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Recursion in Data Structures

Amit Kumar Ghosh  13 min read
07 Jun 2023



If you're looking to spice up your programming skills, recursion is the perfect solution. As an approach to problem-solving, it's been around since antiquity but still remains popular among modern computer scientists and software engineers. With the help of recursion in the data structure, programs can break down complex tasks into smaller pieces that are easier to tackle. This can help reduce development time significantly and make coding a breeze! In this article, I'm going to explore the basics of recursion in data structure and how it works in action so you can learn the key concepts and start utilizing this powerful tool on your own projects.

What is Recursion

Recursion is a concept that can feel daunting at first but doesn't worry, it's not as complicated as it sounds. At its core, recursion is a programming technique that involves a function calling itself until a specific condition is met. Imagine a set of Russian dolls nested within each other: the largest doll encases the next smallest one and so on until we reach the smallest doll. That's sort of like how recursion works. As a programming tool, recursion is incredibly powerful and can help solve complex problems with a minimal amount of code. Once the user understands how it works, recursion can be a valuable tool in their programming arsenal.

Recursive Function

In computer science and data structures, a recursive function is a function that calls itself one or more times within its body. A recursive function generally has a base case, which is a condition that stops the recursion and returns a value, and a recursive case, which is a condition that continues the recursion by calling the function with a modified argument.

Recursive functions can be used to solve a variety of problems, including searching, sorting, and traversing data structures such as trees and graphs. They are often used in algorithms such as quicksort, binary search, and depth-first search.

Recursive functions can be very powerful, but they can also be tricky to design and debug. Improper use of recursion can lead to infinite loops and stack overflow errors. Therefore, it's important to carefully consider the design of a recursive function and make sure that it has a well-defined base case and termination condition.

Implementation of Recursive Function 

 def fibonacci(n):

if n == 0: return 0 elif n == 1: return 1 else: return fibonacci(n-1) + fibonacci(n-2) n = int(input("Enter the value of n: ")) f = fibonacci(n) print(f)

 import java.util.Scanner;
 public class Fibonacci {
 public static int fibonacci(int n) {
 if (n == 0) {
 return 0;
 } else if (n == 1) {
 return 1;
 } else {
 return fibonacci(n - 1) + fibonacci(n - 2);
 public static void main(String[] args) {
 Scanner sc = new Scanner(;
 System.out.print("Enter the value of n: ");
 int n = sc.nextInt();
 int f = fibonacci(n);
 #include <iostream>
 using namespace std;
 int fibonacci(int n) {
 if (n == 0) {
 return 0;
 } else if (n == 1) {
 return 1;
 } else {
 return fibonacci(n - 1) + fibonacci(n - 2);
 int main() {
 int n, f;
 cout << "Enter the value of n: ";
 cin >> n;
 f = fibonacci(n);
 cout << f << endl;
 return 0;


Enter the value of n: 10

Need of Recursion

Recursion is an essential part of Data Structures and Algorithms (DSA) concepts. It is a way of solving a problem by breaking it down into smaller sub-problems until the base case is reached. One of the main benefits of using recursion is that it allows for efficient memory usage and elegant code structure. It can also help in solving complex problems that have subproblems with similar characteristics. Moreover, the use of recursion in data structure makes the code much more manageable and easier to understand. In order to excel in DSA concepts, one must have a strong understanding of recursion and how to use it effectively. It is a tool that can make the coding journey much smoother and can help to solve problems with ease. This is the basic need of recursion

For example, in tree traversal algorithms such as in-order, pre-order, and post-order traversal, recursion is used to traverse the tree by recursively visiting each node in the tree. Similarly, in sorting algorithms such as quicksort and mergesort, recursion is used to break the problem into smaller sub-problems, which are then recursively solved and combined to obtain the final solution.

Properties of Recursion

  1. Recursive algorithms rely on the call stack: When a recursive function is called, it adds a new frame to the call stack, which stores the function's local variables and the return address. When the function completes, the frame is removed from the stack, and the control returns to the previous frame. This is one of the important properties of recursion
  2. Recursion involves calling the same function with different inputs: A recursive function is one that calls itself with a different set of parameters than the current call. This allows the function to break down a complex problem into smaller, simpler subproblems until the base case is reached.
  3. Every recursive algorithm must have a base case: The base case is the condition under which the recursion stops. It is important to define a base case to prevent infinite recursion, which can lead to stack overflow and cause the program to crash. This is one of the important properties of recursion
  4. Recursive algorithms can be slower than iterative ones: Recursion can be slower than iteration because of the overhead of function calls and stack management. In some cases, it may be possible to convert a recursive algorithm into an iterative one, but this is not always straightforward.
  5. Recursion can lead to elegant and concise code: Recursive algorithms can often be expressed more elegantly and concisely than iterative ones, especially for problems that involve tree structures, such as binary search trees and binary trees. This is one of the important properties of recursion in data structure
  6. Recursion can lead to code that is harder to understand and debug: Recursive algorithms can be more difficult to understand and debug than iterative ones, especially for complex problems that involve multiple recursive calls. It is important to write clear and well-documented code to make it easier to understand and maintain. This is one of the important properties of recursion in data structure
  7. Recursion can be used to implement backtracking algorithms: Backtracking algorithms involve searching through a solution space to find a solution, and then backtracking to try other paths if the current path does not work. Recursion can be used to implement backtracking algorithms in an elegant and efficient way. This is one of the important properties of recursion in data structure

Advantages of recursion

  1. Clarity and simplicity: Recursion can make code more readable and easier to understand. Recursive functions can be easier to read than iterative functions when solving certain types of problems, such as those that involve tree or graph structures.
  2. Reducing code duplication: Recursive functions can help reduce code duplication by allowing a function to be defined once and called multiple times with different parameters.
  3. Solving complex problems: Recursion can be a powerful technique for solving complex problems, particularly those that involve dividing a problem into smaller subproblems. For example, recursive algorithms are commonly used in sorting, searching, and traversing data structures like trees and graphs.
  4. Memory efficiency: Recursive algorithms can be more memory-efficient than iterative algorithms when working with certain types of data structures. For example, when traversing a binary tree, a recursive algorithm may only need to keep track of the current node and the two subtrees, while an iterative algorithm may need to keep track of a stack of nodes.
  5. Flexibility: Recursive functions can be more flexible than iterative functions because they can handle inputs of varying sizes without needing to know the exact number of iterations required. This makes them particularly useful for dealing with problems that have a variable or unknown input size.

Disadvantages of recursion

  1. Performance Overhead: Recursive algorithms may have a higher performance overhead compared to iterative solutions. This is because each recursive call creates a new stack frame, which takes up additional memory and CPU resources. Recursion may also cause stack overflow errors if the recursion depth becomes too deep.
  2. Difficult to Understand and Debug: Recursive algorithms can be difficult to understand and debug because they rely on multiple function calls, which can make the code more complex and harder to follow.
  3. Memory Consumption: Recursive algorithms may consume a large amount of memory if the recursion depth is very deep. This can lead to memory-related issues, such as running out of memory or causing the system to slow down.
  4. Limited Scalability: Recursive algorithms may not scale well for very large input sizes because the recursion depth can become too deep and lead to performance and memory issues.
  5. Tail Recursion Optimization: In some programming languages, tail recursion optimization is not supported, which means that tail recursive functions can be slow and may cause stack overflow errors

Algorithm for recursion

  1. Define the base case: Identify the simplest problem that can be solved without recursion.
  2. Define the recursive case: Identify how to break the problem down into smaller sub-problems that can be solved recursively.
  3. Call the function recursively: Invoke the function again with the smaller sub-problem(s) as input.
  4. Combine the results: Use the results of the recursive calls to solve the original problem.
  5. Return the solution: Return the final solution to the original problem.

Difference between recursion and iteration

There are some major differences between recursion and iteration, those are:

Time Complexity of Recursion

The time complexity of the recursive function in data structure and algorithms (DSA) depends on the number of times the recursive function is called and the time complexity of each call.

The time complexity of a recursive function can be determined using a recurrence relation, which describes the number of operations performed by the function as a function of the size of the input. The recurrence relation can then be solved using techniques such as the Master theorem or substitution method. For example, consider the recursive function for computing the nth Fibonacci number:

int fibonacci(int n) {
 if (n <= 1)
 return n;
 return fibonacci(n-1) + fibonacci(n-2);}

The recurrence relation for this function is T(n) = T(n-1) + T(n-2) + 1, where the 1 is for the addition operation. Using the Master theorem, we can see that this function has a time complexity of O(2^n). This is because the function calls itself twice for each recursive call, which leads to an exponential increase in the number of function calls and the time complexity of the algorithm. Therefore, it is important to analyze the time complexity of recursive functions in DSA to ensure that they are efficient and can handle large inputs without running out of time or memory.

Space Complexity of Recursion function

The space complexity of a recursive function depends on several factors, including the number of recursive calls, the amount of data stored in each call, and the depth of the recursion. When a recursive function is called, a new stack frame is created to store local variables and other data related to that particular call. The size of each stack frame is determined by the amount of data stored in the call. For example, if a recursive function stores an array of size n in each call, the size of the stack frame will be proportional to n. The number of recursive calls also affects the space complexity of the function. If a function makes many recursive calls, the total amount of memory used by the function will be larger than if it takes only a few calls. Finally, the depth of the recursion affects the space complexity of the function. The depth of the recursion is the maximum number of nested recursive calls that occur before the function returns. Each recursive call adds a new stack frame to the call stack, and if the depth of the recursion is large, the total amount of memory used by the function can become significant. In general, the space complexity of a recursive function can be expressed as O(d), where d is the maximum depth of the recursion. However, this is a simplified view, and the actual space complexity can be affected by other factors as well, such as the size of the stack frames and the number of recursive calls.


It is clear that recursion can be a useful tool when programming and can help increase the elegance of code. The benefits range from allowing more flexibility to the development process, assisting with complexity management, and even helping to prevent bugs. In addition, teaching recursion introduces students to a variety of complex programming topics like loops, conditionals, tracking states, and data order. For all of these reasons, it is important for new programmers to take on the challenge of learning this valuable skill. The concepts may seem daunting at first glance but taking the time to understand them fully will pay off as your programming career progresses. If you’re just starting out with coding or have been writing code for some time and haven’t yet explored recursion it’s definitely worth dedicating some time and effort towards understanding it better so why not give it a try today!

About Author
Amit Kumar Ghosh (SDE and Mentor)

A passionate professional with over 6 years of experience in development and training. He is passionate about learning new technologies and sharing his experience with professionals. He is an expert in C/C++, Java, Python and DSA.
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