The concept of life control
and ways to support it
Life control is one of the main concepts in social pedagogy and to
find ways supporting life control is one of the goals of this branch
of science (Hämäläinen 1999; Hämäläinen & Kurki 1997, 126).
Social pedagogy is a framework of my research that I have been
doing in a suburb called Lippuniemi, in the city of Iisalmi. The
target of the research is a suburb project in this area, started in
1996. In that project the main goal is to activate inhabitants of the
area and to develop different means of social action, which prevent
social problems — especially it is important to support parents in
bringing up their children and prevent social marginalization of
young people. In my research I observe how the principles of social
pedagogy—especially supporting life control— are realized in the
activities of the project.
Life control is a concept that is used in many branches of science,
not only in social pedagogy. In Finland it has been used in scien-
tific discussion since 1980’s and popularity of this concept has been
growing. Different views concerning the concept of life control
bring new aspects to its contents. Next I will draw a comparison
between different kind of definitions of life control. After that I will
focus on German Lothar Böhnisch’s (1985, 1992, 1997) way to study
the dimensions of the concept of life control. He combines different
periods of life with the concept of life control (lebensbewältigung)
and his framework is social pedagogic. I am also interested in his
views concerning the support of life control.
Life control as a concept
Many research-workers have paid attention to the vagueness of this
concept. It is used in different meanings in different branches of
science (Riihinen 1996, 32; Järvikoski 1996, 35). With the concept of
life control one can replace previously used concepts, like cognitive
life control- and control concepts, feeling of coherence and satisfac-
tion with life or life control strategies. One can also give different
qualitative meanings to this concept, for example feeling or exper-
ience, mental ability, resource, process of activity or positive result
of activity (Lehto-Trapnowski 1997).
On the other hand life control can be thought to be an
‘umbrella’- or ‘higher’ concept under which there are many sub
concepts (Järvikoski 1996, 35–36; Vuorio 1996, 84). From my point
of view life control is an upper concept that is closely associated
with the well being of an individual. When an individual has a
control on his life it has a positive effect on his mental well being
(Teela Jyrkinen 1989, 288).
In order to clarify the concept of life control there must be an
interaction between theoretical discussion and empirical research,
because while doing empirical research a research worker has to
make more accurate what he or she means by the concepts that he
uses (Riihinen 1996, 32). The cumulation of life control research
requires that the different branches of science define the concept
so that different definitions can be linked together (Rusanen 1996,
Concept of life control and research of the way of life / J. P. Roos
In Finland one of the pioneers concerned with the concept of life
control has been J.P. Roos (1985, 1987, 1988). He studied the Finn-
ish way of life and he claims that most important aspect linked with
the way of life is life control. From his point of view life control
means a shelter against catastrophes from outside and on the other
hand it means a possibility to change ones life towards a right
direction. Roos says that life control has two aspects: external and
internal. (Roos 1985, 41; 1988, 132.)
External life control means that an individual has been able to
direct his life and has not been influenced by too many things that
are out of his/her control (except general social and natural factors).
Material and mental well being is a sign of external life control and
seek to possess wealth means seeking life control. (mt.)
Internal life control means an ability to adapt, whatever hap-
pens in life. If one has this ability he/she can see the positive sides
in any situation and get through even under dramatic situations.
(Roos 1985, 42.) To view life control as an ability that one learns
gradually is important for social pedagogy: how could this ability
Roos (1985, 42, 53; 1987) has made a typology concerning the
Finnish way of life. Besides dividing life control into external and
internal life control he uses terms genuine and superficial life con-
trol; the latter means just a facade of life control. Life is as its worst
if there is neither external nor internal life control. In that situation,
an individual can see his whole life as a failure and feel that he has
not been able to control his life.
According to Roos (1985, 29, 42, 66, 82 – 83; 1987) internal life
control is nowadays more important, because external life control
is not a central problem anymore in our society. Increasing exter-
nal life control is a good thing but at the same time loneliness in
society increases — while people become wealthier they also need
each other less. In the urban way of life people tend to avoid dif-
ficulties instead of accepting natural order and striving for a better
life. Also maintaining the facade of life control has became more
According to Olavi Riihinen (1996, 29, 32) the division of exter-
nal and internal life control is problematic. Internal life control
is influenced by external life control and on the vice versa; that is
why it is difficult to define what is external and what is internal life
control. It is also problematic to speak about adaptation concern-
ing internal life control, because adaptation as a term is closer to
submission than control. Roos (1985, 42) has said that one should
not mix life control with submission, but it is true that the term
’adapt’ can bring up wrong associations of ideas.
Life control and the concept of coping
J. P. Roos formulated his concept of life control by using written
biographies. These stories contain the writer’s opinion of his/her
life control. Maybe this kind of coherent opinion of one’s own life
control is possible only afterwards. At present moment the concept
of life control is blurring and more important is to get through life
as it comes. In that context the concept of coping is useful. There
has been a lot of research concerning coping but in this article it
is discussed only briefly as one possibility to understand better the
concept of life control.
In Finland for example Pauli Niemelä has analysed life control
based on the concept of coping. He defines life control as an abil-
ity to get through difficulties and to act in new situations. Also
Niemelä divides life control into external and internal. Internal life
control can be seen as self control and external life control as con-
trol of external risks. (Niemelä 1991, 12, 17; Redistil 1995.)
One important theme in coping research is the means of coping.
In social sciences there are concepts used like physical, psychical
and social capability of action—the means of coping are included
in the psychical capability of action. These means of coping can be
divided into different kinds of strategies and their consequences can
be either constructive or destructive.
Coping research is interesting and concrete but because I am
interested in ways supporting life control for example in child rear-
ing this approach seems to be too psychological and problem cen-
tred. Next I will introduce how the concept of life control is used in
social pedagogy the—in that approach the definition of life control
is connected with means of supporting life control.
The concept of life control in social pedagogy / Lothar Böhnisch
The German Lothar Böhnisch has a social pedagogical view on
life control. He connects the concept of life control with concepts
like socialisation, social integration and ‘state of life’ (Lebenslage).
It is difficult to understand his definition of life control apart from
these concepts. So I will introduce them briefly and end with his
definition of life control.
Socialisation means a growth process in which the personality of
an individual develops in an interaction with social environment.
For society, socialisation is important because it is necessary to get
new labour power. For an individual, socialisation means also reach-
ing a personal identity. In the process of becoming full-grown, it is
essential to control the development tasks combined with different
phases of life. At the same time, an individual has to understand
new stages of social reality. (Böhnisch 1992, 80– 81.)
Social integration means growing into society and its norm struc-
ture; values of an individual and the norms of society have to be
linked together. Conflicts, control problems and seeking after own
way of life are a natural part of social integration. In society those
subcultures should be tolerated that can not or are not willing to
adapt to majority of the cultures and its norms. We should build
special environments in society, where social pedagogic support
can be used. Secondary integration should also be made possible.
(Böhnisch 1992, 11, 72– 74; 1997, 33– 34.)
Socialisation and social integration are closely related concepts.
Successful socialisation means that an individual is able to live in
harmony with the values and norms of society and still be himself,
authentically. (Böhnisch 1992, 82.)
The concept Lebenslage (translated here as ‘state of life’) is a
construction that indicates to intermediate structure between sub-
jective behaviour and objective circumstances. In the ’state of life’
the focus point is on the wholeness of an individual’s life conditions
and the possibilities to control different kinds of life situations. For
example, social political development has an impact on the ‘state of
life’. (Böhnisch 1985, 89, 93; 1992, 90–91.)
Life control according to Böhnisch (1992, 78, 84) means that psy-
chic and social competence is available for an individual in order to
control life situations. It is the socialisation-theoretical counterpart
to the concept of coping. Life control is influenced by social class,
cultural traditions in different areas and previous control experi-
ences. (Böhnisch 1985, 86–88.)
Böhnisch analyses the relation of life control to socialisation,
social integration and ‘state of life’. Life control is a guiding mecha-
nism of socialisation and there is tension between life control and
social integration (Böhnisch 1997, 36, 38). Psycho social aspects of
this tension and social pedagogical working principles are as fol-
1) Loss of self-respect and the longing to get it back (special pro-
fessional skill of paying attention and understanding;
2) Lack of social orientation (Orientierungslosigkeit) and longing
for a better life of apathy (offering structuring possibilities;
3) Lack of social support and looking for it (improving environ-
ment and offering social places;
4) Looking for balance (normalisation). The desire to get rid of
stress, caused by inability to act and disintegration and to reach
the balance of the ability to act and integration (empowerment,
strengthening of social networks.
The duty of social pedagogy and social work is to offer help when
the ability to act and social integration are in danger; for an indi-
vidual it is a question of life control (Böhnisch 1997, 26, 29).
Life control and social ‘state of life’ are connected to each other;
depending on the ‘state of life’ different people control the same
kind of life situations, differently. So life control is a subjective
aspect of ‘state of life’—a subjective process of benefiting from the
possibilities in the ‘state of life’. According to Böhnisch, ’state of life’
does not determine life control but gives a structural context to it.
Social politics in society has an impact both on ’state of life’ and life
control. (Böhnisch 1985, 86, 90; 1992, 90– 93.)
Social pedagogical approach to life control / Juha Hämäläinen
Discussing the concept of coping in social pedagogic research in
Finland, is Juha Hämäläinen one of the pioneers in this field. He
also divides this concept to internal and external life control:
Internal life control means an ability to get through different kind of
development tasks in life and to make decisions that lead life into positive
direction. External life control indicates to having a sufficient income,
human relations, work, education, lobbying, services, hobbies and other
institutions and operation systems in society that are important for qual-
ity of life.
(Hämäläinen 1999, appendix 1.)
Hämäläinen (1996, 11) has made a list of signs concerning poor
internal life control: inability to take initiatives, lack of interest,
experience of disintegration, even losing the desire to live, indiffer-
ence towards norms in society, misuse of drugs and possibly also
problems in human relations. This list indicates that for example
depression is often connected with the deterioration of life con-
trol. At the same time one has to remember that life control is
not a static resource but it can temporarily be deteriorate and gain
The thought of supporting life control social pedagogically
does not according to Hämäläinen (1998, 160) mean an omni-
potent belief in the individual’s possibilities to control his life. It is
important rather to strengthen the resources that are necessary for
an individual to manage in everyday life and to experience life as
valuable and sensible. The focus point is on making life better by
making use of the choices in everyday life.
Summary of different definitions of life control
The above mentioned comment of Juha Hämäläinen is important
because many people say that life can not be controlled. Also, I
myself was doubtful at first about the concept of life control. Grad-
ually, I became more familiar with this concept and the different
kinds of definitions concerning it. I still think that perhaps ‘control’
is not the best term to use in this context. Also Sakari Suominen
(1996, 80) says that the concept of life control lays too strong an
emphasis on control and he wonders if it is a good thing to have
control over every situation.
The following are the signs of life control in different defini-
• an ability to live—specially to meet with new life situations and
• an ability to direct one’s life in the right direction and make the
• use of constructive means of coping;
• materially safe situations;
• psychic and social competence available.
The list shows that in fact the concept of life control contains many
different concepts that are used in social sciences. For example the
second point describes almost same as self-determined individual
who is subject and not an object. So it would be useful to think
what the relations are between different concepts.
It would be appropriate to connect the concept of life control
to everyday life and different sectors of life. In social sciences,
social problems have been discussed in different sectors of life, but
they have not often been considered as control questions. Ronald
Wiman (1994) has studied life control and he divides problems in
this area into different sectors of life like expressing oneself, social,
economic, psychophysical, physical environment and everyday life.
The means of helping, depend on which sector of life the problems
exist. The analysis of Wiman is concrete enough, but I think it is
too problem- and authority centred.
In my opinion, none of these definitions of life control are better
than the others. It is important to choose an appropriate defini-
tion in different situations. For example, my research is focused on
developing preventive action for families with children. I chose a
definition that is broad enough for my purpose.
Studying of life control is not simple because it is difficult to
operationalize the concept and if you interview people they are
not always aware of this concept and the role it play in their life.
According to Suominen (1996, 81) the problems in studying life
control are caused also by the so called “barrier of happines”: a
research worker can not know how well the results of the study
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