Current understandings in the social sciences regard not only political, religious, economic or military establishments as institutions but also kinship units and some forms of short-term cooperation that are anchored in daily life. From a long-term perspective, the institutional structures of highland societies changed fundamentally. There is a general question of whether highland-specific configurations developed that produced particular social relationships. Here, social structures must be examined for their spatiotemporal scales and the question of economic and social resilience.
A main interest concerns the extent to which current standard narratives of increasing differentiation (“specialization”) of institutions and their consolidation correspond to a (pre-) historic reality anchored in the societies of the highlands.
Archaeological approaches remain too often simplistic in their assumptions of uniform neolithization, urbanisation or state-formation processes. A dearth of Neolithic material symbolism makes a significant difference with respect to Anatolia and the Levant (Matthews/Fazeli Nashli 2013; Matthews et al. 2013; Pollock/Bernbeck 2010). This might be due to specific, village-internal social and political configurations.
An examination of the variable structures and formation processes of early highland states is necessary as part of an evaluation of the range and variability of state formation processes in the Iranian highlands. For example, Aidan Southall (1988) has argued that religious and political institutions should be analysed for potential differences in their geographic reaches. “Segmentary states” may be characterized by special resilience against external military attacks (Bernbeck 2003/04). Other polities, especially the Sasanian Empire, show a strong interconnectedness of political and religious institutions; many facets of their geographic, economic and administrative relations still elude us.
Other problems in the field of institutional history concern a traditional over-focus on contents of institutions to the detriment of formalities. David Kertzer’s (1988) analysis of political rituals can be creatively integrated into historic comparative studies, with less attention paid to specific meanings of rituals and more to their formal character as a sequence of actions. Clifford Geertz’s (1981) model of a “theatre state” may be applicable to aspects of governmental practice in great empires such as the Achaemenids (see Briant 2002).
In previous research on Iranian highland societies, examinations of the interaction between public institutions and subsistence practices has remained largely undeveloped, although this aspect of political economy is an imperative element of every permanent state form. Much is known about the distribution and consumption at the Middle Elamite, Achaemenid or Sassanian courts, partly also about the origin of the goods distributed (Henkelman 2010). But we have nearly no knowledge about local village-level civil organization (settlement, economy, daily life) of the Achaemenid, Parthian and Sasanian periods. To improve this situation, micro-regions need to be examined systematically, as has been undertaken in a few areas (e.g. Darre-ye Bolaghi; Mamasani: Potts et al. 2009; Tappeh Rivi: Thomalsky et al. 2016). A unique project focuses on the rural Achaemenid until early Islamic economies in the Talkherud basin (Mahneshan) in the surrounding of the mineral salt mine of Douzlakh/Chehrābād (Āali, Stöllner 2015).