Qualified Relation

How can we describe or qualify a relationship between two resources?


In some cases relationships need to be qualified or annotated in some way. There are a number of different use cases that require this capability. E.g. to indicate the date when a specific relationship was made, or to indicate its source, or perhaps associate it with a probability or other similar qualifier. RDF only allows binary relations between resources, so how can these additional qualified relations be expressed?


Create a class for the relationship and create instances of that resource to relate together the resources that are involved in the relation. The relationship resource can then be annotated to qualify the relation further.


Marriage is a relationship that could be modelled as a simple relationship between two people. But that simplistic approach doesn't let us capture the date that the marriage started (or ended). Modelling the marriage as a relationship allows the relationship to be annotated:

eg:bob a foaf:Person.
eg:mary a foaf:Person.

_:bobMaryMarriage a ex:Marriage;
    ex:partner eg:bob;
    ex:partner eg:mary;
    ex:date "2009-04-01"^^xsd:date.


A diagnosis can be viewed as a relationship between a person and a disease. A diagnosis needs to be qualified with a probability. By creating a class to model the diagnosis explicitly, as well as additional properties for relating the diagnosis to a patient and a disease, it becomes possible to annotate the relationship with qualifying properties:

eg:bob a foaf:Person.

eg:measles a ex:Disease.

_:bobDiagnosis a ex:Diagnosis;
    ex:patient eg:bob;
    ex:disease eg:meases;
    ex:probability "high";
    ex:diagnostician ex:drhouse.



Modelling relationships as resources works around the limitations of simple binary predicates. Creating a resource for the relationship allows much more flexibility in qualifying or describing the relationships between resources. Any number of additional properties may be used to annotate the relation. When the relationship is between two resources we refer to it as a qualified relation, when it is between several resources, each of which are equally involved in the relationship then we have an N-Ary Relation.

If modelling relationships as classes is useful, then why not use this pattern for all non-trivial relationships in a model? The main reason is that it causes explosion in the number of terms in a vocabulary, e.g. each predicate is replaced with two predicates and a class. A vocabulary can quickly become unwieldy, so the value of the extra modelling structure needs to be justified with clear requirements for needing the extra complexity. As described here, the primary reason is to qualify the relation.

The only alternative to this approach would be to have another independent property whose value is intended to be interpreted alongside one or more other properties of the same resource, e.g.:

eg:bob a foaf:Person.
eg:mary a foaf:Person.

eg:bob ex:partner eg:mary.
eg:bob ex:weddingDay "2009-04-01"^^xsd:date.
eg:mary ex:weddingDay "2009-04-01"^^xsd:date.


In the above alternative the marriage relationship between two people is expressed using the ex:partner relation and the date of the wedding with the separate ex:weddingDay property. On the surface this seems simpler but loses flexibility and clarity. Firstly there could be a large number of additional properties associated with the marriage relation, all of these would need to be added to the model, and applications would need to know that this collection of properties were all related in some way (i.e. were about a marriage). It also fails to model divorces and re-marriages. Adding a relation resource deals with this better as we have greater clarity in the model about the relationship and its specific properties.

There are a number of cases where adding resources into a data model in this way can aid expressivity, understanding when and when not to apply the pattern is an important part of RDF modelling.