.…The process of ‘arguing’, discussing, especially in the setting of the police work itself, creates an air of informality when opinions seem to be more openly expressed.
Secondly, research subjects are more likely to behave naturally—as they would, that is, in the absence of the observer—if the observer becomes a normal part of the scene. It does not mean that the researcher lurks unobtrusively in the background pretending not to be there (which is hardly possible when the observer is being ferried around by his research subjects), but rather that he helps out where need be, assisting with sampling, carrying equipment, and in general behaving as a colleague of the subject’s might behave (cf. Schwartz and Schwartz, 1955; Sudnow, 1967: 7–8). There comes a point, of course, when playing the role of researcher as participant creates an ethical problem about the degree and kind of help which should be given. In my case, I decided to assist only in banal matters of fetching and carrying, and to withdraw when the help sought began to encroach on areas of judgment that could have a bearing on the handling of a case. (This rarely happened, in fact. The most dramatic example of an attempt to co-opt the researcher in solving problems arose when a field man of many years’ experience was confronted with a massive oil pollution which had occurred through the failure of a new storage tank. The officer, however, could not attribute blame for the pollution and was torn between recommending prosecution for general deterrent purposes (given the size of the spill), and doing nothing more than issuing a stern warning. After presenting the facts of the case to me in great detail, he than asked ‘What would you do?’ in a tone of voice which indicated the question was not meant hypothetically. My response was entirely evasive (and no doubt terribly unhelpful to the officer concerned) since it merely rehearsed in somewhat different form the dilemma facing him.)
Finally, I take it as an indicator that people were behaving more or less normally that they were willing to talk freely about sensitive topics. If there was a field man who was thought to be lazy or no good at his job, for instance, others were prepared to tell me. If they had (p.232) complaints about the agency or their superiors, as many did, again they were prepared to tell me. In both cases I assume that if field men were willing to talk critically—abusively, sometimes—about other staff, especially their senior staff, with whom (as they well knew) I was in personal contact, this is some indication of trust and rapport. In general, I take openness on the part of a research subject to be a favourable sign, whether the openness be of talk—about private ambition, for example, or bitterness towards senior staff—or of behaviour—such as an unhesitating willingness to engage in negotiations in the researcher’s presence which could prove personally embarrassing.