What might be the implications for urban studies if we take ‘comparison’ not just as a method, but as a mode of thought that informs how urban theory is constituted? Comparative research is experiencing resurgence in urban studies, yet there has been little effort to critically debate how comparison might take place, particularly in reference to comparison across the global ‘North–South divide’. Existing epistemologies of comparative research have focused on the domains of practicalities, methodologies and typologies. Notwithstanding the value of these debates, this article offers an alternative framing of comparison that focuses attention on theory cultures, learning and ethico-politics, drawing on postcolonial debates. This approach works with an expansive conception of comparison that positions comparison as a strategy. The article concludes by outlining three implications for urban research.