The political economy of urban water management demands the interrogation of a highly socialised and engineered space. Many approaches are available to the researcher, yet they are often based on their own claims concerning the nature of society and space, which are contradictory and incommensurate with the next. This makes a synthesis of theory problematic, suggesting an ‘either/or’ decision to the researcher. This paper provides a critical genealogy of theoretical approaches to the political economy of urban water management and a framework through which their synthesis may be discussed. It employs a critical realist philosophy, mapping each approach to its respective ontological and epistemic grounding. A metaphorical ‘walk’ is then taken across the resulting map in order to provide a coherent and logical survey of theory. Finally, critical realism is employed to argue that struggles to synthesise theory are rooted in their competing ontological claims. Critical realism and in particular Bob Jessop's Strategic Relational Approach are assessed as means of reconciling tensions uncovered during the walk.