What Is Recursion and Its Types in Data Structure?


Scott Campbell

What Is Recursion and Its Types in Data Structure?

Recursion is a powerful concept in computer science and data structures. It refers to the process of solving a problem by breaking it down into smaller, simpler instances of the same problem. In other words, a function that calls itself is called a recursive function.

Understanding Recursion

Recursion can be better understood with an example. Let’s consider the factorial function, which calculates the product of all positive integers up to a given number.

To calculate the factorial of a number n, we can define it as follows:

  • If n is 0 or 1, the factorial is 1.
  • If n is greater than 1, the factorial is n multiplied by the factorial of (n-1).

This definition itself uses recursion because it refers to the factorial function within its own definition.

Types of Recursion

1. Direct Recursion:

In direct recursion, a function calls itself directly. This type of recursion involves a single recursive call within the function body.

A simple example of direct recursion is calculating the sum of natural numbers up to n:

int sum(int n) {
   if (n == 0) {
      return 0;
   } else {
      return n + sum(n-1); // Recursive call

The above code calculates the sum by recursively calling the same function with a smaller value until it reaches zero.

2. Indirect Recursion:

In indirect recursion, a function calls another function which, in turn, calls the original function. This creates a cycle of function calls between two or more functions.

Let’s consider two functions foo and bar:

void foo(int n) {
   if (n > 0) {
      printf("%d ", n);
      bar(n-1); // Indirect recursive call

void bar(int n) {
   if (n > 1) {
      printf("%d ", n);
      foo(n/2); // Indirect recursive call

In the above code, foo calls bar, and bar calls foo. This creates an indirect recursion between the two functions.

3. Tail Recursion:

Tail recursion occurs when a recursive call is the last operation in a function. In this case, there is no need to wait for the recursive call to return before returning from the current function call.

An example of tail recursion is finding the factorial of a number:

int factorial(int n, int result) {
   if (n == 0 || n == 1) {
      return result;
   } else {
      return factorial(n-1, result * n); // Recursive call

The above code uses an additional parameter to keep track of the intermediate result. It calculates the factorial by multiplying the current number with the intermediate result and recursively calling itself with a smaller value of n.

The Importance of Base Case

When working with recursion, it is important to define a base case. The base case specifies when the recursion should stop and provides the result for the simplest input.

In the factorial example, the base case is when n is 0 or 1, where we return 1. Without a base case, the recursive function would continue calling itself indefinitely, resulting in an infinite loop.


Recursion is a powerful technique in data structures that allows us to solve complex problems by breaking them down into simpler instances. Understanding different types of recursion, such as direct recursion, indirect recursion, and tail recursion, helps in designing efficient algorithms.

Remember to pay attention to defining a proper base case to prevent infinite recursion. With practice and careful handling of recursive functions, you can master this important concept in computer science.

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