Data classes are containers for your data—not behavior. The delineation is right there in the name. Yet, I see state-mutating methods getting crammed into data classes and polluting their semantics all the time. While this text will primarily talk about data classes in Python, the message remains valid for any language that supports data classes and allows you to add state-mutating methods to them, e.g., Kotlin, Swift, etc. By state-mutating method, I mean methods that change attribute values during runtime. For instance:

from dataclasses import dataclass

class Person:
    name: str
    age: int

    def make_older(by: int = 1) -> None:
        self.age += by

In this case, calling the make_older method will change the value of age in-place.

Every time I spot a data class decked out with such methods, I feel like I’m looking at the penguin with an elephant head1 from the Family Guy. Whenever I traverse down to see how the instances of the class are being used, more often than not, I find them being treated just like regular mutable class instances with fancy reprs. But if you only need a nice repr for your large OO class, adding a __repr__ to the class definition is not that difficult. Why pay the price for building heavier data class instances only for that?

In Python, data classes are considerably slower2 to define and import compared to vanilla classes. However, they serve a different purpose than your typical run-of-the-mill classes. When you decorate a class with the @dataclass decorator without changing any of the default parameters, Python automatically generates __init__, __eq__, and __repr__ methods. If you set @dataclass(order=True), it’ll also generate __lt__, __le__, __gt__, and __ge__ special methods that enable you to compare and sort the data class instances. All of this implicates that the construct was specifically designed to contain rich data that provides the means for you to create nice abstractions around lower-level primitives.

My gripe isn’t against using data classes because of their heavier size. If it were, Python probably wouldn’t be one of my favorite languages. I use data classes all the time and love how they often allow me to craft nicer APIs with little effort. My issue is when people add state-mutating methods to data classes. The moment you’re doing that, you’re breaking the semantics of the data structure. You probably wouldn’t use hashmaps to represent sequential data even though Python currently maintains3 the insertion order of the keys in dicts.

In Kotlin, I almost always define immutable data classes and pass them around in different functions that perform transformations and calculations. In Python, however, instantiating frozen data classes (@dataclass(frozen=True)) is almost twice as slow4 compared to mutable data classes. So I just set slots=True to make the instantiation quicker and call it a day. But in either case, if I need to add a method that mutates the attributes of the class instance, I reconsider whether a data class is the right abstraction for the problem at hand. The necessity to add a state-mutating method is an indicator that you need a regular OO class. You’ll signal incorrect intent to the reader if you keep using data classes in this context.

Dataclasses are also great candidates for domain modeling with types. With the help of mypy, you can leverage sum types5 to emulate ADTs6 as follows (using PEP-6957 generic syntax):

from dataclasses import dataclass

class Barcode[T: str | int]:
    code: T

class Sku[T: str | int]:  # Stock Keeping Unit
    code: T

type ProductId = Barcode | Sku | None

But it only works if your data containers don’t exhibit any behavior. Here the data classes are just labels for values in a set that can contain the instances of the classes. Adding state-mutating methods to either Barcode or Sku would break the semantics of how these types can be composed.

I still think it’s okay if you need to validate the data class attributes in a __post_init__ method or override the __eq__ or __hash__ for some reason. Read-only methods are also acceptable since they don’t do in-place state modification. Comparing two data class instances that have read-only methods is not as awkward as comparing data class instances with methods that mutate attributes. So if you need to slap a method on a data class, write a function and pass the instance as a parameter or write a normal class with a repr and add the method there. This way, the reader won’t have to wonder whether your data containers have some hidden behavior attached to them or not.

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