Conjugacy class

In mathematics, especially group theory, two elements a and b of a group are conjugate if there is an element g in the group such that b = g–1ag. This is an equivalence relation whose equivalence classes are called conjugacy classes.

Members of the same conjugacy class cannot be distinguished by using only the group structure, and therefore share many properties. The study of conjugacy classes of non-abelian groups is fundamental for the study of their structure.[1][2] For an abelian group, each conjugacy class is a set containing one element (singleton set).

Functions that are constant for members of the same conjugacy class are called class functions.


Let G be a group. Two elements a and b of G are conjugate, if there exists an element g in G such that gag−1 = b. One says also that b is a conjugate of a and that a is a conjugate of b .

In the case of the group GL(n) of invertible matrices, the conjugacy relation is called matrix similarity.

It can be easily shown that conjugacy is an equivalence relation and therefore partitions G into equivalence classes. (This means that every element of the group belongs to precisely one conjugacy class, and the classes Cl(a) and Cl(b) are equal if and only if a and b are conjugate, and disjoint otherwise.) The equivalence class that contains the element a in G is

Cl(a) = { gag−1 | g ∈ G }

and is called the conjugacy class of a. The class number of G is the number of distinct (nonequivalent) conjugacy classes. All elements belonging to the same conjugacy class have the same order.

Conjugacy classes may be referred to by describing them, or more briefly by abbreviations such as "6A", meaning "a certain conjugacy class of order 6 elements", and "6B" would be a different conjugacy class of order 6 elements; the conjugacy class 1A is the conjugacy class of the identity. In some cases, conjugacy classes can be described in a uniform way; for example, in the symmetric group they can be described by cycle structure.


The symmetric group S3, consisting of the 6 permutations of three elements, has three conjugacy classes:

no change (abc → abc)
transposing two (abc → acb, abc → bac, abc → cba)
a cyclic permutation of all three (abc → bca, abc → cab)

These three classes also correspond to the classification of the isometries of an equilateral triangle.

The symmetric group S4, consisting of the 24 permutations of four elements, has five conjugacy classes, listed with their cycle structures and orders:

(1)4    no change (1 element: { (1, 2, 3, 4) })
(2)      interchanging two (6 elements: { (1, 2, 4, 3), (1, 4, 3, 2), (1, 3, 2, 4), (4, 2, 3, 1), (3, 2, 1, 4), (2, 1, 3, 4) })
(3)      a cyclic permutation of three (8 elements: { (1, 3, 4, 2), (1, 4, 2, 3), (3, 2, 4, 1), (4, 2, 1, 3), (4, 1, 3, 2), (2, 4, 3, 1), (3, 1, 2, 4), (2, 3, 1, 4) })
(4)      a cyclic permutation of all four (6 elements: { (2, 3, 4, 1), (2, 4, 1, 3), (3, 1, 4, 2), (3, 4, 2, 1), (4, 1, 2, 3), (4, 3, 1, 2) })
(2)(2)  interchanging two, and also the other two (3 elements: { (2, 1, 4, 3), (4, 3, 2, 1), (3, 4, 1, 2) })

The proper rotations of the cube, which can be characterized by permutations of the body diagonals, are also described by conjugation in S4 .

In general, the number of conjugacy classes in the symmetric group Sn is equal to the number of integer partitions of n. This is because each conjugacy class corresponds to exactly one partition of {1, 2, ..., n} into cycles, up to permutation of the elements of {1, 2, ..., n}.

In general, the Euclidean group can be studied by conjugation of isometries in Euclidean space.


  • The identity element is always the only element in its class, that is Cl(e) = {e}
  • If G is abelian, then gag−1 = a for all a and g in G; so Cl(a) = {a} for all a in G.
  • If two elements a and b of G belong to the same conjugacy class (i.e., if they are conjugate), then they have the same order. More generally, every statement about a can be translated into a statement about b = gag−1, because the map φ(x) = gxg−1 is an automorphism of G. See the next property for an example.
  • If a and b are conjugate, then so are their powers ak and bk. (Proof: if a = gbg−1, then ak = (gbg−1)(gbg−1) … (gbg−1) = gbkg−1.) Thus taking kth powers gives a map on conjugacy classes, and one may consider which conjugacy classes are in its preimage. For example, in the symmetric group, the square of an element of type (3)(2) (a 3-cycle and a 2-cycle) is an element of type (3), therefore one of the power-up classes of (3) is the class (3)(2); the class (6) is another (where a is a power-up class of ak).
  • An element a of G lies in the center Z(G) of G if and only if its conjugacy class has only one element, a itself. More generally, if CG(a) denotes the centralizer of a in G, i.e., the subgroup consisting of all elements g such that ga = ag, then the index [G : CG(a)] is equal to the number of elements in the conjugacy class of a (by the orbit-stabilizer theorem).
  • Take and let be the distinct integers which appear in the cycle type of (including 1-cycles). Let be the number of cycles of length in for each (so that ). Then the number of conjugates of is:[1]

Conjugacy as group action

If we define

g . x = gxg−1

for any two elements g and x in G, then we have a group action of G on G. The orbits of this action are the conjugacy classes, and the stabilizer of a given element is the element's centralizer.[3]

Similarly, we can define a group action of G on the set of all subsets of G, by writing

g . S = gSg−1,

or on the set of the subgroups of G.

Conjugacy class equation

If G is a finite group, then for any group element a, the elements in the conjugacy class of a are in one-to-one correspondence with cosets of the centralizer CG(a). This can be seen by observing that any two elements b and c belonging to the same coset (and hence, b = cz for some z in the centralizer CG(a)) give rise to the same element when conjugating a: bab−1 = cza(cz)−1 = czaz−1c−1 = czz−1ac−1 = cac−1. That can also be seen from the orbit-stabilizer theorem, when considering the group as acting on itself through conjugation, so that orbits are conjugacy classes and stabilizer subgroups are centralizers. The converse holds as well.

Thus the number of elements in the conjugacy class of a is the index [G : CG(a)] of the centralizer CG(a) in G; hence the size of each conjugacy class divides the order of the group.

Furthermore, if we choose a single representative element xi from every conjugacy class, we infer from the disjointness of the conjugacy classes that |G| = ∑i [G : CG(xi)], where CG(xi) is the centralizer of the element xi. Observing that each element of the center Z(G) forms a conjugacy class containing just itself gives rise to the class equation:[4]

|G| = |Z(G)| + ∑i [G : CG(xi)]

where the sum is over a representative element from each conjugacy class that is not in the center.

Knowledge of the divisors of the group order |G| can often be used to gain information about the order of the center or of the conjugacy classes.


Consider a finite p-group G (that is, a group with order pn, where p is a prime number and n > 0 ). We are going to prove that every finite p-group has a non-trivial center.

Since the order of any conjugacy class of G must divide the order of G, it follows that each conjugacy class Hi that is not in the center also has order some power of pki, where 0 < ki < n. But then the class equation requires that |G| = pn = |Z(G)| + ∑i pki. From this we see that p must divide |Z(G)| , so |Z(G)| > 1 .

In particular, when n = 2, G is an abelian group since for any group element a , a is of order p or p2, if a is of order p2, then G is isomorphic to cyclic group of order p2, hence abelian. On the other hand, if any non-trivial element in G is of order p , hence by the conclusion above |Z(G)| > 1 , then |Z(G)| = p > 1 or p2. We only need to consider the case when |Z(G)| = p > 1 , then there is an element b of G which is not in the center of G . Note that b is of order p, so the subgroup of G generated by b contains p elements and thus is a proper subset of CG(b), because CG(b) includes all elements of this subgroup and the center which does not contain b but at least p elements. Hence the order of CG(b) is strictly larger than p, therefore |CG(b)| = p2, therefore b is an element of the center of G. Hence G is abelian.

Conjugacy of subgroups and general subsets

More generally, given any subset S of G (S not necessarily a subgroup), we define a subset T of G to be conjugate to S if there exists some g in G such that T = gSg−1. We can define Cl(S) as the set of all subsets T of G such that T is conjugate to S.

A frequently used theorem is that, given any subset S of G, the index of N(S) (the normalizer of S) in G equals the order of Cl(S):

This follows since, if g and h are in G, then gSg−1 = hSh−1 if and only if g−1h is in N(S), in other words, if and only if g and h are in the same coset of N(S).

Note that this formula generalizes the one given earlier for the number of elements in a conjugacy class (let S = {a}).

The above is particularly useful when talking about subgroups of G. The subgroups can thus be divided into conjugacy classes, with two subgroups belonging to the same class if and only if they are conjugate. Conjugate subgroups are isomorphic, but isomorphic subgroups need not be conjugate. For example, an abelian group may have two different subgroups which are isomorphic, but they are never conjugate.

Geometric interpretation

Conjugacy classes in the fundamental group of a path-connected topological space can be thought of as equivalence classes of free loops under free homotopy.

See also


  1. Dummit, David S.; Foote, Richard M. (2004). Abstract Algebra (3rd ed.). John Wiley & Sons. ISBN 0-471-43334-9.
  2. Lang, Serge (2002). Algebra. Graduate Texts in Mathematics. Springer. ISBN 0-387-95385-X.
  3. Grillet (2007), p. 56
  4. Grillet (2007), p. 57


  • Grillet, Pierre Antoine (2007). Abstract algebra. Graduate texts in mathematics. 242 (2 ed.). Springer. ISBN 978-0-387-71567-4.
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