Tutorial :How do I detect that an object is a generic collection, and what types it contains?


I have a string serialization utility that takes a variable of (almost) any type and converts it into a string. Thus, for example, according to my convention, an integer value of 123 would be serialized as "i:3:123" (i=integer; 3=length of string; 123=value).

The utility handles all primitive type, as well as some non-generic collections, like ArrayLists and Hashtables. The interface is of the form

public static string StringSerialize(object o) {}

and internally I detect what type the object is and serialize it accordingly.

Now I want to upgrade my utility to handle generic collections. The funny thing is, I can't find an appropriate function to detect that the object is a generic collection, and what types it contains - both of which pieces of information I need in order to serialize it correctly. To date I've been using coding of the form

if (o is int) {// do something}

but that doesn't seem to work with generics.

What do you recommend?

EDIT: Thanks to Lucero, I've gotten closer to the answer, but I'm stuck at this little syntactical conundrum here:

if (t.IsGenericType) {    if (typeof(List<>) == t.GetGenericTypeDefinition()) {      Type lt = t.GetGenericArguments()[0];      List<lt> x = (List<lt>)o;      stringifyList(x);    }  }  

This code doesn't compile, because "lt" is not allowed as the <T> argument of a List<> object. Why not? And what is the correct syntax?


Re your conundrum; I'm assuming stringifyList is a generic method? You would need to invoke it with reflection:

MethodInfo method = typeof(SomeType).GetMethod("stringifyList")              .MakeGenericMethod(lt).Invoke({target}, new object[] {o});  

where {target} is null for a static method, or this for an instance method on the current instance.

Further - I wouldn't assume that all collections are a: based on List<T>, b: generic types. The important thing is: do they implement IList<T> for some T?

Here's a complete example:

using System;  using System.Collections.Generic;  static class Program {      static Type GetListType(Type type) {          foreach (Type intType in type.GetInterfaces()) {              if (intType.IsGenericType                  && intType.GetGenericTypeDefinition() == typeof(IList<>)) {                  return intType.GetGenericArguments()[0];              }          }          return null;      }      static void Main() {          object o = new List<int> { 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 };          Type t = o.GetType();          Type lt = GetListType(t);          if (lt != null) {              typeof(Program).GetMethod("StringifyList")                  .MakeGenericMethod(lt).Invoke(null,                  new object[] { o });          }      }      public static void StringifyList<T>(IList<T> list) {          Console.WriteLine("Working with " + typeof(T).Name);      }  }  


Use the Type to gather the required information.

For generic objects, call GetType() to get their type and then check IsGenericType to find out if it is generic at all. If it is, you can get the generic type definition, which can be compared for instance like this: typeof(List<>)==yourType.GetGenericTypeDefinition(). To find out what the generic types are, use the method GetGenericArguments, which will return an array of the types used.

To compare types, you can do the following: if (typeof(int).IsAssignableFrom(yourGenericTypeArgument)).

EDIT to answer followup:

Just make your stringifyList method accept an IEnumerable (not generic) as parameter and maybe also the known generic type argument, and you'll be fine; you can then use foreach to go over all items and handle them depending on the type argument if necessary.


At the most basic level, all generic lists implement IEnumerable<T>, which is in itself a descendant of IEnumerable. If you want to serialize a list, then you could just cast it down to IEnumerable and enumerate the generic objects inside them.

The reason why you can't do

Type lt = t.GetGenericArguments()[0];  List<lt> x = (List<lt>)o;  stringifyList(x);  

is because generics still need to be statically strong typed, and what you're trying to do is to create a dynamic type. List<string> and List<int>, despite using the same generic interface, are two completely distinct types, and you can't cast between them.

List<int> intList = new List<int>();  List<string> strList = intList; // error!  

What type would stringifyList(x) receive? The most basic interface you could pass here is IEnumerable, since IList<T> doesn't inherit from IList.

To serialize the generic list, you need to keep information on the original Type of the list so that you can re-create with Activator. If you want to optimize slightly so that you don't have to check the type of each list member in your stringify method, you could pass the Type you've extracted from the list directly.

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