The politics and rivalries of societies

The feuds, politics and petty rivalries of societies show the negative side of getting involved

Photo Credit: Joe McCallion/ Trinity News

Whether you are part of them or not, it’s difficult to deny the role societies play in our college lives. For many Trinity students, societies are the first part of college life they encounter.

Walking through Front Gate during Freshers’ Week, you’re met with a myriad of brightly coloured stalls and signs representing all of the societies and sports clubs you could imagine, each desperately seeking interest, email addresses and registration fees.

Admittedly, for a large number, involvement in college societies never makes it past the sign-up stage. The odd exception might include a weekly email that goes straight to your spam folder, or the one guest speaker event you attend.

For another cohort of students, however, societies and clubs shape much of our experience in college, providing us with lasting memories, skills and friends. In Trinity in particular, society involvement can become a time-consuming affair. Society politics are often competitive and maybe even somewhat nasty. It would appear that sometimes, within our bubble that is the walls of campus, society life can seem a little more significant than it actually is.

Sitting on a society committee, holding a senior position in particular, can quickly take over your college life. It can dictate the company you keep and the amount of free time you have available to study and socialise. As a member of three society committees, I recognise the difficulty of balancing society events and meetings with actual college deadlines and readings.

It becomes easy to miss a lecture to help out at a lunchtime event, or to skip the library in favour of a meeting. We are always told that future employers love to see experience outside of academia and so many partake in society life just because ‘it’ll look great on the CV’. However, it does beg the question of whether an employer will hold your credentials as OCM of an obscure society in your third year of college as vitally important when considering your suitability for the job.

Much like the working world outside of college, gaining a place on a society committee or fighting for a more senior position in the society can become very competitive. At the end of every college year, societies hold their AGM to elect a committee for the next year and the race for positions can be hotly contested, particularly in larger societies.

It never ceases to amaze me just how determined many are to gain a particular position on committees, writing detailed speeches and calling in numerous friends to attend the meeting and vote for them. It is a form of social climbing that some use in order to catapult their status among their peers to BNOC territory. I attended one particular AGM last year to vote for a friend who was running for a position and was stunned to see a girl burst into tears when she wasn’t elected to the role she wanted.

This societal competitiveness is not strictly internal. There are also age-old, fierce rivalries between the societies. Many belittle their rivals regularly, usually in a joking way with more genuine undertones. They may recoil at the idea of ever holding a collaborative event with their rivals or even socialising with their rival’s members. These rivalries and intense competition, although rare, alienate many from getting more involved in college life and promote the notorious ‘exclusivity’ of many societies in Trinity.

I often wonder whether societies are taken just as seriously by those in other Irish universities. Trinity has achieved much larger engagement in other areas of student life, such as voting in Students’ Union elections, than any other college. It appears that there is a certain culture of societal social climbing in Trinity and ‘Big Names on Campus’ which is not as widespread in other colleges.

This is reinforced by traditions such as the publishing of the Trinity Twenty every year, an idea which would surely be laughed at elsewhere, and the granting of on-campus accommodation to third and fourth years who are particularly involved in campus life outside of academia.

Whilst it is great to have such a variety of societies, clubs and events open to every interest in Trinity, it’s difficult not to laugh at the politics and petty rivalries that accompany the running of many of our societies. Although I’m sure that this present to some extent in all universities, it does seem particularly prevalent in Trinity given the status granted to those who are overly involved in society life.

Involvement in societies can help us find our niche in a university of over 17,000 students. However, society politics should not be granted an inordinate level of importance and must be put into a greater perspective. Remember that a coveted place on the Trinity Twenty, or being the chairperson of a large society is unlikely to carry much weight in your life outside of college.