Groups in categories

The first time I saw a reference to a “group in a category” I misread it as something in the category of groups. But that’s not what it means. Due to an unfortunately choice of terminology, “in” is more subtle than just membership in a class.

This is related to another potentially misleading term, algebraic groups, mentioned in the previous post on isogenies. An algebraic group is a “group object” in the category of algebraic varieties. Note the mysterious use of the word “in.”

You may have heard the statement “A monad is just a monoid in the category of endofunctors.” While true, the statement is meant to be a joke because it abstracted so far from what most people want to know when they ask what a monad is in the context of functional programming. But notice this follows the pattern of an X in the category of Y‘s, even though here X stands for monoid rather than group. The meaning of “in the category of” is the same.

If you want to go down this rabbit hole, you could start with the nLab article on group objects. A group object is a lot like a group, but everything is happening “in” a category.

Take a look at the list of examples. The first says that a group object in the category of sets is a group. That’s reassuring. The second example says that a group object in the category of topological spaces is a topological group. At this point you may get the idea that an X in the category of Y‘s simply adds an X structure to a Y thing. But further down you’ll see that a group object in the category of groups is an Abelian group, which is an indication that something more subtle is going on.

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