Covariance and Contravariance

June 18, 2023

While working the other day, I came across an interesting set of concepts. They were something I used regularly while never really understanding how they worked. These are the concepts of Covariance and Contravariance. Let’s start with a definition for “Variance” in a programming language.

Type variance describes how type inheritance transforms itself in type parameters.

In other words, type variance allows us to reference things as if they were sub-types or super-types and different kinds of variance define the rules for doing so. For example, say we have a class of type Fruit and had subclasses of types Orange, Apple, and Banana. What happens if we have a list of apples, and then we try to assign that list of Apples to a variable that’s a type of a list of Fruits, what happens? These are the behaviors that Covariance and Contravariance define.


Let’s start with the book definition of Covariance:

This allows a base type to be used where a derived type is expected.

To provide code for our fruit example earlier, Covariance allows the following operation to happen:

IEnumerable<Oranges> oranges = new Orange[] { };
IEnumerable<Fruit> fruits = oranges;

It allows us to take a list of things of one type, and then treat them as if they were a list of their parent type. You can create your own generic interfaces that are Covariant by using the out keyword as a generic parameter. The following is an example of a Covariant interface:

interface IMyCollection<out R>
    R GetItem();

There are constraints on these parameters though. The type can only be used as a return type of interface methods and cannot be used in method arguments. There is one exception to this rule, however. You can pass the type parameter into a contravariant generic parameter, for example:

interface IMyCollection<out R>
    void OperateOnEachItem(Action<R> callback);

This operation happens to be completely legal. You also cannot use the generic as a type constraint for a generic within the interface. For example the following will generate a compile time error:

interface IMyCollection<out R>
    void Operate<T>() where T : R


For a definition, we get:

This allows a base type to be used where a derived type is expected

For example, continuing with the fruit examples, the following illustrates how contravariance works:

Action<Fruit> fruitProcessor = (item) => { ...actions with the fruit... };
Action<Oranges> orangeProcessor = fruitProcessor; //Yes this is indeed leagal
orangeProcessor(new Orage()); // This will compile and run just fine
orangeProcessor(new Grape()); // This will throw an error because it's narrowed the `item` type to only Oranges

The assignment of a fruit processor to a variable of type Action<Orange> seems completely counter-intuitive here. It seems like that should be an illegal operation. How can we assign a superclass type parameter to a subclass object?

While this makes sense from a conceptual standpoint, polymorphic behavior would seem to suggest that the assignment won’t work. This is no the case as the type parameter T of the ‘Action’ type is declared as contravariant. In C# you can declare a type parameter as contravariant with the in keyword. For example:

interface IOperation<in A>
    void Compute(A variable);
    void Compute<T>() where T: A;

This is the exact opposite of Covariance. You use it as a type parameter or as a type constraint on a Generic, but you cannot include it in the return type of the method. This means the following would throw a compiler error:

interace IOperation<in A>
    A Generate();

Mixing Variance

You are also free to mix Covariant and Contravariant generic type parameters in the same interface, for example:

interface IBothVariances<out R, in A>
    R GetValue();
    void Compute(A variable);
    void Compute<T>() where T: A;


You implement the variant interfaces the same way you implement invariant interfaces. No changes have to happen with how things should be implemented.


Covariance and Contravariance aren’t widely used outside the standard library in C#, but they are powerful tools that may be very useful in certain specific scenarios. If you want to learn more, the following are resources I used when researching this topic:

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Written by Ben Brougher who lives and works in the Pacific Northwest developing solutions to problems (usually with software). He graduated 2020 from Eastern Washington University as a Computer Science Major, Bachelor of Science (BS), and works engineering and developing software solutions in the enterprise telecommunications industry.

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