Working Paper | HBS Working Paper Series | 2013

Imprinting: Toward A Multilevel Theory

by Christopher Marquis and Andras Tilcsik


The concept of imprinting has attracted considerable interest in numerous fields—including organizational ecology, institutional theory, network analysis, and career research—and has been applied at several levels of analysis, from the industry to the individual. This article offers a critical review of this rich yet disparate literature and guides research toward a multilevel theory of imprinting. We start with a definition that captures the general features of imprinting across levels of analysis but is precise enough to remain distinct from seemingly similar concepts, such as path dependence and cohort effects. We then provide a framework to order and unite the splintered field of imprinting research at different levels of analysis. In doing so, we identify economic, technological, institutional, and individual influences that lead to imprints at the level of (a) organizational collectives, (b) single organizations, (c) organizational building blocks, and (d) individuals. Building on this framework, we develop a general model that points to major avenues for future research and charts new directions toward a multilevel theory of imprinting. This theory provides a distinct lens for organizational research that takes history seriously.

Keywords: History; Situation or Environment; Organizational Design; Organizational Structure;


Marquis, Christopher, and Andras Tilcsik. "Imprinting: Toward A Multilevel Theory." Harvard Business School Working Paper, No. 13-061, January 2013. (Forthcoming in Academy of Management Annals.)