Tags: programming, python

staticmethod considered beneficial

Some Python programmers hold that the staticmethod decorator, and to a lesser extent classmethod, are to be avoided where possible. This view is not correct, and in this post I will explain why.

This post will be useful to programmers in any language, but especially Python.

The constructions

I must begin with a brief overview of the classmethod and staticmethod constructions and their uses.

classmethod is a function that transforms a method into a class method. The class method receives the class object as its first argument, rather than an instance of the class. It is typically used as a method decorator:

By idiom, the class object argument is bound to the name cls. You can invoke a class method via an instance (C().f()) or via the class object itself (C.f()). In return for this flexibility you give up the ability to access instance methods or attributes from the method body, even when it was called via an instance.

staticmethod is nearly identical to classmethod. The only difference is that instead of receiving the class object as the first argument, it does not receive any implicit argument:

How are the classmethod and staticmethod constructions used? Consider the following (contrived) class:

There are some places we could use staticmethod and classmethod. Should we? Let’s just do it and discuss the impact of the changes:

forty_two became a static method, and it no longer takes any argument. answer became a class method, and its self argument became cls. It cannot become a static method, because it references cls.forty_two. modified_answer can’t change at all, because it references an instance attribute (self.delta). forty_two could have been made a class method, but just as it had no need of self, it has no need cls either.

There is an alternative refactoring for forty_two. Because it doesn’t reference anything in the class, we could have extracted it as a top-level function (i.e. defined not in the class but directly in a module). Conceptually, staticmethod and top-level functions are equivalent modulo namespacing.

Was the change I made a good one? Well, you already know my answer will be yes. Before I justify my position, let’s discuss some counter-arguments.

Why not staticmethod or classmethod?

Most Python programmers accept that alternative constructors, factories and the like are legitimate applications of staticmethod and classmethod. Apart from these applications, opinions vary.

Guido van Rossum, author and BDFL of Python, wrote that static methods were an accident. History is interesting, sure, but not all accidents are automatically bad.

I am sympathetic to some of these arguments. A class with a lot of static methods might just be better off as a module with top-level functions. It is true that staticmethod is not required for anything whatsoever and could be dispensed with (this is not true of classmethod). And clean code is better than noisy code. Surely if you’re going to clutter your class with decorators, you want something in return right? Well, you do get something in return.

Deny thy self

Let us put to the side the side-argument of staticmethod versus top-level functions. The real debate is instance methods versus not instance methods. This is the crux. Why avoid instance methods (where possible)? Because doing so is a win for readability.

Forget the contrived Foo class from above and imagine you are in a non-trivial codebase. You are hunting a bug, or maybe trying to understand what some function does. You come across an interesting function. It is 50 lines long. What does it do?

If you are reading an instance method, in addition to its arguments, the module namespace, imports and builtins, it has access to self, the instance object. If you want to know what the function does or doesn’t do, you’ll have to read it.

But if that function is a classmethod, you now have more information about this function—namely that it cannot access any instance methods, even if it was invoked on an instance (including from within a sibling instance method). staticmethod (or a top-level function) gives you a bit more than this: not even class methods can be accessed (unless directly referencing the class, which is easily detected and definitely a code smell). By using these constructions when possible, the programmer has less to think about as they read or modify the function.

You can flip this scenario around, too. Say you know a program is failing in some instance method, but you’re not sure how the problematic code is reached. Well, you can rule out the class methods and static methods straight away.

These results are similar to the result of parametricity in programming language theory. The profound and actionable observation in both settings is this: knowing less about something gives the programmer more information about its behaviour.

These might not seem like big wins. Because most of the time it’s only a small win. But it’s never a lose, and over the life of a codebase or the career of a programmer, the small readability wins add up. To me, this is a far more important goal than avoiding extra lines of code (decorator syntax), or spurning a feature because its author considers it an accident or it transgresses the Zen of Python or whatever.

But speaking of the Zen of Python…

Readability counts.

So use classmethod or staticmethod wherever you can.

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