Each equivalence relation provides a partition of the underlying set into disjoint equivalence classes. Two elements of the given set are equivalent to each other if and only if they belong to the same equivalence class.
A partition of X is a set P of nonempty subsets of X, such that every element of X is an element of a single element of P. Each element of P is a cell of the partition. Moreover, the elements of P are pairwise disjoint and their union is X.
Let X be a finite set with n elements. Since every equivalence relation over X corresponds to a partition of X, and vice versa, the number of equivalence relations on X equals the number of distinct partitions of X, which is the nth Bell number Bn:
In both cases, the cells of the partition of X are the equivalence classes of X by ~. Since each element of X belongs to a unique cell of any partition of X, and since each cell of the partition is identical to an equivalence class of X by ~, each element of X belongs to a unique equivalence class of X by ~. Thus there is a natural bijection between the set of all equivalence relations on X and the set of all partitions of X.
The equality equivalence relation is the finest equivalence relation on any set, while the universal relation, which relates all pairs of elements, is the coarsest.
Much of mathematics is grounded in the study of equivalences, and order relations. Lattice theory captures the mathematical structure of order relations. Even though equivalence relations are as ubiquitous in mathematics as order relations, the algebraic structure of equivalences is not as well known as that of orders. The former structure draws primarily on group theory and, to a lesser extent, on the theory of lattices, categories, and groupoids.
Just as order relations are grounded in ordered sets, sets closed under pairwise supremum and infimum, equivalence relations are grounded in partitioned sets, which are sets closed under bijections that preserve partition structure. Since all such bijections map an equivalence class onto itself, such bijections are also known as permutations. Hence permutation groups (also known as transformation groups) and the related notion of orbit shed light on the mathematical structure of equivalence relations.
In sum, given an equivalence relation ~ over A, there exists a transformation group G over A whose orbits are the equivalence classes of A under ~.
This transformation group characterisation of equivalence relations differs fundamentally from the way lattices characterize order relations. The arguments of the lattice theory operations meet and join are elements of some universe A. Meanwhile, the arguments of the transformation group operations composition and inverse are elements of a set of bijections, A → A.
The advantages of regarding an equivalence relation as a special case of a groupoid include:
The equivalence relations on any set X, when ordered by set inclusion, form a complete lattice, called Con X by convention. The canonical map ker: X^X → Con X, relates the monoid X^X of all functions on X and Con X. ker is surjective but not injective. Less formally, the equivalence relation ker on X, takes each function f: X→X to its kernel ker f. Likewise, ker(ker) is an equivalence relation on X^X.
Equivalence relations are a ready source of examples or counterexamples. For example, an equivalence relation with exactly two infinite equivalence classes is an easy example of a theory which is ω-categorical, but not categorical for any larger cardinal number.
An implication of model theory is that the properties defining a relation can be proved independent of each other (and hence necessary parts of the definition) if and only if, for each property, examples can be found of relations not satisfying the given property while satisfying all the other properties. Hence the three defining properties of equivalence relations can be proved mutually independent by the following three examples:
Properties definable in first-order logic that an equivalence relation may or may not possess include: