In abstract algebra, a congruence relation (or simply congruence) is an equivalence relation on an algebraic structure (such as a group, ring, or vector space) that is compatible with the structure in the sense that algebraic operations done with equivalent elements will yield equivalent elements. Every congruence relation has a corresponding quotient structure, whose elements are the equivalence classes (or congruence classes) for the relation.
The definition of a congruence depends on the type of algebraic structure under consideration. Particular definitions of congruence can be made for groups, rings, vector spaces, modules, semigroups, lattices, and so forth. The common theme is that a congruence is an equivalence relation on an algebraic object that is compatible with the algebraic structure, in the sense that the operations are well-defined on the equivalence classes.
When an algebraic structure includes more than one operation, congruence relations are required to be compatible with each operation. For example, a ring possesses both addition and multiplication, and a congruence relation on a ring must satisfy
Thus, there is a natural correspondence between the congruences and the homomorphisms of any given algebraic structure.
In the particular case of groups, congruence relations can be described in elementary terms as follows: If G is a group (with identity element e and operation *) and ~ is a binary relation on G, then ~ is a congruence whenever:
A more general situation where this trick is possible is with Omega-groups (in the general sense allowing operators with multiple arity). But this cannot be done with, for example, monoids, so the study of congruence relations plays a more central role in monoid theory.
The kernel of a homomorphism is always a congruence. Indeed, every congruence arises as a kernel. For a given congruence ~ on A, the set A/~ of equivalence classes can be given the structure of an algebra in a natural fashion, the quotient algebra. The function that maps every element of A to its equivalence class is a homomorphism, and the kernel of this homomorphism is ~.