A phase mixture model in which a polycrystalline material is regarded as a mixture of a crystalline phase and a grain-boundary phase is presented. The model aims to describe the plastic deformation behaviour of fine-grained materials. The mechanical properties of the crystalline phase are modelled using unified viscoplastic constitutive relations, which take dislocation density evolution and diffusion creep into account. The total strain rate of a crystallite is calculated by summation of the contributions of dislocation, boundary diffusion and lattice diffusion mechanisms. The deformation mechanism for the grain-boundary phase is modelled as a diffusional flow of matter through the grain boundary. Using a simple rule of mixtures, the grain size dependence of the overall plastic deformation behaviour of the material is analysed. Rate effects are also investigated. The results of the calculations are compared with previously published experimental data. (C) 2000 Acta Metallurgica Inc. Published by Elsevier Science Ltd. All rights reserved.