What Is Recursion Algorithm in Data Structure?


Heather Bennett

In data structures, recursion is a powerful algorithmic concept that involves solving a problem by breaking it down into smaller instances of the same problem. It is a technique where a function calls itself during its execution, allowing the problem to be solved in a more elegant and concise way.

Understanding Recursion

Recursion relies on the idea of dividing a complex problem into simpler subproblems until a base case is reached. The base case acts as the termination condition for the recursive calls and allows the algorithm to stop calling itself.

Let’s take an example of computing the factorial of a number using recursion. The factorial of a positive integer n is denoted by n! and can be calculated as the product of all positive integers from 1 to n.

To solve this using recursion, we define our base case as when n equals 0 or 1, where we know that 0! and 1!

both equal 1. For any other value of n, we can compute it recursively by multiplying n with the factorial of (n-1).

We can represent this recursive algorithm in code:

function factorial(n) {
   if (n === 0 || n === 1) {
       return 1;
   } else {
       return n * factorial(n - 1);

The Recursive Process

When we call the factorial function with an input value, say n = 5, it will check if n is equal to 0 or 1. Since this condition is false for n = 5, it will return n * factorial(n – 1).

The function will then make a recursive call to factorial(4), and the process continues until the base case is reached. Once the base case is reached, the function starts returning values back up the call stack, multiplying them accordingly.

Recursive Algorithms in Data Structures

Recursion is not limited to computing factorials. It can be used in various data structures and algorithms to solve complex problems effectively.

Binary Search

Binary search is a popular search algorithm that uses recursion to find the position of a Target value within a sorted array. It utilizes the divide-and-conquer approach by repeatedly dividing the array into two halves and discarding one half based on comparison with the Target value.

Merge Sort

Merge sort is a sorting algorithm that employs recursion to divide an unsorted list into smaller sublists, sorting them separately, and then merging them back together to obtain a sorted result. The process of merging two sorted sublists can be done efficiently using recursion.

The Benefits and Caveats of Recursion

Recursion offers several benefits:

  • Simplicity: Recursive algorithms are often more intuitive and easier to understand than their iterative counterparts. They express the problem-solving approach directly.
  • Code Reusability: Recursive functions can be reused for similar problems by simply adjusting their input parameters or base cases.
  • Elegance: Recursive solutions tend to be concise and elegant as they reflect the inherent structure of the problem itself.

However, recursion also has some caveats:

  • Performance Overhead: Recursive algorithms may result in multiple function calls and excessive memory usage, which can impact the performance for large inputs.
  • Stack Overflow: If the recursion depth becomes too large, it can lead to a stack overflow error. This can be mitigated by using tail recursion or converting the algorithm to an iterative one.


Recursion is a powerful technique in data structures that allows us to solve complex problems by breaking them down into smaller subproblems. It offers simplicity, code reusability, and elegance, but we should be mindful of its potential performance overhead and the possibility of stack overflow errors.

By understanding recursion and practicing its implementation in various algorithms, you can enhance your problem-solving skills and become a more proficient programmer.

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