Associations are first class citizens – or even more than that

In our OO tradition, which is reflected and somewhat in UML-diagram, we neglect the value of the association. As we draw like this:


It leads us to think that the association is actually a handle or a reference to another object. In a simple case this is to large extent true. Actually a closer investigation into the association reveals that association can have attributes. Theoretically we can say that the meta-model behind our object model – the vocabulary of concepts – should include the following structure. Here association is a class-like structure but includes additional elements; the connecting arms the association ends.


UML includes also an associative class notation:


The first question raised by this is “Does this class represent the whole association”?  My answer here is yes. In this way we are able to give the association attributes and behavior. This association class is restricted to bilateral association. This means that the association is exactly between two objects. We can however think of multilateral association as well. I will return to this issue after introducing another concept.

Let’s take another way of looking at class diagram. Peter Coad proposed using color coding in class boxes (as I am using here). Coad’s meta-model for coloring is following: Here all classes are divided into four categories: entity, description, role and event-moment.


This categorization has proved to be very good and exceptionally practical. Of course four categories is very course grain and thus from time to time one comes across a situation where it is difficult to decide the category.

Let’s combine these viewpoints and analyze this structure a bit deeper. I think that both role and event categories are actually extended or specialized association types. Let’s take them one by one.

Event as association

An event object can be considered strictly speaking self-contained, but conceptually almost every event needs at least one participant to justify itself. So in practice event object are also kind of associative objects.  Here we meet a multilateral associative object. Event is an association in space-time continuum, that associates all objects that are connected by time and space.

Here is a modification of previous Person – Dog model.  I have added here an event that actually and conceptually is “behind” the association. To live together is the real association.


Emphasizing the time aspect here gives conceptual clarity and adds the duration aspect for free. Sometimes (perhaps in this case too) the time aspect increases anxiety in people but it definitely clarifies the situation.

Here we have another example. He person is going to have a meal. The meal is prepared by the recipe of that meal. He is the first variation of the class diagram. During the collaboration as it start person object needs a handle to the particularly meal to be able to sent it a message cook().

So here the association between Recipe and Person is purely to enable the message passing. Even if the earlier OO authorities suggested to have an association here I disagree. I think that association in  class diagram should reflect stabile and lasting structures in reality ie. they should have a meaning. In this example  there is no real stabile association between person and recipe. The association is momentary and temporary.


This is way I choose the next diagram instead. On collaboration diagrams also temporary association are seen as message pathways when needed.


Finally we can enhance this by adding an explicit event object class Cook here. Now the final comment here is then in this case the association between Meal and Person. This is more question of taste that right or wrong. I prefer rich association and would have myFood association even if this can be deducted indirectly trough objects from Cook – class.


Role as association

Role- class objects are not self-contained but dependent they will always need the actor association (the one who’s role is in question) and the action part where the role “is used”. Thus we can deduct that all role objects are actually special cases of an association object. The nature or role semantically is “participation in action” but it is quite common to shortcut this and put the role between to entity classes. The following is a typical example of this:


As noted actually this should be as follows:


Now the role type object is in between entity and event. In this special case as the cardinality of positions in employment is exactly one so the role object is in this case completely redundant. All its attributes can be moved to event itself.


On contrary when the even has more than one participant the role object has a true meaning and cannot be by bypassed. Technically the role attributes could be move to person, but conceptually it is more accurate to separate to attributes from person to role because one person could have several roles active simultaneously and in time sequence as well. In this way role object actually is a degenerated event within the even.