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Răzvan Petruescu

Functional programming for the masses

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This this is the last part out of a series of articles that examine the concept of variance. Following the second part that dealt with covariance, the focus now will be on contravariance. A thorough reading of the first part is recommended for getting familiar with the terminology and the basic concepts.


In the same vein as in the previous articles, I will continue with a concrete demonstration. For the sake of convenience, I will adopt the same scenario, only this time using a different perspective.

So now the programmers working on the event-driven system need to find a way to register/process the events generated in the system. They will create a trait, Sink, that is used to mark components in need to be notified when an event has been fired.

As a consequence of marking the type parameter with the - symbol, the Sink type became contravariant.

trait Sink[-In] {
  def notify(o: In)

A possible way to notify interested parties that an event happened is to write a method and to pass it the corresponding event. This method will hypothetically do some processing and then it will take care of notifying the event sink:

def appEventFired(e: ApplicationEvent, s: Sink[ApplicationEvent]): Unit = {
  // do some processing related to the event
  // notify the event sink

def errorEventFired(e: ErrorEvent, s: Sink[ErrorEvent]): Unit = {
  // do some processing related to the event
  // notify the event sink

A couple of hypothetical Sink implementations.

trait SystemEventSink extends Sink[SystemEvent]

val ses = new SystemEventSink {
  override def notify(o: SystemEvent): Unit = ???

trait GenericEventSink extends Sink[Event]

val ges = new GenericEventSink {
  override def notify(o: Event): Unit = ???

The following method calls are accepted by the compiler:

appEventFired(new ApplicationEvent {}, ses)

errorEventFired(new ErrorEvent {}, ges)

appEventFired(new ApplicationEvent {}, ges)

Contravariance explained

Looking at the series of calls you notice that it is possible to call a method expecting a Sink[ApplicationEvent] with a Sink[SystemEvent] and even with a Sink[Event]. Also, you can call the method expecting a Sink[ErrorEvent] with a Sink[Event].

How is this possible?

By replacing invariance with a contravariance constraint, a Sink[SystemEvent] becomes a subtype of Sink[ApplicationEvent]. Therefore, contravariance can also be thought of as a ‘widening’ relationship, since types are ‘widened’ from more specific to more generic.

Like in the case of covariance, the contravariance annotation makes it possible to create a type hierarchy between parameterized types that is parallel to the type hierarchy of the types used as parameters.

Only in this case, the direction of inheritance between parameterized types like, Sink[UserEvent] and Sink[Event] is the inverse of the direction of inheritance between UserEvent and Event, as depicted in the following diagram.

Hence the name, contravariance.

Formally, if a type is covariant, then, assuming existing types T, A, B, if T[B] conforms to (is assignable to) T[A] then B must be the super type of A.

Conformance follows the direction of inheritance between the parameterized types, therefore, the following statement would also compile: val v: Sink[UserEvent] = ges

Closing remarks

This article explained and demonstrated covariance with the help of a practical example. Next articles will focus on other aspects related to the type system.