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In category theory, a branch of mathematics, profunctors are a generalization of relations and also of bimodules. They are related to the notion of correspondences.


A profunctor (also named distributor by the French school and module by the Sydney school) \,\phi from a category C to a category D, written

\phi \colon C\nrightarrow D,

is defined to be a functor

\phi \colon D^{\mathrm{op}}\times C\to\mathbf{Set}

where D^\mathrm{op} denotes the opposite category of D and \mathbf{Set} denotes the category of sets. Given morphisms  f\colon d\to d', g\colon c\to c' respectively in  D, C and an element  x\in\phi(d',c), we write xf\in \phi(d,c), gx\in\phi(d',c') to denote the actions.

Using the cartesian closure of \mathbf{Cat}, the category of small categories, the profunctor \phi can be seen as a functor

\hat{\phi} \colon C\to\hat{D}

where \hat{D} denotes the category \mathrm{Set}^{D^\mathrm{op}} of presheaves over D.

A correspondence from  C to  D is a profunctor  D\nrightarrow C.

Composition of profunctors[edit]

The composite \psi\phi of two profunctors

\phi\colon C\nrightarrow D and \psi\colon D\nrightarrow E

is given by


where \mathrm{Lan}_{Y_D}(\hat{\psi}) is the left Kan extension of the functor \hat{\psi} along the Yoneda functor Y_D \colon D\to\hat D of D (which to every object d of D associates the functor D(-,d) \colon D^{\mathrm{op}}\to\mathrm{Set}).

It can be shown that

(\psi\phi)(e,c)=\left(\coprod_{d\in D}\psi(e,d)\times\phi(d,c)\right)\Bigg/\sim

where \sim is the least equivalence relation such that (y',x')\sim(y,x) whenever there exists a morphism v in D such that

y'=vy \in\psi(e,d') and x'v=x \in\phi(d,c).

The bicategory of profunctors[edit]

Composition of profunctors is associative only up to isomorphism (because the product is not strictly associative in Set). The best one can hope is therefore to build a bicategory Prof whose

  • 0-cells are small categories,
  • 1-cells between two small categories are the profunctors between those categories,
  • 2-cells between two profunctors are the natural transformations between those profunctors.


Lifting functors to profunctors[edit]

A functor F \colon C\to D can be seen as a profunctor \phi_F \colon C\nrightarrow D by postcomposing with the Yoneda functor:

\phi_F=Y_D\circ F.

It can be shown that such a profunctor \phi_F has a right adjoint. Moreover, this is a characterization: a profunctor \phi \colon C\nrightarrow D has a right adjoint if and only if \hat\phi \colon C\to\hat D factors through the Cauchy completion of D, i.e. there exists a functor F \colon C\to D such that \hat\phi=Y_D\circ F.


  • Bénabou, Jean (2000). Distributors at Work. 
  • Borceux, Francis (1994). Handbook of Categorical Algebra. CUP. 
  • Lurie, Jacob (2009). Higher Topos Theory. Princeton University Press. 
  • Profunctor in nLab

See also[edit]