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Group action

In mathematics, groups are often used to describe symmetries of objects. This is formalized by the notion of a group action: every element of the group "acts" like a bijective map (or "symmetry") on some set. In this case, the group is also called a transformation group of the set.

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If G is a group and X is a set, then a (left) group action of G on X is a binary function G × X -> X (where the image of g in G and x in X is written as g.x) which satisfies the following two axioms:

  1. g.(h.x) = (gh).x for all g, h in G and x in X.
  2. e.x = x for every x in X; here e denotes the identity element of G.
From these two axioms, it follows that for every g in G, the function which maps x in X to g.x is a bijective map from X to X. Therefore, one may alternatively and equivalently define a group action of G on X as a group homomorphism G -> Sym(X), where Sym(X) denotes the group of all bijective maps from X to X.

If a group action G × X -> X is given, we also say that G acts on the set X or X is a G-set.

In complete analogy, one can define a right group action of G on X as a function X × G -> X by the two axioms (x.g).h = x.(gh) and x.e = x. In the sequel, we consider only left group actions.


  • Every group G acts on G in two natural ways: g.x = (gx) for all x in G, or g.x = (gxg -1) for all x in G.
  • The symmetric group Sn and its subgroups act on the set { 1, ... , n } by permutating its elements.
  • The symmetry group of a polyhedron acts on the set of vertices of that polyhedron.
  • The symmetry group of any geometrical object acts on the set of points of that object.
  • The automorphism group of a vector space (or graph, or group, or ring...) acts on the vector space (or set of vertices of the graph, or group, or ring...).
  • The Lie groups Gl(n,R), SL(n,R) and O(n,R) act on Rn.
  • The Galois group of a field extension E/F acts on the bigger field E. So does every subgroup of the Galois group.
  • The additive group of the real numbers (R, +) acts on the phase space of "well-behaved" systems in classical mechanics (and in more general dynamical systems): if t is in R and x is in the phase space, then x describes a state of the system, and t.x is defined to be the state of the system t seconds later if t is positive or -t seconds ago if t is negative.

Types of actions

The action of G on X is called

  • transitive if for any two x, y in X there exists an g in G such that g.x = y;
  • regular if for any two x, y in X there exists precisely one g in G such that g.x = y.
  • faithful (or effective) if for any two different g, h in G there exists an x in X such that g.xh.x;
  • free if for any two different g, h in G and all x in X we have g.xh.x;

Every free action on a non-empty set is faithful. A group G that acts faithfully on a set X is isomorphic to a permutation group on X. An action is regular if and only if it is transitive and free.

Orbits and stabilizers

If we define N = {g in G : g.x = x for all x in X}, then N is a normal subgroup of G and the factor group G/N acts faithfully on X by setting (gN).x = g.x. The action of G on X is faithful if and only if N = {e}.

If Y is a subset of X, we write GY for the set { g.y : y in Y and g in G}. We call the subset Y invariant under G if GY = Y (which is equivalent to GYY). In that case, G also operates on Y. The subset Y is called fixed under G if g.y = y for all g in G and all y in Y. Every subset that's fixed under G is also invariant under G, but not vice versa.

Any operation of G on X defines an equivalence relation on X: two elements x and y are called equivalent if there exists a g in G with g.x = y. The equivalence class of x under this equivalence relation is given by the set Gx = { g.x : g in G } which is also called the orbit of x. The elements x and y are equivalent if and only if their orbits are the same: Gx = Gy. Every orbit is an invariant subset of X on which G acts transitively. The action of G on X is transitive if and only if all elements are equivalent, meaning that there is only one orbit. The set of all orbits is written as X/G.

For every x in X, we define Gx = { g in G : g.x = x }. This is a subgroup of G, and it is called the stabilizer of x or isotropy subgroup at x. The action of G on X is free if and only if all stabilizers consist only of the identity element.

There is a natural bijection between the set of all left cosets of the subgroup Gx and the orbit of x, given by hGx |-> h.x. Therefore, |Gx| = [G : Gx], and so

This result, known as the Orbit-Stabilizer theorem[?], is especially useful if G and X are finite, because then it can be employed for counting arguments. A related result is Burnside's lemma:
<math>r\left|G\right|=\sum_{g\in G}\left|X^g\right|</math>
where r is the number of orbits, and Xg is the set of points fixed by g. This result too is mainly of use when G and X are finite, when it can be interpreted as follows: the number of orbits is equal to the average number of points fixed per group element.

Morphisms and isomorphisms between G-sets

If X and Y are two G-sets, we define a morphism from X to Y to be a function f : X -> Y such that f(g.x) = g.f(x) for all g in G and all x in X. If such a function f is bijective, then its inverse is also a morphism, and we call f an isomorphism and the two G-sets X and Y are called isomorphic; for all practical purposes, they are indistinguishable in this case.

Some example isomorphisms:

  • Every regular G action is isomorphic to the action of G on G given by left multiplication.
  • Every free G action is isomorphic to G×S, where S is some set and G acts by left multiplication on the first coordinate.
  • Every transitive G action is isomorphic to left multiplication by G on the set of left cosets of some subgroup H of G.

With this notion of morphism, the collection of all G-sets forms a category; this category is a topos.


One often considers continuous group actions: the group G is a topological group, X is a topological space, and the map G × X → X is continuous with respect to the product topology of G × X. The space X is also called a G-space in this case. This is indeed a generalization, since every group can be considered a topological group by using the discrete topology. All the concepts introduced above still work in this context, however we define morphisms between G-spaces to be continuous maps compatible with the action of G. The above statements about isomorphisms for regular, free and transitive actions are no longer valid for continuous group actions.

One can also consider actions of monoids on sets, by using the same two axioms as above. This does not define bijective maps and equivalence relations however.

Instead of actions on sets, one can define actions of groups and monoids on objects of an arbitrary category: start with an object X of some category, and then define an action on X as a monoid homomorphism into the monoid of endomorphisms of X. If X has an underlying set, then all definitions and facts stated above can be carried over. For example, if we take the category of vector spaces, we obtain group representations in this fashion.

One can view a group G as a category with a single object in which every morphism is invertible. A group action is then nothing but a functor from G to the category of sets, and a group representation is a functor from G to the category of vector spaces. In analogy, an action of a groupoid is a functor from the groupoid to the category of sets or to some other category.

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