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A kinetic model is developed to study the process of phase separation that occurs when a polymer‐dispersed liquid‐crystal diffraction grating is produced by a process of photopolymerization. We find that the type of system produced depends sensitively on the rate of polymerization and on whether the spatially periodic illumination used to produce the grating is followed by a period of uniform illumination. While the average liquid‐crystal concentration is always increased in the region of least irradiation, in some cases small inclusions of liquid‐crystal form by spinodal decomposition at the minima in the irradiating intensity, while in others they form at the maxima. The simplest version of the theory combines the Flory‐Huggins and Hillert models of phase separation. In some circumstances it must be augmented by including the effects of interdiffusion of polymer molecules having different degrees of polymerization. © 1996 American Institute of Physics.