Autonomous Change Processes in Traditional Institutions: Lessons from Innovations in Village Governance in Vanuatu

Daniel Vorbach*, Jonathan Ensor

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


In many parts of the world, traditional institutions are the backbone of village governance and service delivery. While the effects of introducing new institutional arrangements from outside have been widely studied, autonomous changes – that is, those that originate from within communities – are not well understood. Recognising that traditional institutions continuously evolve to remain relevant, we build on critical institutionalism and the concept of institutional bricolage to explain autonomous change processes in traditional institutions. Relying on unstructured storian conversations with community members (20 female, 18 male) from two villages in Vanuatu, our fieldwork explored the emergence of village committees as a governance mechanism to sustain access to vital services. Storian data revealed that a small number of bricoleurs – local agents of change – were driving these autonomous institutional change processes, their agency enabled and constrained by structures within and beyond the community. Bricoleurs created new institutional arrangements to address new governance challenges by borrowing traditional and non-traditional elements and associated meaning, authority and legitimacy. Our analysis reveals the interplay of two established institutional bricolage processes – elite capture and leakage of meaning – each of which operated to open up and close down spaces for change. We draw on agonistic accounts of the political to deepen our understanding of this interaction. By adopting this approach, we reveal the significance of the political at the local level, through which the social plurality of village life is negotiated, resulting in profound shifts in some norms and the maintenance of others. We conclude 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.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)173-188
Number of pages16
JournalInternational Journal of the Commons
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 5 Jul 2022

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
This work was funded by the United Kingdom Research and Innovation (UKRI) under Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) grant EP/P027571/1 and Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) grant ES/T00259X/1. The research was done with the approval and support of the Vanuatu Cultural Centre. We express our gratitude to all research participants for their time and willingness to participate in this research. We also thank our project partner Oxfam in Vanuatu for their support. We would also like to thank Margarette Meto-Dick for her valuable assistance and cultural guidance during data collection. Finally, many thanks to the anonymous reviewers who provided constructive and supportive feedback and helped us to improve this paper.

Publisher Copyright:
© 2022 The Author(s).


  • agonism
  • critical institutionalism
  • institutional bricolage
  • Pacific
  • Vanuatu

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