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In category theory, a branch of mathematics, profunctors are a generalization of relations and also of bimodules.


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


is defined to be a functor

where denotes the opposite category of and denotes the category of sets. Given morphisms respectively in and an element , we write to denote the actions.

Using the cartesian closure of , the category of small categories, the profunctor can be seen as a functor

where denotes the category of presheaves over .

A correspondence from to is a profunctor .

Profunctors as categories[edit]

An equivalent definition of a profunctor is a category whose objects are the disjoint union of the objects of and the objects of , and whose morphisms are the morphisms of and the morphisms of , plus zero or more additional morphisms from objects of to objects of . The sets in the formal definition above are the hom-sets between objects of and objects of . (These are also known as het-sets, since the corresponding morphisms can be called heteromorphisms.[1]) The previous definition can be recovered by the restriction of the hom-functor to .

This also makes it clear that a profunctor can be thought of as a relation between the objects of and the objects of , where each member of the relation is associated with a set of morphisms. A functor is a special case of a profunctor in the same way that a function is a special case of a relation.

Composition of profunctors[edit]

The composite of two profunctors


is given by

where is the left Kan extension of the functor along the Yoneda functor of (which to every object of associates the functor ).

It can be shown that

where is the least equivalence relation such that whenever there exists a morphism in such that

and .

Equivalently, profunctor composition can be written using a coend

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 can be seen as a profunctor by postcomposing with the Yoneda functor:


It can be shown that such a profunctor has a right adjoint. Moreover, this is a characterization: a profunctor has a right adjoint if and only if factors through the Cauchy completion of , i.e. there exists a functor such that .


  1. ^ heteromorphism
  • Bénabou, Jean (2000). "Distributors at Work" (PDF). {{cite journal}}: Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
  • Borceux, Francis (1994). Handbook of Categorical Algebra. CUP.
  • Lurie, Jacob (2009). Higher Topos Theory. Princeton University Press.
  • Profunctor at the nLab
  • Heteromorphism at the nLab