In the past, our identity or individuality was largely determined by the type of social environment in which we happened to be. Social mores were frequently strict and adherence was required of all who wished to be accepted by the group as a whole. However, with a malleable and nomadic modernistic social environment, there is no longer such reliance on these factors. As Saldukaityte notes, “the possibility to go beyond given circumstances, to expand oneself into chosen possibilities, might be considered a positive opportunity: now we do not have to be artists in the narrow sense to be profoundly creative” (161). Essentially, our identity is completely determined by our choices – which can be made from a seemingly endless list of possibilities.

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For decades, even centuries, the idea of being ‘different’ was appalling, unacceptable, and even abhorrent. In early American history, women in Puritan New England who remained single into their later years (e.g. 30s and beyond) and were well-versed in herbal or folk remedies found themselves hunted down and killed, labeled heretics and witches. Countless European painters, sculptors, composers, and writers – including Leonardo DaVinci, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and William Shakespeare – were persecuted for daring to declare their beliefs outside of the accepted norms of their time. Religious outliers were frequently tortured, thrown in towers or dungeons, or even burned alive as Joan of Arc. Social groups were formed, sides were chosen, and lines dividing them were sharply drawn. Anyone who attempted to cross those lines met with the judgment of the group – and a ‘sentence’ that was swiftly meted out.

But today, social environment is extremely fluid, shifting easily from moment to moment. At first glance, this seems to be a liberating chance to stretch our proverbial wings and fly with no old-world boundaries such as expectations of marriage, gender, status, wealth, or legacy. Yet, this type of freedom to switch from one environment to another is not all that it seems. “If we are enchanted by everything that is new just because it is new, we lose our sensitivity to the more important, indeed overriding differences between good and evil” (Saldukaityte 162). In effect, by constantly shifting our allegiances and never committing to any one thing, the key ingredient – perspective – is entirely lost.

As modern society leans further towards advocating a revolution of all things, it is vital to understand that “moral revolution is described as an ideal theory of cultural progress” and “plays a significant role in human life” bringing both reason and nature closer together (Saldukaityte 163). In this way, the modern fluidity and insistence on being different – especially undergoing a shifting moral revolution – will be the epitome of progress. Interestingly, Kant addressed issues in his time that have again become problematic in this time: “rising capitalism and consumerism…which transforms social lives” (Saldukaityte 163). When the identity of self is almost solely based on these factors, social environment becomes nothing more than a breeding ground for envy, narcissism, and the endless pursuit of ‘more’. This is when our identity is threatened at its very core, because the social environment is then devoid of any value to developing individuation – as the group is merely a collection of egocentric individuals.

Although previous generations’ identity was largely determined by social environment, the seismic upheaval of this environment in contemporary times has almost entirely removed any influence it previously had on the determination of identity. There is no longer an expectation that one must commit to a particular social environment and remain loyal. Today, it seems more accurate to state that the extent to which our identity is now determined by social environment is practically null.

  • Saldukaitytė, J. (2017). Identity in contemporary society. Filosifija Sociologija., 28(3), 161-164. Retrieved from