Posted by: swhee1er | May 22, 2014

Crystallization: sure, it’s cool, but is it (social) science?

At the end of their chapter Sensemaking, Lindlof and Taylor introduce a relatively new qualitative approach called crystallization. Posed as an alternative to triangulation, which uses a combination of multiple sources, methods, and even researchers to articulate a truth or a statement about a research object, crystallization takes almost precisely the opposite tack. It incorporates “artistic and scientific sensibilities” (Lindlof & Taylor, 2011) into an edifice whose purposeful incompleteness practically coerces the interpreter into accepting that all the evidence it contains is relational, contingent and historical, not absolute, essential and enduring.


It is an interesting theory, to be sure, and it certainly provides a solution, or at least a handy escape clause, for qualitative researchers vexed by the continually elusive nature of an objective reality. But is it good practice? I cannot say for certain, not having seen an actual sample, but my instinct is to proceed with caution. The goal of scientific inquiry should be to advance knowledge, not obscure it, and crystallization, with its Rashomon-like use of multiple perspectives, seems to belong more the sphere of performance art than to actual research. For a discipline that has already largely abandoned the concept of reliability and gleefully embraced self-reflexivity (Lindlof & Taylor, 2011), the adoption of such a practice could further call into question the legitimacy of certain social science studies. What do you think? Can researchers use crystallization to say something useful about a subject, or is it a practice best reserved for art exhibitions?


  1. Crystallization accepts and works within the limitations of empirical research. It’s not meant to replace empiricism, but rather to situate qualitative research in an appropriate epistemological position to capture knowledge about independent and radically inaccessible subjectivities. Empirical investigation can mostly tell you where an object is or how fast it is moving, but it can’t tell you what someone is thinking, no matter how rationally constructed or technologically advanced your study is. But that thoughts and impulses are precisely what qualitative research aims to uncover when it investigates anthropological or cultural spaces.

    If you have an objective goal, you can use objective means. If your goal is subjective, you need to adopt a subjective disposition and method of inquiry. Instead of universal truths and practices, crystallization (and really all postmodern academic approaches) is meant to manage local truths and culturally-contingent narratives.

    Crystallization doesn’t reject the validity or existence of empirical truths. It simply declares limits for the kinds of things about which we may properly claim empirical knowledge. It does challenge many assumptions that lie at the foundation of traditional empirical approaches (such as heteronomativity, assumptions about minorities and gender roles, etc.), but does so only on the basis that these assumptions were objectively wrong in the first place.

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