An associative entity is an entity type in a database that associates two or more other entity types. It is used to resolve many-to-many relationships between the other entity types. For example, a student-course association entity can be used to link students to the courses they are enrolled in.

Associative entity

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One associative entity is a term used in relational and entity relationship theory. A relational database requires the implementation of a base relationship (or base table) to solve many-to-many relationships. A base relation that represents this type of entity is called, informally, a associative table.

An associative entity (using Chen notation)

As mentioned above, associative entities are implemented in a database structure using associative tables, which are tables that can contain references to columns from the same or different database tables within the same database.

Concept of a mapping table

An associative (or join) table maps two or more tables together by referencing the primary keys (PK) of each data table. Indeed, it contains a series of foreign keys (FK), each in a many-to-one relationship from the join table to the individual data tables. The PK of the join table is usually made up of the FK columns themselves.

Associative tables are colloquially known under many names, including association table, bridge table, cross reference table, crosswalk, middle table, crossing table, join table, junction table, link table, link table, many-to-many resolver, map table, mapping table, pairing table, dynamic table (as used incorrectly in laravel – not to be confused with the correct use of pivot table in spreadsheets), or transition table.

Using associative tables

An example of the practical use of a join table would be assigning permissions to users. There can be multiple users and each user can be assigned zero or more permissions. Individual permissions can be granted to one or more users.

    UserLogin varchar(50) PRIMARY KEY,
    UserPassword varchar(50) NOT NULL,
    UserName varchar(50) NOT NULL

CREATE TABLE Permissions (
    PermissionKey varchar(50) PRIMARY KEY,
    PermissionDescription varchar(500) NOT NULL

-- This is the junction table.
CREATE TABLE UserPermissions (
    UserLogin varchar(50) REFERENCES Users (UserLogin),
    PermissionKey varchar(50) REFERENCES Permissions (PermissionKey),
    PRIMARY KEY (UserLogin, PermissionKey)
A visual representation of the described table schema, with the relationships indicated

AN SELECT-statement on a join table usually involves joining the main table with the join table:

JOIN UserPermissions USING (UserLogin);

This will return a list of all users and their permissions.

inserting on a junction table involves several steps: first inserting into the main table(s) and then updating the junction table.

-- Creating a new User
INSERT INTO Users (UserLogin, UserPassword, UserName)
VALUES ('SomeUser', 'SecretPassword', 'UserName');

-- Creating a new Permission
INSERT INTO Permissions (PermissionKey, PermissionDescription)
VALUES ('TheKey', 'A key used for several permissions');

-- Finally, updating the junction
INSERT INTO UserPermissions (UserLogin, PermissionKey)
VALUES ('SomeUser', 'TheKey');

Using foreign keys, the database will automatically dereference values ​​from the UserPermissions table to its own tables.

See too


  • Hoffer, Jeffrey A.; Prescott, Mary B.; McFadden, Fred R. (2004). Modern database management (7th ed.). Prentice Hall. ISBN 978-0131453203.
  • codd, EF (1970). “A relational data model for large shared databases”. ACM Communications. ACM. 13 (6): 377–387. It hurts:10.1145/362384.362685.

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