action of a category on a set

Given a (small) category $C$ and given a set $S$ there are (at least) the following two equivalent ways to define an action of $C$ on $S$.

An **action of a category** $C$ on a set $S$ is nothing but a functor $\rho : C \to$ Set.

The particular set $S$ that this functor defines an action on is the disjoint union of sets that the functor assigns to the objects of $C$:

$S = \bigsqcup_{c \in Obj(C)} \rho(c)
\,.$

Given an element $s \in S$ which sits in the subset $\rho(c) \subset S$ associated with the object $c$ of $C$, it is acted on by all morphisms $c \stackrel{f}{\to} d$ in $C$ whose source is $c$. By the definition of functor every such morphism defines a map of sets

$\rho(f) : (\rho(c) \subset S) \to (\rho(d) \subset S)$

and the the action of $f$ on $s \in \rho(c)$ under $\rho$ is

$\rho(f) : (s \in \rho(c)) \mapsto (\rho(f)(s) \in \rho(d))
\,.$

In the case that $C$ has just a single object $\bullet$ the category $C$ is just a monoid (might for instance be a group), there is just a single set $S = \rho(\bullet)$ and we recover the ordinary notion of a monoid or group acting on a set.

Indeed this generalizes the instance (the motivating example for the notion of action) where $\rho:G\rightarrow \mathbf{Aut}(S)$ is a group action on a set $S$, since the notion of coproduct is a generalization of the notion of automorphism group since naively a cardinal is an isomorphism class of sets and the notion of coproduct in turn generalizes that of cardinal ( see there).

An equivalent perspective on the above situation is often useful. To motivate this, notice that the decomposition $S = \sqcup_{c \in Obj(c)} \rho(c)$ of the set $S$ into subsets corresponding to objects of the category $C$ can equivalently be encoded in a map of sets

$\lambda : S \to Obj(C)$

which sends each element of $S$ to the object of $c$ it corresponds to under the action.

(In the case that our category $C$ is a groupoid or even a Lie groupoid this map may be familiar as the *anchor map* or *moment map* of the action.)

But also the category $C$ itself comes with maps to $Obj(C)$: the source map $s$ and target map $t$, which are suggestively drawn as a span in Set by writing:

$\array{
&& Mor(C)
\\
& {}^{s}\swarrow
&& \searrow^{t}
\\
Obj(C)
&&&&
Obj(C)
}
\,.$

Recall from the above discussion that a morphism $f : c \to d$ in $C$ could act on an element $s \in S$ if the image of $s$ under the anchor map $\lambda$ coincides with the source of $f$, i.e. with the image of $f$ under the source map $s$. Formally this means that the pairs of elements of $S$ and morphisms of $C$ which can be paired by the action live in the pullback set $S {}_\lambda \times_s Mor(C)$ (the fiber product):

$\array{
&&
S {}_\lambda \times_s Mor(C)
\\
& {}^{pr_1}\swarrow && \searrow^{pr_2}
\\
S
&&
&& Mor(C)
\\
& \searrow^{\lambda}&
& {}^{s}\swarrow
&& \searrow^{t}
\\
&&
Obj(C)
&&&&
Obj(C)
}
\,.$

Above we have seen that the action of $C$ on $S$ sends every element in this fiber product, which is a pair

$(s \in \rho(c) \subset S, (c \stackrel{f}{\to} d) \in Mor(C))$

to an element $\rho(f)(s) \in \rho(d)$. So this is a map of sets $\rho : S {}_\lambda \times_s C \to S$. But a special such map, in that it satisfies a couple of conditions. One condition is that $s \in \rho(c)$ is taken to $\rho(d)$ by $f : c \to d$. This can be encoded by saying that $\rho$ extends to a morphism of spans from the pullback span above back to $S$:

$\array{
&& S {}_\lambda \times_s Mor(C)
\\
& \swarrow && \searrow^{t \circ pr_2}
\\
pt &&\downarrow^{\rho}&& Obj(C)
\\
& \nwarrow && \nearrow_{\lambda}
\\
&&
S
}$

But $\rho$ satisfies yet another compatibility condition: so far we have only used the source-target mathcing condition of the functor $\rho : C \to Set$. There is also its *functoriality*, i.e. its respect for composition.

But composition in the category $C$ is itself naturally expressed in terms of morphisms of spans:

the set of composable morphisms $Mor(C) {}_t \times_s Mor(C)$ is itself the tip of a span arising from composing the span of $C$ with itself by pullback:

$\array{
&&&& Mor(C) {}_t\times_s Mor(C)
\\
&&& \swarrow
&& \searrow
\\
&& Mor(C)
&&&&
Mor(C)
\\
&
{}^s\swarrow
&& \searrow^t
&&
{}^s\swarrow
&& \searrow^t
\\
Obj(C)
&&&&
Obj(C)
&&&&
Obj(C)
}$

and the composition operation $\circ$ in $C$ is a morphism from this composed span to the original span

$\array{
&& Mor(C) {}_t \times_s Mor(C)
\\
& {}^{s \circ pr_1}\swarrow && \searrow^{t \circ pr_2}
\\
Obj(C) &&\downarrow^{\circ}&& Obj(C)
\\
& {}^{s}\nwarrow && \nearrow_{t}
\\
&&
Mor(C)
}
\,.$

In total this gives us two different ways to map the total span with tip $S {}_\lambda \times_s Mor(C) {}_t \times_s Mor(C)$ obtained by composing the anchor map span with two copies of the span of $C$ back to the anchor map span

$\array{
&& S {}_\lambda \times_s Mor(C) {}_t \times_s Mor(C)
\\
& {}^{}\swarrow && \searrow^{t \circ pr_3}
\\
pr &&\downarrow && Obj(C)
\\
& {}^{s}\nwarrow && \nearrow_{\lambda}
\\
&&
S
}
\,.$

The **action property** of $\rho$, which is nothing but the functoriality of $\rho$ in the above description, says precisely that these two morphisms coincide.

Abstractly this says that

Generalizing this slightly, it should be possible to associate an action of a category $C$ on a category $\coprod_{c\in C_0}\rho(c)$ to a functor $\rho:C\rightarrow \Cat$ with the expectation, that this then is just a module for $C$ as a monad.

Last revised on December 15, 2020 at 08:35:42. See the history of this page for a list of all contributions to it.