Pandas: How to create a categorical column in a DataFrame

Updated: February 23, 2024 By: Guest Contributor Post a comment

Pandas, a powerful and widely used data manipulation library in Python, provides numerous functionalities for dealing with structured data. One of the key features of Pandas is its ability to handle categorical data efficiently. In this tutorial, we will explore how to create a categorical column in a DataFrame, moving from basic techniques to more advanced applications.

Understanding Categorical Data

Before diving into creating categorical columns, it’s crucial to understand what categorical data is. Categorical data represents variables with a finite set of categories or distinct groups. These categories can be of two types: nominal (no natural order) or ordinal (a natural order exists).

Getting Started with Pandas

First, ensure you have Pandas installed. You can install Pandas using pip:

pip install pandas

Creating a Simple Categorical Column

Let’s start with a basic example. Suppose you have a DataFrame that contains the column ‘Color’ with different colors as its values:

import pandas as pd

df = pd.DataFrame({'Color': ['Red', 'Blue', 'Green', 'Blue', 'Red']})


0    Red
1   Blue
2  Green
3   Blue
4    Red

To convert this column into a categorical column, you can use the astype('category') method:

df['Color'] = df['Color'].astype('category')


CategoricalDtype(categories=['Blue', 'Green', 'Red'], ordered=False)

Setting Order in Categorical Data

In some cases, categorical data has a natural order. Using the pandas.Categorical class, you can specify this order. For example, suppose you have a DataFrame with a ‘Size’ column:

import pandas as pd

df = pd.DataFrame({'Size': ['Small', 'Medium', 'Large', 'Medium', 'Small']})
df['Size'] = pd.Categorical(df['Size'], categories=['Small', 'Medium', 'Large'], ordered=True)
print("Order: ", df['Size'].cat.categories)


0     Small
1    Medium
2     Large
3    Medium
4     Small
Name: Size, dtype: category
Order:  Index(['Small', 'Medium', 'Large'], dtype='object')

Using Categorical Data for Analysis

With categorical data now defined in your DataFrame, you can perform various analyses more efficiently. For example, grouping data based on a categorical column:



Small     2
Medium    2
Large     1
dtype: int64

Advanced Techniques

As you become more familiar with handling categorical data, you might encounter situations requiring more advanced techniques. For instance, you could use category codes to represent each category with a unique integer, which is useful for certain types of analyses and visualizations:

df['Size_code'] = df['Size']


     Size  Size_code
0   Small          0
1  Medium          1
2   Large          2
3  Medium          1
4   Small          0

Another advanced technique involves creating a custom categorical type to manage unobserved categories or establish a category hierarchy for multi-level analyses.


In conclusion, transforming a column into a categorical column in a Pandas DataFrame allows for more efficient data processing and analysis. By leveraging the categorical data type, you can optimize memory usage and improve performance when working with data that fits into well-defined categories. Start applying these techniques to make your data analysis processes more robust and efficient.