How Does History Matter? Contrasting Path Dependence and Imprinting Perspectives on Organizational Innovation


Path dependence and imprinting are two important but distinct theoretical lenses to understand the persistent effects of the past. While both concepts focus on how “history matters,” path dependence and imprinting differ substantially in terms of (a) importance of initial conditions (weak versus strong), (b) stability of historical influence over time (increasing versus stable), and (c) the mechanism sustaining the historical effect (self-reinforcement versus institutionalization). Based on these distinctions, we conduct two studies of firms’ patenting behaviors—a context where prior research has examined both path dependence and imprinting processes—to differentiate the two concepts empirically. In Study 1, we analyze auto-industry patent adoption by 8,391 firms in 42 countries from 1981 to 2018 and in Study 2 we examine auto-industry patenting behaviors of 7,573 publicly traded firms in the United States from 1968 to 2010. In both investigations, we find that prominent features during founding—when focal entities are open to external influence—enduringly affect patenting behaviors and the effects of these imprinted characteristics are stable but slowly decline over time. Furthermore, results suggest that the technological trajectory of patents mediates the relationship between imprinted characteristics and patent adoption, i.e., imprinted characteristics affect the cumulative stock of patents, which in turn affects patent adoption. Moreover, we do not find evidence of the self-reinforcement mechanism that lies at the core of path dependence but show that consistent with the imprinting perspective, the persistent influence results from institutionalization. Taken together, our results show that imprinting rather than path dependence is responsible for the lasting historical influence on organizational innovation, particularly the auto-industry patent adoption. Our research suggests that when studying how history matters, researchers need to differentiate path dependence and imprinting, and that some path dependent effects documented in the literature may be better characterized as imprinting alone or a combination of imprinting and path dependence.

Zoom link: 

Meeting ID: 917 5749 3892