An Ontological Analysis of the Relationship Construct in Conceptual Modeling

Yair Wand, Veda C. Storey, Ron Weber

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleResearchpeer-review

324 Citations (Scopus)


Conceptual models or semantic data models were developed to capture the meaning of an application domain as perceived by someone. Moreover, concepts employed in semantic data models have recently been adopted in object-oriented approaches to systems analysis and design. To employ conceptual modeling constructs effectively, their meanings have to be defined rigorously. Often, however, rigorous definitions of these constructs are missing. This situation occurs especially in the case of the relationship construct. Empirical evidence shows that use of relationships is often problematical as a way of communicating the meaning of an application domain. For example, users of conceptual modeling methodologies are frequently confused about whether to show an association between things via a relationship, an entity, or an attribute. Because conceptual models are intended to capture knowledge about a real-world domain, we take the view that the meaning of modeling constructs should be sought in models of reality. Accordingly, we use ontology, which is the branch of philosophy dealing with models of reality, to analyze the meaning of common conceptual modeling constructs. Our analysis provides a precise definition of several conceptual modeling constructs. Based on our analysis, we derive rules for the use of relationships in entity-relationship conceptual modeling. Moreover, we show how the rules resolve ambiguities that exist in current practice and how they can enrich the capacity of an entity-relationship conceptual model to capture knowledge about an application domain.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)494-528
Number of pages35
JournalACM Transactions on Database Systems
Issue number4
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jan 1999


  • Conceptual modeling
  • Database design
  • Entity-relationship model
  • Object-oriented modeling
  • Ontology
  • Semantic data modeling

Cite this