Recognizing that traditional institutions continuously evolve to remain relevant, the authors build on critical institutionalism and the concept of institutional bricolage to explain autonomous change processes in traditional institutions. Such “bricolage” focuses on how agents of change – known as bricoleurs – combine locally available political, social, cultural and symbolic resources and relationships in new ways to address everyday challenges and respond to new conditions.

In this paper, the authors’ approach was based on Pacific research methodologies and involved unstructured conversations with 20 women and 18 men from two villages in Vanuatu. Their fieldwork explored the emergence of village committees as a governance mechanism to sustain access to vital services such as the maintenance of communal water systems.

Their data reveal that a small number of bricoleurs (local agents of change) were driving these autonomous institutional change processes; their agency is both enabled and constrained by structures within and beyond community. Bricoleurs created new institutional arrangements to address new governance challenges by borrowing traditional and non-traditional elements and associated meaning, authority and legitimacy.

The authors’ analysis reveals the interplay of two established institutional bricolage processes – elite capture and leakage of meaning. Both processes operated to open up and close down spaces for change.

The paper draws on agonistic accounts of the political to deepen the understanding of why this is. By adopting this approach, the authors reveal the significance of the political at the local level, where village life is negotiated and results in profound shifts in some norms and the maintenance of others.

The authors concluded with reflections on the prospects of unsettling the deep-rooted exclusion from decision making of groups such as women and young people through future autonomous changes in village governance.