Beginner's Guide for Recursive Queries in Relational Databases

Modern relational database systems like MySQL offer powerful features to address complex data relationships, one of which is recursive queries. These queries allow us to navigate hierarchical data structures, such as organizationalp charts or categories, with ease and efficiency.

What is a Recursive Query?

A recursive query, as the name suggests, is a type of SQL query that refers to itself. It's particularly useful when dealing with hierarchical data, where each record has a relationship with other records in the same table. This relationship forms a tree-like structure, where each node can have zero or more child nodes.

Understanding Recursive Common Table Expressions (CTEs)

A Common Table Expression (CTE) is a temporary result set that can be referenced within a SQL statement. Recursive CTEs take this concept further by allowing the CTE to refer to itself within its definition. This self-referential capability is what enables recursive queries to traverse hierarchical data structures efficiently.

Let's dive into an example to illustrate this concept further.

Consider a table categories with columns id, category_name, and parent_id. This table represents a hierarchical structure of categories, where each category may have a parent category.

CREATE TABLE categories (
    id INT,
    category_name VARCHAR(255),
    parent_id INT

(1, 'Root', NULL),
(2, 'Electronics', 1),
(3, 'Clothing', 1),
(4, 'Phones', 2),
(5, 'Laptops', 2),
(6, 'T-shirts', 3),
(7, 'Jeans', 3),
(8, 'iPhone', 4),
(9, 'Samsung', 4),
(10, 'Dell', 5),
(11, 'HP', 5);

Recursive Query Example

Now, let's create a recursive CTE to traverse the categories table and retrieve the hierarchical structure of categories.

WITH RECURSIVE CategoryHierarchy AS (
    SELECT id, category_name, parent_id, 0 AS level
    FROM categories
    WHERE parent_id IS NULL -- Base case: select top-level categories


    SELECT, c.category_name, c.parent_id, ch.level + 1
    FROM categories c
    JOIN CategoryHierarchy ch ON c.parent_id =
SELECT id, category_name, parent_id, level FROM CategoryHierarchy;

In this query:

  • We define a recursive CTE named CategoryHierarchy.
  • The initial part of the CTE selects top-level categories where parent_id is NULL.
  • In the recursive part, we join the categories table with the previous result set (CategoryHierarchy) to find child categories, incrementing the level by 1.
  • The recursion continues until there are no more child categories to join, based on the termination condition defined in the query.

Enhancing Performance with Multiple CTEs

By utilizing multiple CTEs in a recursive query, developers can break down complex tasks into smaller, more manageable steps. Each CTE can focus on a specific aspect of the recursive operation, allowing for better optimization and performance tuning.


Not all database systems support Common Table Expressions (CTEs), and those that do may encounter limitations when CTEs are used alongside aggregate functions.