jane doe jane doe - 1 month ago 23
C# Question

Difference between Covariance & Contra-variance

I am having trouble understanding the difference between covariance and contravariance.

Answer

The question is "what is the difference between covariance and contravariance?"

Covariance and contravariance are properties of a mapping function that associates one member of a set with another. More specifically, a mapping can be covariant or contravariant with respect to a relation on that set.

Consider the following two subsets of the set of all C# types. First:

{ Animal, 
  Tiger, 
  Fruit, 
  Banana }.

And second, this clearly related set:

{ IEnumerable<Animal>, 
  IEnumerable<Tiger>, 
  IEnumerable<Fruit>, 
  IEnumerable<Banana> }

There is a mapping operation from the first set to the second set. That is, for each T in the first set, the corresponding type in the second set is IEnumerable<T>. Or, in short form, the mapping is T → IE<T>.

With me so far?

Now let's consider a relation. There is an assignment compatibility relationship between pairs of types in the first set. A value of type Tiger can be assigned to a variable of type Animal, so these types are said to be "assignment compatible". Let's write "a value of type X can be assigned to a variable of type Y" in a shorter form: X ⇒ Y. So in our first subset, here are all the assignment compatibility relationships:

Tiger  ⇒ Tiger
Tiger  ⇒ Animal
Animal ⇒ Animal
Banana ⇒ Banana
Banana ⇒ Fruit
Fruit  ⇒ Fruit

In C# 4, which supports covariant assignment compatibility of certain interfaces, there is an assignment compatibility relationship between pairs of types in the second set:

IE<Tiger>  ⇒ IE<Tiger>
IE<Tiger>  ⇒ IE<Animal>
IE<Animal> ⇒ IE<Animal>
IE<Banana> ⇒ IE<Banana>
IE<Banana> ⇒ IE<Fruit>
IE<Fruit>  ⇒ IE<Fruit>

Notice that the mapping T → IE<T> preserves the existence and direction of assignment compatibility. That is, if X ⇒ Y, then it is also true that IE<X> ⇒ IE<Y>.

A mapping which has this property with respect to a particular relation is called a "covariant mapping". This should make sense: a sequence of Tigers can be used where a sequence of Animals is needed, but the opposite is not true. A sequence of animals cannot necessarily be used where a sequence of Tigers is needed.

That's covariance. Now consider this subset of the set of all types:

{ IComparable<Tiger>, 
  IComparable<Animal>, 
  IComparable<Fruit>, 
  IComparable<Banana> }

now we have the mapping from the first set to the third set T → IC<T>.

In C# 4:

IC<Tiger>  ⇒ IC<Tiger>
IC<Animal> ⇒ IC<Tiger>     Backwards!
IC<Animal> ⇒ IC<Animal>
IC<Banana> ⇒ IC<Banana>
IC<Fruit>  ⇒ IC<Banana>     Backwards!
IC<Fruit>  ⇒ IC<Fruit>

That is, the mapping T → IC<T> has preserved the existence but reversed the direction of assignment compatibility. That is, if X ⇒ Y, then IC<X> ⇐ IC<Y>.

A mapping which preserves but reverses a relation is called a contravariant mapping.

Again, this should be clearly correct. A device which can compare two Animals can also compare two Tigers, but a device which can compare two Tigers cannot necessarily compare any two Animals.

So that's the difference between covariance and contravariance in C# 4. Covariance preserves the direction of assignability. Contravariance reverses it.

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