Having fun with dataclasses and abstract base classes

Ignacio Vergara Kausel published on

8 min, 1444 words

Categories: dev

Dataclasses are great addition to Python, while abstract base classes are a rather unused feature given the dynamic nature of the language. Here I explore how a (relatively) old and a new feature can be combined.

Python is well known for the little boilerplate needed to get something to work. But even Python can get a bit cumbersome when a whole bunch of relatively trivial methods have to be defined to get the desired behavior of a class. In this article we're going to explore how to combine dataclases with the abc and collections.abc modules of the standard library in Python. I'll assume that you know/understand what abc, collections.abc and dataclases. With the last two one could get a lot of behavior for free!

If you don't know about abstract base classes then I strongly recommend to check articles like this and this, for abc, and abc.collections, respectivelly. Likewise, if you don't know why dataclasses are interesting and about their advantages, you should check this other article. Or if you prefer some more visual guide check this talk. Take the time to learn these tools, it'll be worth it. Personally, since I discovered the abc and collections.abc modules, I've been trying to use them every time I can.

When I saw the inclusion of the dataclass module in the standard library of Python 3.7, I told myself I wanted to use it. Being able to reduce even more the boilerplate in Python seemed like a great idea. Of course I could have already been using attrs for basically the same effect, but when I tried it it didn't feel natural. That was most likely due to a lack of experience on my part.

Thus, it's very obvious that I'd end up mixing abstract classes, abstract collections, and dataclasses eventually at some point. Unfortunately, I haven't taken the time to refactor the code at work to this effect. To amend that, I decided to explore the combination of abc+dataclasses and abc.collections+dataclasses with a toy example to see how straightforward, or not, the combination works. And since I didn't find any article mixing these two concepts (not that I looked too much around), I decided to write about it.

Now, getting our fingers dirty. First let's use pipenv to create an environment (as you should do to keep some environment hygene). It can feel slightly an overkill to do so, but I find it easier than trying to create a virtual environment from scratch. So, we initialize a Python 3.7 environment as follows pipenv --python 3.7.

To guide this experiment, we'll write a simple test. You could for sure skip this and manually play with the code in the REPL of choice, which I'd recommend in any case in this case to freely explore and discover your use case, but having tests makes the process easier. Install pytest to run the tests by executing pipenv install pytest. Note that I'm not using a separate dev environment for this, as this is just an experimentation environment. Now, we can activate the virtual environment by using pipenv shell.

The simplest test I can come up with, is that the abstract class Base should raise a TypeError exception if you try to instantiate it directly.

# test_demo.py
import pytest
from demo import Base

def test_abstract_base_class():
    with pytest.raises(TypeError):

Before executing pytest, since it'll fail, we can quickly write an implementation based on dataclasses and abc. As such, the class is decorated with @dataclass and inherits from abc.ABC. Furthermore, it'll define one field a of type str with a __post_init__ and a process method, the last one defined as abstract.

# demo.py
import abc
from dataclasses import dataclass

class Base(abc.ABC):
    a: str
    def __post_init__(self):
      self.a = self.a.upper()
    def process(self) -> str:

So far so good. Since the __post_init__ method is not an abstract one, it'll be executed in each class that inherits from Base.

Now it's time to create a class that implements the abstract class. As it is described in the reference, for inheritance in dataclasses to work, both classes have to be decorated. In this case, the implementation will define another field, b of type str, reimplement the __post_init__ method, and implement the abstract method process.

# demo.py
class Implementation(Base):
    b: str
    def __post_init__(self):
        self.b = self.b.lower()

    def process(self) -> str:
        return f"{self.a} {self.b}"

We're reimplementing the __post_init__ method just to show that we could cover more sophisticated use cases easily. This forces us to call super().__post_init__() to get the post initialization of the base class. Now we can cover the behavior of this new class in a test as follows.

# test_demo.py
from demo import Implementation

def test_implementation():
    implemented_instance = Implementation("Pythonic", "Musings")
    assert isinstance(implemented_instance, Base)
    assert implemented_instance.process() == "PYTHONIC musings"

In this test, the first assert is to make sure that the Implemented class is really an instance of Base. We could have just trusted Python, but since this article has an educational purpose, better to be explicit about our expectations.

One great advantage of dataclasses is that you're forced to do type annotation. So we can see what happens if we run a type checker like mypy on it. Executing pipenv install mypy and then mypy . we get the following

demo.py:7: error: Only concrete class can be given where "Type[Base]" is expected

Only one error! That's worse than what we'd expected. Searching a bit, I found the following issue discussing this situation. Otherwise all checks up fine, and we're not interested in mypy's edge cases so we could ignore it, or silence it in case you're running mypy as part of a CI.

At last we reach now to combining dataclasses and the collections.abc module. This combination is great since both modules provide ways to reduce boilerplate while also making intent very clear. To keep it simple it'll be a straight container with a field c of type List and a custom method capitalize.

# demo.py
import collections.abc
from typing import List

class Derived(collections.abc.Container):
    c: List[str]

    def __contains__(self, value):
        return value in self.c
    def capitalize(self) -> List[str]:
        return list([e.upper() for e in self.c])

Here we get the full power of combining two boilerplate reducing approaches. This example, by no means shows all the potential of the collections.abc since we chose the simplest collection possible. But it's only here to show that the combination with dataclasses works. I really recommend using the collections.abs module as it will allows you to encapsulate a lot, and leads to a better design.

To test it, we can go with the following code

# test_demo.py
from demo import Derived

def test_derived():
    instance = Derived(["Hi", "Bye"])

    for element in ["Hi", "Bye"]:
        assert element in instance
    assert instance.capitalize() == ["HI", "BYE"]

The first assertion checks if our method works as intended. The second group of assertions, those inside the for loop, has only a pedagogical objective since we are ultimately testing that the collections.abs is working. Although sometimes, such a test is valid to comply with specification. Anyhow, will not go into epistemology of tests in here. Here again we see that the mix of collections.abs and dataclasses just works.

Our implementation of the Derived class is very rough. As an exercise, try to turn the capitalize method into a classmethod that takes an instance of Derived and returns an instance of the class with the capitalized elements. This would improve the ergonomics, since is not too coherent to return a list in such an implicit way. Bonus points for proper type annotation! (Hint: check PEP 563.)

With this we conclude the article. Not surprisingly, the dataclasses module work extremely well together with abc and collections.abs. Certainly, after this exploration, I'll start using these combinations into the future and going through older code to make use of it.

Teaser: there is another thing in Python I enjoy using, the '@property' decorator. Personally, I also wonder how that mixes with dataclasses, luckily someone already told their story here. Spoiler alert, has a happy ending ;). Although while playing with it I've found some edge cases where things stop working nicely. I hope to explore it in more detail and show some alternative/solution.