This special issue in the International Journal of the Commons furthers the study of natural resource management from a critical institutional perspective. Critical institutionalism (CI) is a contemporary body of thought that explores how institutions dynamically mediate relationships between people, natural resources and society. It focuses on the complexity of institutions entwined in everyday social life, their historical formation, the interplay between formal and informal, traditional and modern arrangements, and the power relations that animate them. In such perspectives a social justice lens is often used to scrutinise the outcomes of institutional processes. We argue here that critical institutional approaches have potentially much to offer, particularly through the explanatory power of the concept of bricolage for better understanding institutional change.