Is R Object Oriented Programming?


Larry Thompson

Is R Object Oriented Programming?

When it comes to programming languages, there are various paradigms that dictate how code should be structured and organized. One popular paradigm is Object-Oriented Programming (OOP), which revolves around the concept of objects, classes, and their interactions. Many languages such as Java, C++, and Python fully embrace OOP principles, but what about R?

R is primarily known as a statistical programming language. It was developed by Ross Ihaka and Robert Gentleman in the early 1990s. Initially designed for statistical computing and graphics, R has evolved to become a versatile tool used by data scientists and statisticians worldwide.

The S Language Roots

To understand whether R can be considered an object-oriented language, we need to delve into its history. R is heavily influenced by the S programming language, which was developed at Bell Laboratories in the 1970s. The S language introduced many concepts that laid the groundwork for modern statistical computing.

S was not explicitly designed as an object-oriented language but incorporated some object-like features such as generic functions and methods. These features allowed users to define functions that could operate on different types of data structures.

Objects in R

In R, objects play a central role in data manipulation and analysis. An object can be thought of as a container that holds data along with its associated metadata. The most basic type of object in R is the vector, which can store elements of the same type.

R also provides other data structures like matrices, arrays, lists, and data frames to handle more complex data. These objects can be created using built-in functions or by importing external datasets.

Classes in R

In object-oriented programming, a class is a blueprint for creating objects. It defines the properties and behaviors that an object of that class should have. While R does not have a strict class system like languages such as Java or Python, it does have a concept of classes.

In R, objects can be associated with classes through attributes. An attribute is simply additional information attached to an object. The most common attribute used in R is the class attribute, which specifies the type of object.

Methods and Generic Functions

R supports functional programming and provides mechanisms for defining generic functions and methods. A generic function in R is a function that behaves differently based on the class of its arguments. This allows for polymorphism, where different classes can have different implementations of the same function.

Methods in R are specific implementations of generic functions for particular classes. When a generic function is called with an object, R looks for the appropriate method based on the object’s class and invokes it.

Inheritance in R

One important aspect of object-oriented programming is inheritance, where one class can inherit properties and behaviors from another class. In R, inheritance can be achieved through packages like S4 and ReferenceClasses.

The S4 system provides a formal framework for defining classes with multiple inheritance and explicit method dispatching. On the other hand, Reference Classes provide a more flexible but less formal approach to object-oriented programming.


While R was not designed as a pure object-oriented language like Java or Python, it does incorporate some key elements of object-oriented programming such as objects, classes, methods, and inheritance. These features make R more versatile when it comes to data manipulation and analysis.

R’s hybrid nature allows users to take advantage of both functional and object-oriented programming paradigms, making it a powerful tool for statistical computing and data science.

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