Rails has_many :through Polymorphic Association

Oct 13, 2014 Ruby on Rails

If you're not familiar with the has_many ..., :through ... association in rails, it's a great way to add a many-to-many relationship, between two models, while storing more than just the association on the join model.

The Simple Way

Let's say you have a Post model and it has a many-to-many relationship with a Tag model. You might use a Tagging model to connect the two. A simple setup might look like this:

app/models/post.rb

class Post < ActiveRecord::Base
  has_many :taggings
  has_many :tags, :through => :taggings
end

app/models/tag.rb

class Tag < ActiveRecord::Base
  has_many :taggings
  has_many :posts, :through => :taggings
end

app/models/tagging.rb

class Tagging < ActiveRecord::Base
  belongs_to :tag
  belongs_to :post
end

Where the taggings table would have a post_id and tag_id integer columns.

Making It Polymorphic

But what if you need to extend your Tagging model so you can tag all sorts of other models, like an Image model, for example? The best way to do that is through a polymorphic association.

In this case, you would replace your post_id column on your Tagging model with taggable_id (integer) and taggable_type (string) columns. Then, your join model would look like this:

app/models/tagging.rb

class Tagging < ActiveRecord::Base
  belongs_to :tag
  belongs_to :taggable, :polymorphic => true
end

For the post model, we now have to know we are getting to the Tag model through the taggable polymorphic association. So, your Post model changes to:

app/models/post.rb

class Post < ActiveRecord::Base
  has_many :taggings, :as => :taggable
  has_many :tags, :through => :taggings
end

And let's say you wanted to make an image model taggable. That would look like this:

app/models/image.rb

class Image < ActiveRecord::Base
  has_many :taggings, :as => :taggable
  has_many :tags, :through => :taggings
end

That's it. That's easy. Except, for example, if you want to list all the posts from a certain tag, then you can't get there by doing this:

@tag = Tag.find_by_id(params[:id])
@posts = @tag.posts

You could do this:

@tag = Tag.find_by_id(params[:id])
@posts = @tag.taggable.where(:taggable_type => 'Post')

But that's ugly.

So, if we want to keep that @tag.posts call in tact, we have to add a specific association to the Tag model:

app/models/tag.rb

class Tag < ActiveRecord::Base
  has_many :taggings
  has_many :posts, :through => :taggings, :source => :taggable,
           :source_type => 'Post'
end

In other words, you need to tell rails explicitly how to get to posts from tags, otherwise it gets confused.

And if you wanted to add images to the mix, you would just add this:

app/models/tag.rb

class Tag < ActiveRecord::Base
  has_many :taggings
  has_many :posts, :through => :taggings, :source => :taggable,
           :source_type => 'Post'
  has_many :images, :through => :taggings, :source => :taggable,
           :source_type => 'Image'
end

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