OPINION2 May 2023

Crystal clear: What is crystallisation and why should I use it?

Inclusion Opinion

Hannah Griffin-James shares perspectives on how researchers can use crystallisation to uncover multiple aspects of reality and experience.

crystal ball with a sunset in the background

Crystallisation is a tool to establish the quality of research by combining unlimited methods to form a crystal structure. At its core, crystallisation proposes that the researcher uses multi-methods to uncover the multiple perspectives of the reality of the participants.

Denzin and Lincoln [ 1 ] describe the purpose of crystallisation eloquently:

"Like a clear crystal that casts multiple colours, the researchers endeavour to create a strong image of the linked experiences of the participants through comprehensive deliberation and persuasive presentation"

This definition may bring to mind the concept of triangulation, where you use three or more data collection points to infer the research’s validity and credibility. But, critically, crystallisation rejects the simplicity of the triangle as a two-dimensional, fixed, rigid object that requires only three elements.

Crystallisation encourages the researcher to collect data from multiple sources and view these from multiple perspectives to create an image of the participant’s truth. As a tool, crystallisation can be used to ensure credibility throughout the research process, from data collection to presentation of the data.

Richardson [ 2 ] coined the concept of crystallisation, particularly favouring the metaphor of crystallisation, as the crystal is both flexible in its growth and amorphous simultaneously. She believes it is perfect for qualitative research methods as the crystal reflects the external world, refracts the internal, and casts patterns of light out.

Admittedly I am pitching metaphorical concepts against each other, so why am I writing this?

In reflecting on my practice as a quantitative researcher, I identified that the methods I use tend to frame people’s experiences from a positivist perspective – meaning I reduce and objectify people’s experiences and may dismiss critical elements of an individual’s experience.

Adopting this objectifying perspective means that I choose to propose methods that have been attributed a ‘gold standard’ label (eg randomised control trial), and I use the ‘gold standard’ label as a mark of quality.

However, it has long been established that the ‘gold standard’ label is typically attributed to data that is absolute (ie facts or statistics) and reduces and objectifies people’s experiences. Perhaps, on reflection, you do this too? This positivist perspective fits well with some parts of the sector where there is a desire to gather more and more data to support evidence-based decisions. To be clear, I'm not saying this is wrong, but rather that we must be aware of our position.

A growing portion of the sector is exploring the impact of the desire to collect more and more data. I'm particularly thinking about the impact of this desire on people whose voices are consistently marginalised. In research, what the researcher sees depends upon the viewing angle, meaning that their perspective dictates their view of truth.

Therefore, it is essential to consider our position when trying to make our research inclusive. I have shifted my focus as a researcher to think about how I can support inclusion, diversity and equality and how I can be part of accelerating culture change in the sector.

Crystallisation is a tool that supports researchers’ understanding of both their own and their participants’ positionality. Ironically at face value, crystallisation falls into this trap too, with a shared desire to collect more data. However, crystallisation is not seeking statistical significance or large numbers to use as evidence. Instead, it is a tool that supports researchers in generating a better understanding of people’s experiences or values.

I want to acknowledge that much more can be done to accelerate culture change in the sector. Crystallisation is only one concept that can be added to our everyday toolkit as researchers to develop our practice to be more inclusive.

In my opinion, crystallisation is a well-established tool to uncover the multiple perspectives of a person’s reality and view these from multiple perspectives to create a picture of that person’s truth.

Top tips when using crystallisation 

  • Gain more perspectives – this could be by involving others in your research, or you could alter your perspective.

You could involve others by using participatory research methods and collaboration. Don't forget you can also gain more perspectives in the analysis stage, eg round table analysis.

You could alter your perspective by changing lenses. For example, suppose I was analysing data from a focus group with racially minoritised staff members. In that case, I could first consider, "how does the ethnicity of the participant inform what they are describing" then when the data has been thoroughly considered from this perspective, I could ask again, "how does ethnicity insect with other equality areas (gender, disability status etc.) to inform what they are describing".

  • Build into your practice regular reflection of your behaviour, perceptions and understanding.

Rather than reflecting alone, I have found it helpful to write my reflections and then use this to generate prompts to discuss with my team. These prompts have led us to insights and rejuvenated research designs.

Dr Hannah Griffin-James is an evaluation researcher specialising in advanced quantitative analysis.


[ 1 ] Denzin, N. K., & Lincoln, Y. S. (Eds.). ( 2011 ). The Sage handbook of qualitative research. Sage. 

[ 2 ] Richardson, L. ( 2000 ). Writing: A method of inquiry. In N.K Denzin & Y.S Lincoln (Eds). Handbook of qualitative research. ( 2nd ed.). (pp. 959-978 ). Sage.