In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Imprinting

  • Introduction
  • Introductory Works
  • Imprinting of Organizational Building Blocks

Management Imprinting
András Tilcsik, Christopher Marquis
  • LAST REVIEWED: 01 March 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 November 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199846740-0075


Imprinting is a process whereby an actor or entity develops characteristics that reflect prominent features of the environment. This occurs during a brief period of heightened susceptibility (known as a sensitive period), and the resulting characteristics are persistent: they endure even in the face of dramatic subsequent changes in the environment. Thus, an imprint is a stamp of the past that is acquired during a short, sensitive period but that remains unchanged for a long time. The concept of imprinting first emerged in studies of animal behavior in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and was introduced to organizational research in the 1960s. Traditionally, organizational and management scholars have used the imprinting concept to describe how organizations and industries take on elements of the wider social and economic environment in which they are founded and how these elements persist long beyond the founding phase, even as external conditions shift. More recently, there has also been significant scholarly interest in imprinting at the level of individuals and organizational building blocks. Because of its applicability across different levels of analysis, imprinting has become an important concept in a variety of subfields and theoretical traditions in organizational and management research, including organizational ecology, institutional theory, network analysis, and career research. To reflect this diversity and the multilevel nature of imprinting research, the readings in this article are organized by the level of analysis at which imprinting takes place: the Imprinting of Organizational Collectives (such as industries and communities), the Imprinting of Organizations, the Imprinting of Organizational Building Blocks (such as jobs, positions, and routines within an organization), and the Imprinting of Individuals. At each of these levels different aspects of the environment—such as economic and technological conditions, institutional factors, or particular individuals—may leave an imprint on the focal actor or entity.

Introductory Works

Arthur L. Stinchcombe is often credited with introducing the concept of imprinting to organizational research with his seminal essay “Social Structure and Organizations” (Stinchcombe 1965). Although Stinchcombe did not use the term imprinting, the concept soon became associated with this essay, which explores why organizations (and types of organizations) that had been created in the same period were similar even several decades after their founding. Stinchcombe has proposed that the external environment shapes organizations’ initial structures, which are then institutionalized and remain relatively stable over time even as the environment changes. Marquis and Tilcsik 2013 offers an introduction to the diverse streams of imprinting research that have built on Stinchcombe’s initial insights and proposes a definition of imprinting that applies across multiple levels of analysis, from organizational collectives and particular organizations to organizational building blocks and individuals. Vergne and Durand 2010 helps distinguish imprinting from other concepts that describe how the past continues to shape the present, including path dependence, first-mover advantage, resource accumulation, structural inertia, and institutional persistence. Johnson 2008 provides theoretical clarity on several important dimensions of imprinting at the organizational level, shedding light on how imprinting takes place at the founding phase and theorizing the mechanisms whereby imprinted structures and practices continue to be reproduced after founding.

  • Johnson, Victoria. Backstage at the Revolution: How the Royal Paris Opera Survived the End Of the Old Regime. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008.

    NNNClarifies how two distinct types of processes lead to imprinting at the organizational level: (1) processes by which the founding context shapes a new organization and (2) processes by which these characteristics persist during the organization’s subsequent history.

  • Marquis, Christopher, and András Tilcsik. “Imprinting: Toward a Multilevel Theory.” Academy of Management Annals 7.1 (2013): 193–243.

    NNNReviews the organizational and management literature on imprinting at different levels of analysis (organizational collectives, organizations, organizational building blocks, individuals) and introduces an explicit definition of imprinting that applies across these levels; gives suggestions for future research.

  • Stinchcombe, Arthur L. “Social Structure and Organizations.” In Handbook of Organizations. Edited by J. G. March, 142–193. Chicago: Rand McNally, 1965.

    NNNIntroduces the idea of imprinting (although not the term) and discusses examples at both the industry and the organizational level; emphasizes that organizations and industries continue to reflect the socioeconomic conditions present at their founding.

  • Vergne, Jean-Phillipe, and Rodolphe Durand. “The Missing Link between the Theory and Empirics of Path Dependence: Conceptual Clarification, Testability Issue, and Methodological Implications.” Journal of Management Studies 47.4 (2010): 736–759.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-6486.2009.00913.x

    NNNCompares and contrasts imprinting with other organizational concepts and theories that describe how “history matters,” including path dependence, first-mover advantage, resource accumulation, structural inertia, institutional persistence, and chaos theory.

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