Equivalence class explained

In mathematics, given a set X and an equivalence relation ~ on X, the equivalence class of an element a in X is the subset of all elements in X which are equivalent to a:


The notion of equivalence classes is useful for constructing sets out of already constructed ones. The set of all equivalence classes in X given an equivalence relation ~ is usually denoted as X / ~ and called the quotient set of X by ~. This operation can be thought of (very informally) as the act of "dividing" the input set by the equivalence relation, hence both the name "quotient", and the notation, which are both reminiscent of division. One way in which the quotient set resembles division is that if X is finite and the equivalence classes are all equinumerous, then the order of X/~ is the quotient of the order of X by the order of an equivalence class. The quotient set is to be thought of as the set X with all the equivalent points identified.

For any equivalence relation, there is a canonical projection map π from X to X/~ given by π(x) = [''x'']. This map is always surjective. In cases where X has some additional structure, one considers equivalence relations which preserve that structure. Then one says that that structure is well-defined, and the quotient set inherits the structure to become an object of the same category in a natural fashion; the map that sends a to [''a''] is then an epimorphism in that category. See congruence relation.

The alternative notation [''a'']R can be used to denote that we mean the equivalence class of the element a specifically with respect to the equivalence relation R. This is said to be the R-equivalence class of a.


(a,b) ~ (c,d) if and only if ad = bc.

Here the equivalence class of the pair (a,b) can be identified with rational number a/b.


Because of the properties of an equivalence relation it holds that a is in [''a''] and that any two equivalence classes are either equal or disjoint. It follows that the set of all equivalence classes of X forms a partition of X: every element of X belongs to one and only one equivalence class. Conversely every partition of X also defines an equivalence relation over X.

It also follows from the properties of an equivalence relation that

a ~ b if and only if [''a''] = [''b''].

If ~ is an equivalence relation on X, and P(x) is a property of elements of x, such that whenever x ~ y, P(x) is true if P(y) is true, then the property P is said to be well-defined or a class invariant under the relation ~. A frequent particular case occurs when f is a function from X to another set Y; if x1 ~ x2 implies f(x1) = f(x2) then f is said to be a class invariant under ~, or simply invariant under ~. This occurs, e.g. in the character theory of finite groups. The latter case with the function f can be expressed by a commutative triangle. See also invariant.

Some authors use "compatible with ~" or just "respects ~" instead of "invariant under ~".

See also